A contribution from a reader on Tel Aviv and Gaza City

Architecture as the continuation of politics: White City, Dark City


While Israeli tanks and bombs hit Gaza, a sales video for an apartment tower in Tel Aviv, 40 miles north of Gaza City, pitches the "Neve Tsedek White City Residence." As photos roll, the voice describes the tower in the heart of the "vibrant cosmopolitan city" of Tel Aviv; it cites "luxurious apartments," even a penthouse designed by Armani Casa, Milan, a "sophisticated lobby, lounge, and business rooms" for new enterprises. Sharing the same Mediterranean coast, Gaza City and Tel Aviv offer a brutal display of contrasts. 

There is no need for conference rooms in Gaza, since 80 percent of inhabitants live under the poverty level, and 38 percent are unemployed. No call for penthouses by Armani, Milan, in Palestinian houses destroyed by US-supplied F16s. No sophisticated lobby for shelter, but refugee camps and darkened homes without electricity. While residents of the "White City" tower will enjoy sea views, Gaza inhabitants experience a blockade and see gunboats that occasionally fire "practice" shots inland, which last year killed a family picnicking on Gaza Beach. Where is the truth about these two towns?

The myth of Tel Aviv as "the White City" rests on the importation of style characteristics from European Modernism into Israel, and the number of Israeli architects educated or practicing in the "International style." This last connection centers largely on Arieh (not Ariel) Sharon, who studied with Hannes Meyer at the Bauhaus. The myth supports the presentation of Israel as a sophisticated, modern nation, understanding and willing to further goals of harmony and peace—a better life.

Those were the goals underlying buildings of the Modern Movement in Europe in the 1920s, practiced primarily in the Netherlands, Germany and France. The myth started in 1959 at the 50th anniversary of Tel Aviv, progressed in the 1980s through museum exhibitions in Tel Aviv and their publications; in 2003, the district was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO; and continued most recently in the Netherlands with an exhibition from Israel at the Technical University of Delft in September entitled "Revival of the Bauhaus in Tel Aviv," introduced by the Cultural Attaché of the Embassy of Israel.

Completed in Poissy, outside Paris, France, in 1929, LeCorbusier's Villa Savoye provides an iconic representation of early modernism, incorporating the five points which the architect used to define this "entirely new kind of building": columnar structure, roof gardens, open plan, horizontal window and free design of the facade.

In the construction boom of the 1930s, virtually all of Tel Aviv was built in the "International Style," understood here as white walls, flat roofs and massing of cube-like blocks, sometimes raised on columns. Conditions favored this style. Concrete construction was cheap and used unskilled workers. Buildings raised on columns like Corbusier's pilotis worked especially well in Tel Aviv because they allowed sea breezes to pass through. Flat roofs are not alien to Canaan, but stem from ancient tradition; David lusted after Bathsheba from his roof, and later, Jesus healed the man on a litter whose friends cut a hole in the roof to let him down (Mark 2:4). The Eastern aspect of Tel Aviv has been acknowledged and sometimes surfaces in White City "International" construction—atriums with splashing pools (not German), cupolas, tall arches, occasional ogees and ornament.

The International Style can be understood as a vocabulary of forms or as a social movement to achieve a better life through architecture. Its iconic buildings in Europe manifest both. Betondorf, a 1920s white concrete village outside Amsterdam, admitted only socialists, and provided a village green with adjoining library, but banned bars and churches. During a visit last autumn, it appeared to be still happily inhabited. The movement inspired sanitariums with balconies for TB patients, workers' housing projects, open-air schools and orphanages. The style allied architecture with a conscience.

Today, there are two architectures in Israel, as there are two politics. There are peace movements in Tel Aviv, and elsewhere in the land, and there are extremists, defiant of the law, even the laws of their own courts and certainly that of the UN. So there is another architecture alongside the imported/borrowed-International/Bauhaus style. It is the architecture of the outposts: wall and tower.

In July 2002, two Israeli architects won a competition within the Israeli Association of United Architects to produce an exhibition of Israeli architecture in Berlin. It was a trenchant critique of the architecture of occupation. When a spokesman for the Interior Ministry reviewed the exhibition the day before its shipment, he became enraged, demanding that the exhibition be cancelled and all the catalogs shredded. 

The architects themselves revised and published the catalog as A Civilian Occupation (Verso, English edition 2003). In the catalog, they map the spread of settlements in the West Bank and document through photographs a new native building type, a hasty ensemble of a wall, a tower and dwellings. The wall area outlines and claims the territory, usually a hilltop, and the tower allows surveillance of the surroundings. The dwellings housed pioneer settlers. This model was favored by Ariel (the Prime Minister) Sharon when he constructed an upscale wall-and-tower residence on land allegedly taken from a Palestinian farmer.

As Israel continues its aggression on Palestinian land, wall-and-tower architecture appears as its authentic voice. To mimic International Style characteristics is as false as the nation's imitation of a modern state. Claiming a free press, it controls journalists at gunpoint at the Gaza border; having established a court system, it ignores its rulings; boasting of cosmopolitanism, it shuts down airports and forbids Palestinian travel—somehow in imitating Modernism it has violated all the beliefs of what was truly the spirit of Modernism, that of social justice. 

V.G. Smith is a designer and design historian, and Professor Emerita of Art at City University of New York.