Tour guide Michal Minsky describes old Tel Aviv. // © 2012 Michael Luongo
In a place as ancient as Israel, it seems unlikely that one of the country’s most recent UNESCO-approved historic sites is only about 70 years old. Vibrant Tel Aviv, the beach city founded along the Mediterranean in 1909, is home to the world’s largest collection of Bauhaus structures. About 4,000 were built in the 1930s and ’40s, a time when Jews were fleeing Europe.
Bauhaus was a German style of architecture started in 1919 by Walter Gropius. The design school associated with the movement was closed when the Nazis came to power in 1933. Many students were Jewish and forced to flee, taking refuge in Tel Aviv and bringing the craft with them. Ironically, this distinctly German movement became associated with Zionism. Even Israel’s Independence Hall on Rothschild Boulevard is a Bauhaus Building, albeit one in serious need of renovation (which is planned for later this year).
As much as I love the ancient stones of Jerusalem, there’s something special about Tel Aviv’s streamlined 1930’s architecture. I came across the area on my first visit to the country in 1996. I nearly experienced deja vu because Tel Aviv reminded me so much of Miami Beach (both were built along the coast during the same era, largely from scratch, with palm-lined beachside boulevards).
One of the best ways to see Tel Aviv is to take a tour with the Bauhaus Center — an educational center, bookstore and museum established in 2000 by Dr. Micha Gross, his wife, Schlomit, and Asher Ben-Shmuel. Dr. Gross said that they started the program because no one else was offering tours related to Bauhaus architecture in Tel Aviv.
According to Dr. Gross, somewhere around 80 to 90 percent of the original Bauhaus buildings still exist in Tel Aviv in various states of repair. The center serves to educate locals and tourists alike, and it offers maps and books detailing the buildings. Guided tours cost about $15 and are held Friday mornings from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m., though groups can be arranged at other times. My tour was in English, with some Hebrew explanation provided for locals. Group tours can be arranged in French, Italian, German, Russian and other languages by special request.
My guide, Michal Minsky, started the tour by showing us old pictures of Tel Aviv, making sure we knew that few structures would look as pristine now.
Indeed, when the buildings were new, they were revolutionary.
“The people who built Tel Aviv wanted to build something special — a Hebrew City,” Minsky said. “They wanted their buildings to be a national Jewish style.”
Israel’s Bauhaus differs from Germany’s design in several ways. Windows are smaller, because of Israel’s intense sun, and balconies became much larger to create areas for socializing. There are also ventilation strips on the balconies and concrete edges from one floor to the next to create shading. Most interesting of all is that many traffic circles of the time were also designed as six-point intersections, forming the Star of David, though they have been heavily altered over time due to growing congestion.
My favorite part of Tel Aviv is one of these traffic circles, Dizengoff Circle, which is located close to the Bauhaus Center. Dizengoff Circle is the heart of old Bauhaus Tel Aviv, a mix of recently renovated and soon to be renovated buildings. Though traffic flow has altered Dizengoff Circle, it will soon get a facelift to make it more similar to its original 1930’s design.
This section of the city is surrounded by streamlined buildings, including the Cinema Hotel Tel Aviv, a converted Bauhaus theater that is part of Atlas Hotels.
My suggestion to travelers to Israel is that, even if you want to see the oldest cities in the world, make time for Tel Aviv, one of the country’s newest cities with a storied history.