Rebuilding utopia &mdash Tel Avivs White City earns honors as interest grows in restoration

tel aviv | Israel is known for its ancient, holy sites, but now it has received international recognition for a group of much more recent buildings.

In the 1930s, a number of architects fleeing Hitler’s reign in Germany came to Israel to build a vision of a modern city. Today, the austere concrete buildings of Tel Aviv, known as the White City, make up the largest collection of Bauhaus or International Style architecture in the world. In July, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization recognized Tel Aviv’s White City as a World Heritage Site.

“The White City of Tel Aviv is a synthesis of outstanding significance of the various trends of the Modern Movement in architecture and town planning in the early part of the 20th century,” reads the UNESCO Web site. The White City, or Ha Ir Halevana in Hebrew, is one of just four such areas in Israel to receive this distinction: The other three are the Old City of Jerusalem, Masada and the Old City of Akko.

In the ’30s and ’40s, the idealism that fostered the kibbutzim and other social experiments extended to the architecture. The architects, coming from Europe, were interested in establishing a new, modern style — a style that would befit a new country. They also needed to come up with a simple style that could be built rapidly and cheaply to house the influx of new immigrants. Some of the buildings were workers’ cooperatives (Me’onot Ovdim), designed with their own services (child care, post office, et al.) and vegetable gardens.

The hallmark of the buildings, which are primarily residential apartments, is simplicity — plain wooden doors, the opposite of ostentation. The structures are built of reinforced concrete, with smooth exteriors and flat roofs. Small porthole windows, which appear in a row down the building stairwells, add a touch of whimsy. Many apartments have curved balconies, a graceful flourish to an otherwise plain exterior.

Iftah and Inbar Bratspiess, who grew up in Tel Aviv, knew they wanted a place with unusual architecture for their first home. “When we saw the balcony and how it went around the corner, we fell in love with [the apartment],” says Inbar.

The couple spent a year renovating the interior, gutting walls to create an open living space and two bedrooms. “We like Bauhaus,” says Iftah. “It’s a very Tel Aviv style. … It’s the heart of the city.”

When you go down a thoroughfare like Rothschild Boulevard, one of several streets known for old Bauhaus buildings, you can see how these vintage modernist dwellings have fared. In Tel Aviv, around 1,500 of the original structures are still standing.

Most of the White City buildings were once white, which brought out their clean lines. After 50-odd years, many now look like they belong to Tan City, discolored and weathered. Often they’ve been altered, with balconies walled up to create an extra room and their plain lines muddied by gewgaws from other architectural styles.

For some who have grown up around them, they are the equivalent of the shabby Victorians found next to the freeways in, say, Oakland or San Jose — a dilapidated part of the aging cityscape.

But a restoration movement of the past few years is creating new interest in this utopian architecture of the past. Most of the buildings are privately held, but the city planning office in Tel Aviv provides subsidies for renovations, and renovation plans have to go through a review board. Now with international recognition, the hope among architectural buffs is that the government will take on a greater role in restoration.

The Bauhaus Center in Tel Aviv — is on Dizengoff Street, in a prime Bauhaus-watching neighborhood. The center holds monthly walking tours of the White City.

Lydia Lee was recently in Israel on a press tour sponsored by the Israeli Ministry of Tourism and El Al Israel Airlines.