The Dark Truth Behind Tel Aviv's 'White City' Story

We interviewed Sharon Rotbard about his book <i>White City, Black City: Architecture and War in Tel Aviv and Jaffa</i>.

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29 June 2015, 11:05am

An example of Tel Aviv's Bauhaus architecture (Photo via)

On the 49th floor of one of Tel Aviv's tallest buildings – the Azriel Center – there's a viewing platform that gives tourists and locals a panoramic look at the city beneath. The scene – as with any big city – is diverse. You can see greys, whites and reds, low-rise apartments and corporate megastructures, all swallowed up eventually by the blue hue of the Mediterranean.

The first time I visited Tel Aviv as a teenager I remember climbing up to the circular tower observatory and hearing about the city from the guides I was with. They told us we were looking at some kind of architectural marvel built on the sand dunes of the Jewish homeland. They called it the "White City" after its chalky modernist architecture and I took it more or less as gospel. The reds and greys slowly slid out of my memory, and the high-rise glass towers faded into an urban landscape of clean straight lines and neat curves.

It was the same image of Tel Aviv that everyone gets told and everyone tends to believe. Back in 2003 the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) declared Tel Aviv a world heritage site for the 4,000 odd buildings that make up this so-called "White City" – a collection of modernist Bauhaus-influenced buildings that sprung up in the 1930s and have come to define the city.

It's an easy enough story to buy into. Walk around the centre of Tel Aviv – through the low-rise, off-white apartments, hip cafes, and decent clubs and you quickly forget you're in the middle of one of the world's more intractable crises. There's an equanimity to the place that you don't find in the same way in other parts of the country. But how accurate is the story?

On a mild afternoon a few days before the recent Israeli elections, I sat down at a small cafe in South Tel Aviv with Sharon Rotbard, the dissident Israeli architect whose book White City, Black City: Architecture and War in Tel Aviv and Jaffa, just published in English, tells the story left out by the clean, cosmopolitan and virtuous history I was familiar with.

Sharon Rotbard

For starters, Rotbard says, Tel Aviv isn't white – it's a pale, dirty monochrome. It's famous Bauhaus buildings are, he claims, just one of many architectural styles present in the city. Of those that do conform to it, almost none were built by architects associated with the school. None possess any of the social utopianism you might expect from that movement.

"It's completely fictitious but it made for a good story," Rotbard, who teaches architecture at Jerusalem's Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design told me. "I was a student in the 1980s and I saw with my own eyes how the narrative formed. The urban legend of Tel Aviv described the city as the realisation of the European modernist avant-garde. But most architecture in the 30s was petit-bourgeois building made for wealthy people. And there were only four Bauhaus training architects active in Palestine."

It's easier to understand why this narrative formed when you look at what it leaves out. The Shapira neighbourhood, where we met, forms part of what Rotbard describes as the "Black City" – the areas, he tells me, "overshadowed by the White City, the places that can't make it into Tel Aviv's history". Shapira lies on the periphery of Jaffa, the Palestinian city Tel Aviv grew out of and eventually engulfed. And it's here where the innocent story of the White City becomes darker and darker.

Before the establishment of the State of Israel was declared in 1948, Jaffa was part of the cultural and economic heart of Palestine. Known as the Bride of the Sea, its port bustled with life and its orchards and vineyards defined the landscape of the city.

Things started to changed though as new immigrants arrived. New Jewish neighbourhoods sprung up around the city cutting Jaffa off from the rest of the country, and turning a thriving city into an isolated enclave.

Shortly after the UN partition plan in 1947, Zionist militias led by the Irgun and Stern Gang – began attacking Jaffa's largely civilian population. In the months that followed, tens of thousands of Palestinians were forced to flee, many through the only possible way: the sea. The city's municipal services and businesses quickly collapsed and the tiny fraction of its remaining citizens were placed under strict martial law. Over the decades that followed, much of the area was bulldozed, just a few old buildings left for heritage tourism, local artists and real estate developers keen to gentrify the area.

The Etzel Museum, which celebrates the history of the Irgun, a Zionist militia

"When we say Tel Aviv we don't think about Jaffa and Shapiro," Rotbard told me. "We don't refer to it. When we design maps for tourists this neighbourhood and the old city of Jaffa are left out. Architecture serves as a decoy. When we tell the story of Tel Aviv architecturally it enables us to write a history which lacks politics. It was a way to connect the history of Tel Aviv to high culture, to Europe and above all a way of speaking about Tel Aviv without any reference to the real reasons which made it what it is today."

Rotbard's book dissects this history in forensic, quite exhausting detail, showing how an architectural narrative can lend itself to an entire political ideology. The book itself was extremely well received in Israel even if the arching narrative of the city has remained impregnable. This year may be the first time the book has been published in England but in Israel it's been widely reviewed and reprinted 13 times.

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"When my book came out it was a great shock for people that thought they were not part of it," he told me. "Tel Aviv preferred to write itself an architectural history that excludes certain political facts. So a lot of young people read the book and were astonished that their park was once a Palestinian neighbourhood." This realisation was an uncomfortable one for Israelis who had no desire to be complicit in dispossession. "Some people living in gentrified Jaffa or the White City in Tel Aviv told me that they had to change their apartment. That happened about ten times."

After leaving the cafe we walked around the area that inspired much of the book, taking in just a few of the places left out by the city's official architectural narrative from crumbling wells that once served to water Jaffa's orchards to the land where the oranges were once made.

If these stories are easy to forget in favour of the White City myth, others are not. Just across the road from Rotbard's house, we paused outside a Kindergarten recently used by the children of African refugees. From 2006 to 2012 tens of thousands of asylum seekers flooded across the Sinai desert looking for a better life in Israel – many of them ending up in South Tel Aviv. To counter what they saw as a threat to the Jewish character of the city, a group of West Bank settlers moved into the area in what ultimately lead to anti-African riots and an attack on the school.

If anything good has come from this, it has – according to Rotbard – become harder than ever to see Tel Aviv existing in a political vacuum. The "White City" narrative has been punctured somewhat, but there's still much work to be done. Before we parted I asked him to recommend a building that encapsulates everything he had told me. He pointed me towards the waterfront of what was once the Northern tip of Jaffa, to a museum dedicated to the Jewish paramilitary organisation that conquered the area.

Inserted into the shell of an old Palestinian house, in a neighbourhood now completely wiped out, the museum offers a shockingly one-sided history of how Tel Aviv came into being, celebrating the militias that destroyed the area instead of commemorating what was lost. It's a reminder of how powerful and pervasive the narrative of the White City can be and a reminder, as Rotbard says in his beginning of his book, that "cities and histories" are all constructed in the same way: "always by the victor, always for the victor, and always according to the victor's record".

@PKleinfeld

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