Archive for February, 2011

Bauhaus in the Promised Lands, Part I (Tel Aviv)

February 21, 2011

As Frederic Chaubin‘s new fun book, Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed (CCCP), shows, the last century left the globe strewn with monuments of big solutions to big problems.  Politicians, historians, philosophers, and other Men of Great Vision, cleared messy idiosyncracies from the map and proceeded to re-plan societies to make them work. Architects seemed specially poised to embrace roles as master planners of a well-organized utopian universe.

The Bauhaus school, of course, very much led the way, following William Morris’ ethos that art must meet the needs of society. In the Bauhaus Manifesto, Walter Gropius focused on collapsing the distance between art and technology, which he equated with “culture and civilization,” and placed his faith in the future in big building projects. Importantly, like other prophets of Modernism, he considered history to be “unnecessary ballast.” (Magdalena Droste)

During this time, one of Europe’s constantly gnawing and intractable “problems,” balanced rather heavily by the ballast of history,  was, of course, the Jewish problem – not only anti-Semites obsessed over a solution for the Jews, Jews themselves,  and their allies, sought a way to finally make the world a little less precarious for this small but annoyingly resilient diaspora.  Zionism gained its foothold in these years, with the first Zionist Congress taking place in 1897 and growing in prominence and determination in the next few decades.

Not surprisingly perhaps, two “solutions” to the Jewish problem bear the clean lines and white-washed walls of the Bauhaus.  Tel Aviv, which celebrated 100 years just recently, has the greatest concentration of Bauhaus architecture in the world, and is designated as a UNESCO world heritage site for it. Similarly, a less well known, failed experiment, for  “re-placement” of the world’s Jews, is also a (mostly) living embodiment of one of the Bauhaus’ grander projects — Birobidzhan – the Russian city-state in the eastern reaches of Asian Russia near the border with China, which the Soviets foresaw as a Jewish homeland.

On Dizengoff Street, one of Tel Aviv’s main arteries, the Bauhaus Center is a small but comprehensive reminder of the role of this important Modernist entryway to the 20th Century.  In Dizengoff Center, just steps away from the Bauhaus Center, one of the world’s clearest manifestations of the International Style looms, with a plaza surrounded by round-cornered, sleek white buildings, many of which have recently been restored to their more original bleached hue.  If you are a Bauhaus fan, a pilgrimage is in order, as Tel Aviv might be the best example of a living breathing organic example of this highly organized approach – it naturally took root here, it actually “worked.”

This is undoubtedly because of the mass migration of German Jews to Tel Aviv before the war (the second one).  As Shmuel Yavin writes in the catalog to an exhibition at the Bauhaus Center – the Revival of the Bauhaus in Tel Aviv, Renovation of the International Style in the White City  — “The great construction wave Tel Aviv experienced in order to enable the absorption of the immigration waves, the fourth (second half of the 1920’s) and the fifth (in the 1930’s), included the building of thousands of buildings,” and “The arrival in Israel/Palestine in the early 1930’s of many architects, most of them from Germany, and the return of Israeli architects who went to study in Europe, brought about a drastic change in the building style in Tel Aviv. A transformation from the eclectic to the modern.” Hence, two very modern 20th Century solutions gave birth to a distinctly Jewish, distinctly Bauhaus new city.

In the same catalog, the architect Nissim Davidov writes, “Tel Aviv is unique in the fact that the town is associated with the International styles in all their aspect – ideology, design and texture, in a manner that was never expressed elsewhere. The fundamental ideological principles ‘creating a brave new world,’ and the uniform equality in building for the masses, went hand in hand with the ideology of the Zionist settlement in the country.

Davidov also emphasizes that, “As opposed to the urban texture in Europe, where the International style’s buildings were usually incorporated as an infill in a row, of which only the façade could be seen, the Garden City plan for Tel Aviv, in which each plan stands on a separate plot, singularly permitted to express one of the essential principles of the style – relating to the building as a volume.”

This has allowed each building, within this unified scheme, to become one distinct part of the whole, leading Tel Aviv to develop as an unplanned city might, it had room to breathe and become overgrown by its own unique character.