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Last Updated: Tuesday, 8 June, 2004, 09:58 GMT 10:58 UK
Unesco celebrates Tel Aviv
By Linda Grant

When Tel Aviv announced with great pride that it was to be named a Unesco heritage site, many wondered what the city had that could contribute to world culture.

Most visitors to Israel go straight from the airport to Jerusalem, the capital of three religions with its old city, churches, mosques and remains of the Jewish temple.

A Bauhaus style building at 18 Bialik Street in Tel Aviv
Tel Aviv's White City is a veritable Bauhaus museum
The first time I saw Tel Aviv was five years ago.

It was dilapidated, stained, unkempt and ugly - a city built, I thought, in the 1960s when cheap buildings were thrown up by careless town planners.

But as I looked more closely I saw curves, porthole windows, narrow balconies.

I realised that what I saw was original Bauhaus architecture, and not just a few buildings here and there, but an entire city constructed by what was called the International Style.

What was the Bauhaus doing on the shores of the Mediterranean?

Why would these modernists build such a city in 1930s Palestine?

Immigrants' city

Tel Aviv had been founded in 1909, a few miles north of the ancient town of Jaffa, as a new city by immigrants from Russia who wanted to build the first Jewish metropolis since biblical times.

The early architecture is known as "eclectic" - borrowing styles from home and from the current craze in the 1920s after the opening of the tomb of Tutankhamen for everything Middle Eastern.

Walter Gropius (right) talks to colleagues
Students of Walter Gropius made the city what it is
But in the early 1930s an influx of refugees began to arrive from Nazi Germany.

There was a desperate need to house them and the architects who arrived in Palestine from Europe were trained in the Bauhaus, the architectural school established by Walter Gropius in 1919 until it was closed by the Nazi Party in 1933.

Between 1933 and 1939 the residents of Tel Aviv watched the birth of what they came to call the White City - boxy white apartment buildings in which everything was designed to do away with architectural flourishes and adapt itself to the intense sunlight.

Many of the buildings were simple three-storey structures, often on pilotis (concrete stilts) which allowed the wind to blow the dust from the street under it, rather than through the windows.

Others were more socially ambitious such as the "urban kibbutz" on Frug Street built for members of the trade union movement, whose inhabitants tried to live a collective, socialist lifestyle, with a kindergarten and canteen.


The decline of the White City was due to two factors: rent controls which made it difficult for the owners, themselves refugees, to maintain the buildings properly; and the lack of any understanding of how to adapt the building materials to the salt wind coming from the sea.

Sunset over a Tel Aviv beach
Tel Aviv is far more relaxed than Jerusalem
By the mid-1990s, when I first visited the city, Tel Aviv seemed to have forgotten its past entirely.

But in the past few years extensive restoration has brought many buildings back to their dazzling glory.

As a city, Tel Aviv is Jerusalem's polar opposite.

Little if anything spiritual is to be found there. No holy sites or ancient antiquities are there to tempt the tourist.

What is to be found is the life of urban Israel: 70% of the population lives on the coastal plain.

Above all, Tel Aviv is about cafe life. About sitting in the morning with your newspaper, arguing about politics, drinking your coffee.

The cafes were brought to the shores of the Mediterranean by the same immigrants who brought the Bauhaus buildings.

Nostalgic for home, they made a European city in the Levant.

Hip, young, living intensely in the moment, Tel Aviv is the home of most of the country's national newspapers, a street of art galleries in which each one finds another way to satirise the state and its institutions, the annual gay pride march which has become almost a family occasion, the publishing houses that produce the work of writers such as Orly Castel-Bloom and Etgar Keret, both Tel Avivians, who document the surreal life of the streets.

Above all, Tel Aviv is the place where young soldiers with a weekend pass gravitate, for 36 hours of an alternative reality.

The sea is the constant, the only border that is uncontested.

Linda Grant's novel, When I Lived in Modern Times, set in Tel Aviv in 1946, won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2000.

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