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Bauhaus Architecture

by Yael Zisling

There are those who describe Tel Aviv as a drab, gray city of concrete. However, if you look beyond the worn buildings’ façade you will encounter the largest collection of buildings whose architectural roots can be traced to the Bauhaus architecture of Germany. It is perhaps ironic that Tel Aviv houses the largest number of buildings designed in an architectural style that developed in pre-Nazi Germany, a style that came to an abrupt end in Germany, with the Nazi’s rise to power. This architectural style is so prevalent in Tel Aviv that it almost seems as though it were a local style, but it is not.

There are a number of characteristics to the Bauhaus/International Style of architecture:

1) It shuns ornamentation and favors functionality
2) Uses asymmetry and regularity versus symmetry
3) It grasps architecture in terms of space versus mass

Bauhaus buildings are usually cubic, favor right angles, (although some feature rounded corners and balconies); they have smooth facades and an open floor plan.

Bauhaus architecture, whose founding father was Walter Gropius, developed in Germany in the 1920s and later in the U.S., in the 1930s. The American form of this architectural style was dubbed the International Style after Gropius, Mies van der Rohe and other leaders of Bauhaus migrated to the U.S., with the Nazi’s growing influence. The Bauhaus school in Dessau was closed on April 11th, 1933, by the police, at the insistence of the National Socialist government.

Purists assert that Bauhaus architecture can only refer to buildings in Germany and anything else should be termed International Style – while others use the terms interchangeably (as is the case in this issue of Gems in Israel). The term International Style was really adopted after the publication of a book that coincided with a 1932 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The book, by historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock and architect Philip Johnson, was called, The International Style.

Bauhaus architecture was concerned with the social aspects of design and with the creation of a new form of social housing for workers. This may be just another one of the reasons it was embraced in the newly evolving city of Tel Aviv, at a time when socialist ideas were so prevalent. This style of architecture came about (in part) because of new engineering developments that allowed the walls to be built around steel or iron frames. This meant that walls no longer had to support the structure, but only enveloped it – from the outside.

The teachings at the Bauhaus school of design, which functioned from 1919 to 1933 (first in Weimar and later in Dessau), were greatly influenced by the machine age. The school's aim was to fuse all the arts under the concept of design. The school had 700 students and was known for requiring its students to forget everything they had learned to date.

Gropius engaged some of the best artists of the day, Paul Klee, Vassily Kandinsky, Lyonel Feininger, and Oscar Schlemmer, to name a few, to teach at the school. Influential Bauhaus architects were Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, Hannes Meyer and Le Corbusier to name a few.

The International Style was a decidedly different type of architecture that did not rely on the architecture of the past, but aimed to establish a new, modern style. In Tel Aviv, Bauhaus architecture gained a foothold, as there was no real entrenched architectural style. While this style of architecture can also be found in Haifa and Jerusalem as well as in many kibbutzim, it is most prevalent in Tel Aviv.

Bauhaus in Tel Aviv

Tel Aviv has the largest collection of buildings built in the International Style, anywhere in the world. Bauhaus architecture flourished in Tel Aviv (as elsewhere in the country) in the 1930’s due in great part to the fact that 17 former Bauhaus students, worked locally as architects.

Arieh Sharon, Dov Carmi, Zeev Rechter, Pinchas Hueth, Josef Neufeld, Genia Averbuch Richard Kauffmann and Erich Mendelsohn are just some of the architects, who contributed to the local abundance of Bauhaus architecture. Sharon, (no relation to the current prime minister) was known for his cooperative workers’ dwellings in Tel Aviv, work on many of the country’s hospitals and his early beginnings in kibbutz Gan Shmuel. Averbuch is best known because in 1934, at 25, she won second prize (no first prize was given), in the competition to design Dizengoff Circle, in memory of Zina Dizengoff, Meir Dizengoff’s wife. While Mendelsohn designed the private residence of the country’s first president, Dr. Chaim Weizmann.

Between the First and Second World Wars, there was a great building momentum in Tel Aviv, because of the growing waves of immigration from Europe. Buildings that now show their age were once painted white (or beige). The city had many ‘white’ buildings, which came to be associated with the International Style (even though white exteriors are not really one its characteristics). Nevertheless, that is the source of the city’s nickname of “The White City.”

Tel Aviv has the largest number of cooperative workers’ apartments in the country. The aim was to provide residents with as much equality in living quarters. These blocks of apartments, operated almost as self-contained units. Residents had a variety of services right in the buildings, including kindergarten, post office, convenience store, laundry etc. Additionally, a plot of land was set aside, so that residents could grow their own vegetables. Having a ‘connection to the land’ was viewed as extremely important. An example of such a cooperative unit can be seen at the corner of Frishman, Dov Hoz and Frug streets. This block of buildings also served as headquarters of the Haganah.

There are over 1500 International Style buildings in Tel Aviv, slated for preservation/restoration. Looking at some of the buildings already restored, one can only imagine how beautiful and modern the city must have looked in the 1930’s.

Some Local Bauhaus Adaptations

Smaller Windows

Some of the key elements of Bauhaus architecture had to be adapted to the local environment, primarily because of the climate. One of the key elements of the International Style in Europe was a large window. However, in a hot climate – large windows that let great amounts of light shine into the rooms – do not make sense. Locally, glass was used sparingly and long, narrow, horizontal windows are visible on many of the Bauhaus buildings in Tel Aviv. On some buildings, you can also see long narrow balconies, which in many cases have now been enclosed. This was an adaptation of the long narrow windows.

The horizontal ‘strip window’ was a signature characteristic of Le Corbusier. A number of local architects worked in Le Corbusier’s office in Paris and were greatly influenced by his style.

Stilt Columns (Pilotis)

Another element used by Le Corbusier was stilt-type columns (pilotis), which raised the buildings off street level thereby creating room for a green garden area while providing greater airflow.

The first building built in this manner in Tel Aviv, was Beit Engel. It was built in 1933, by Zeev Rechter, and is located at 84 Rothschild Boulevard, and the corner of Ma’zeh Street. Rothschild Boulevard is an excellent area to see a great variety of Bauhaus buildings (although quite a few are in dire need of restoration). If you go to see the Engel building today you will notice that the ‘open’ area created by the stilt columns has been enclosed. Rechter fought for two years to get approval to build on these stilt columns. This type of building became quite common, in Tel Aviv and the surrounding cities, although by the 1940’s fewer buildings were being built in this manner in Tel Aviv.

Flat Roofs

Another of the local features of the Bauhaus buildings, are the flat roofs, as opposed to the typical shingled and slanted roofs, prevalent in the European buidlings. The roofs served all of a buidlings’ residents. While roofs in most cases did not feature gardens, (as envisioned by Le Corbusier), they were a place where social events were held and where the laundry room was often located as well.

Reinforced Concrete

The local building technology of the time was not advanced. Reinforced concrete was first used (in Tel Aviv) in 1912. Later it became widely used, because it was easy to work with and did not require skilled workers.

Bauhaus architecture became common in Tel Aviv of the 1930’s for a variety of reasons. There was a strong tendency toward modernization. Architects, who worked locally, had strong ties to the European architectural developments of the day. There was also a need to build cheaply and quickly because of the growing metropolis.

Tel Aviv is the only city in the world, built mostly, in the International Style. In fact, over the years a kind of reactionary ‘anti-Bauhaus’ sentiment, developed.

Saving and restoring many of the city’s wonderful old buildings is fraught with legal and economic constraints that often make conservation, less than desirable for the building’s owners. One can only hope that the coming years will bring solutions that will enable the preservation of more of Tel Aviv’s Bauhaus architecture.

Sources: Copyright © 2000 Gems in Israel. All rights reserved. Reprinted with Permission.