Architecture as Art: Projects and Projections

 Whitewashing Tel-Aviv

The architect Sharon Rotbard begins narrating the story of Tel-Aviv in medias res, in July 2003, when UNESCO recommended that Tel-Aviv’s “White City” – a small area in the centre of the city built mostly during the 1930s – would be included in the organization’s list of world heritage sites.[1] The decision was the most pronounced effect of a discourse that began taking shape in the early 1980s with an exhibition called “White City”, which told a story of an artistic migration from the Bauhaus school in Dessau/Berlin to Palestine, in the wake of Hitler’s rise to power. The Jewish students of the school, forced to leave Nazi Germany, came to Tel-Aviv, then a sleepy petit bourgeois town, and transformed it by building the “White City”, a collection of modernist, chalk-white houses.[2] In the following years, this story will be retold many a time in newspapers, advertisements and municipal campaigns.[3]

But as Rotbard shows, the story is little more than an invented tradition.[4] The Art historian Michael Levine, who curated the “White City” exhibition, later recanted his own simplified version, asserting that the “White City” was an agglomeration of many influences beside Bauhaus: Le Corbusier, Erich Mendelsohn, and the “International Style”.[5] Furthermore, Levine acknowledged that the Bauhaus teachers themselves resisted any attempt to define a Bauhaus “style”.[6] Rotbard deconstructs the urban legend even further: some of the Jewish students who had studied in the Bauhaus school became prominent architects in Mandatory Palestine, but not in Tel-Aviv: loyal to the school’s socialist orientation, they worked mostly in the rural cooperated settlements, the Kibbutzim.[7]

Why, then, did the “White City” become synonymous with Bauhaus? The linkage between Tel-Aviv and Bauhaus had some precedents in the architectural discourse of the 1960s and 1950s, but the connection coagulated during the 1980s. In 1977, for the first time in the history of Israel (and of the Zionist settlement in Palestine), a right-wing party, the Likud, came to power. The Labour-oriented, Ashkenazi (i.e., European) elite was shaken to its core; one former minister quipped, after hearing of the election’s results, that rather than the government, “the people should be replaced”.  The Likud party had come to represent the Other (Jewish) Israelis: the oriental, the religious, the poor; it had come to represent black Israel. The “re-discovery” of the “White City”, Rotbard contends, was the old elite’s reaction to the Likud’s ascension.[8] The return to Bauhaus was a return to Europe, to an occidental, pristine, uncomplicated, modernity.[9] Now that the barbarians were at the gates of the polis, Ostjuden who immigrated from Galicia and Russia began feeling homesick for a Germany that was never their homeland.[10]

The story of the “White City”, then, is not a story of urban preservation but of reconstruction. What is being reconstructed here is the city’s image that is being projected onto those white houses, and that image is continually reconstructed in response to social and political changes.

 The Sandblasted City

 the future homeowners of Achuzat Bayit, 1909.

The whitewashing of Tel-Aviv goes back even further than the 1930s. The myth of Tel-Aviv is a myth of an immaculate conception, of a city that sprang, like an Aphrodite scrubbed fresh, from the sandy dunes north of Jaffa.[11] That myth is supposedly buttressed by an iconic photograph (fig. 2), taken on the eleventh of April 1909, when the lots of Achuzat Bayit, the neighborhood that would later become Tel-Aviv, were allocated to its future residents.[12]  The photo shows a crowd of people, the soon-to-be homeowners, surrounded by sand and hills; Jaffa and the Jaffans are nowhere to be seen. This photo tells Tel-Avivians everything they need to know about their city: that it was not, like settlements elsewhere in Israel/Palestine, built on stolen land; that the land it was built on was barren and uncared for; that they built it themselves, without the help of local workers, a bunch of “students and lawyers mixing the cement”, as one Tel-Avivian artist put it.[13] The photo presents a community that is at once autochthonic, born of the sand – and hence not colonial – and, on the other hand, an epitome of the Zionist desire to breathe life into the desolate, empty land.[14]Herein lies an oxymoron that pits autochthonism against modernization: in order to justify the reclamation of the land the settlers have to picture it as desolate. Alas, its desolation marks the land as particularly Arab, for it only became arid as a result of years of Arab neglect. But since the land is markedly Arab and the settler is markedly other than Arab – Jewish, European, Modern – the settler cannot be autochthonic. Thus, a vicious cycle is set in motion, where the disavowal and acknowledgement of Arab presence alternate and disrupt each other: the land is empty, but it is empty because it is neglected by its inhabitants; conversely, the land is neglected by its indigenous inhabitants, and so must be emptied of them.

The truth behind the birth of Tel-Aviv is much more mundane; hardly an Aphrodite, Tel-Aviv grew out of Jaffa more like Athena out of Zeus’s forehead. The Historian Maoz Azaryahu, who wrote a book about the myths of Tel-Aviv, reminds us that Achuzat Bayit was planned as a suburb of Jaffa, to be populated by affluent Jews who wanted to get away from noisy, dirty and increasingly inhospitable Jaffa;[15] it was not even the first Jewish neighborhood to be built outside Jaffa – Neve Tzedek was established in 1887 and was followed by Neve Shalom, Mahane Yosef and others.[16] Why, then, was Achuzat Bayit/Tel-Aviv, rather than its older sisters, declared as the “first Hebrew city”? According to Rotbard, it was that famous photo that made the establishment of Achuzat Bayit such a pivotal moment; the photo encapsulated in an iconic fashion the myth of the city born out of the empty dunes.[17] The Historian Mark LeVine offers more grounded reasons. The founding fathers of Achuzat Bayit, he asserts, wanted to create a space where Zionists could nurture and practice their nationalistic values without unwarranted interference; they wanted to keep Jewish capital in Jewish hands and they wanted to build a settlement that would “bolster Jewish national prestige“.[18] From its inception, Achuzat Bayit was specifically imagined as modern, clean and Jewish.[19]

The plot of land that would become Achuzat Bayit was known as ‘Karem al-Jabali’ (the orchard of the Jabali family); the name itself suggests that the land was not empty or unused.[20] The construction of the new neighborhood was halted temporarily when local Bedouins claimed they were cultivating the vines in the plot.[21] Those locals were evicted – and perhaps paid off – but nomadic shepherds who used the land for grazing kept harassing the new residents.[22]

The insistence that Achuzat Bayit was built using Jewish labour is not supported by contemporary accounts: the homeowners found the Jewish builders to be too expensive and resorted to using Arab labourers who demanded less money and were more experienced.[23] In 1910 the neighborhood’s name was changed to Tel-Aviv (translated literally as Spring Hill); the name, as Azaryahu remarks, was previously used as the title to the Hebrew translation of Theodore Herzl’s utopian novel Altneuland.[24] The new name, the Jewish neighbors thought, reflected better the feat of erecting“magnificent buildings on the wilderness of sand.”[25]

 Jaffa’s disavowal by the Zionists was so entrenched, that it is almost completely absent for thedrawings of Nahum Gutman, the quintessential Tel-Avivian artist (figs. 3 and 4). Rotbard shows that if Gutman was aiming for verisimilitude, the Jaffan neighborhoods of Manshiyya and Kerem Hateymanim[26] should have been positioned between Tel-Aviv and the sea.[27] Jaffa only appears as a dark silhouette in the upper left corner of figure 4.

 The Painting on the Wall

Gutman’s drawing were not the only instance of Zionist art wishfully erasing Arab presence. In2000, almost a century after the establishment of Tel-Aviv, a wall was erected to the south of the Jerusalemite neighborhood of Gilo. Since the beginning of the second Intifada, Palestinian snipers from the adjacent Beit Jala neighborhood had been shooting at the denizens of Gilo, injuring some of them critically. The Israeli Ministry of Security had erected a wall to protect the Giloites, who in turn found it to be an eyesore and took to defacing it.[28] The municipality then commissioned artists to decorate the wall with an “artistic replica of the disappearing view”.[29] The Artistic community in Israel, strongly self-identified as leftist, had refused to collaborate with the municipal authorities.[30] Finally, a group of Russian immigrants, too poor and marginal to afford the moral high ground, was commissioned.[31] The immigrant artists had compunctions, but they also felt that the painted wall might raise the spirits of the residents of Gilo.[32] The painting on the wall, seen in figure 5, is of the very same landscape that the wall hides, sans the Palestinian neighborhood. “The wall”, writes W.T.J. Mitchell “is precisely an erection of a blind spot in the landscape, but a blind spot […] that conceals itself with a veil of illusory transparency […]”.[33] That the actual Palestinian neighborhood is visible from the Israeli side, as figure 5 clearly shows, should alert as to the fact that the wall is not a blind spot, as Mitchell contends, but rather a third eye, a chakra of seeing beyond the real: what is projected onto the wall is a fantasy of disappearance, of an ethnic cleansing that cannot be executed due to realpolitik and must exist, for now, only in the realm of art.[34]

The Palestinian neighborhood Beit Jala is not, however, completely absent from the painting on Gilo’s wall. As Mitchell notes, the painting does show distant mosques. The mosques, Mitchell writes, are a reminder, “a comforting acknowledgment of what and who will have vanished, a kind of melancholy recognition of disappearance that is the central aesthetic emotion of the romantic picturesque”.[35] The mosques, in other words, are a remnant, a mnemonic device of a victory yet to be achieved, a victory that, because Israel is a self-proclaimed western democracy, can only be desired and enjoyed like a dirty little secret, sublimated through art.

 Vertical Domination

The sublimation of violence through art delivers us back to Jaffa, where a remnant of a victory already achieved was turned into a museum.[36] In April 1948, during the civil war between the Palestinians and the Jews, a Jewish right-wing militia, the Irgun, conquered the Jaffan neighborhood of Manshiyya. This northernmost Palestinian neighborhood burrowed itself into the body Tel-Aviv – or, rather, Tel-Aviv wrapped itself around Manshiyya as it expanded west- and southward.

During the Civil war phase of the 1948 war (November 1947-May 1948), Palestinian and Zionist militias clashed in the interstitial no-man’s-land between Manshiyya and Tel-Aviv. The Tel-Avivians did not care for Manshiyya; “a thorn in the flesh of Tel-Aviv” they called it, a “cancerous tumor”.[37] Then, a few weeks before the establishment of the state of Israel, Menachem Begin, the Irgun leader, realizing that soon all Jewish militias will be incorporated into one Jewish army, decided that he needed a military achievement in order to consolidate political power.[38]  Manshiyya was chosen as the site of the attack. The battle itself is fascinating: the Irgun fighters, vastly outnumbered and underequipped, used explosives to burrow into buildings, avoiding the streets that were controlled by Arab fighters.[39] The Irgun fighters also erected makeshift barricades, made out of sandbags – sand being, apparently, the quintessential Zionist material – that allowed them to cross streets unharmed; the result of that improvised construction was a modular, serpentine system of barricades-cum-thoroughfares that could be adjusted on the spot in response to changes in the battle.[40] Finally, rather than shoot at the Arab defenders, the Irgun fighters used explosives to topple down building on their fortified outposts.[41] Manshiyya was conquered, and a few days later Jaffa surrendered to the Zionist forces.[42] The result of the tactics employed by the Irgun was what Stephen Graham and others have termed Urbicide – the killing of a city.[43]

But, miraculously, Manshiyya did not flatline just yet; after the war, with the Arab inhabitants gone, Jewish immigrants desperate enough to live amidst the debris and squalor squatted in the ruined buildings. It took the Tel-Avivian municipality over a decade to evict them and raze the neighborhood. [44] The detritus that was once Manshiyya was pushed by bulldozers into the sea, creating an artificial coastline, and on that new land a park was built; in 1978, forty some years after Nahum Gutman had wished it away in his paintings, Manshiyya was gone.[45]

In the park built on the ruins of Manshiyya, called “The Conquerors’ Park”, stands a peculiar building (fig. 8). Its lower half is made out of what was left of an Arab house, built in stone and adorned with ornamental arches. The upper half is an ultra-modernist rectangle, made out of aluminum and glass.[46] The building houses a museum dedicated to the conquest of Manshiyya. The power-relations between the modern(ist) conqueror and the oriental conquered are all too clear: the Zionist part hunches over, dominates the Palestinian part. The metaphor is so obtrusive, so raw, that rather than exemplifying architecture-as-art, the building verges on becoming architectural pornography.

For Rotbard, the Irgun museum, a building that houses memory, is an artifact of willful forgetting, of erasure.[47] I would like to suggest, however, that like the Peqoud’s Ishmael, the sole survivor nestled in his own coffin, this Arab ruin could be coaxed to testify to its own destruction. The need of the conqueror to display his conquest curtails the possibility of a complete erasure. The very difference needed to signify the distinction between the victor and the vanquished – the difference between stone arches and cubicle glass, in our case – makes sure of that. One man, said Hannah Arendt, always survives to tell the story; I would like to argue that buildings are able to do the same.

[1] Sharon Rotbard, ‘Ir levanah, ‘Ir shchorah [White City, Black City], (Tel-Aviv: Babel, 2005) [Hebrew]. Hereinafter abbreviated as Rotbard, White City, Black City.

[2] Ibid., p. 18.

[3] Ibid., pp. 28-33.

[4] Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (ed.), The Invention of Tradition, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

[5] Rotbard, White City, Black City, p. 36.

[6] Ibid., p. 40.

[7] Ibid., p. 48.

[8] Ibid., P. 54. That the agriculture-oriented elite was concentrated in metropolitan, Bourgeois, Tel-Aviv is one of the many paradoxes comprising the city’s tale.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., pp. 55-56. Ashkenaz, the word that would come to represent all Jews of European descent (who were mostly concentrated in Eastern Europe) was the medieval Jewish name of Western Germany.

[11] Ibid., p. 78.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., pp. 73, 85.

[14] Ibid.

[15]Maoz Azaryahu, Tel-Aviv ha’ir ha’amitit, mitographia historit [Tel-Aviv – The Real City, A Historical Mythography], (Sde Boker: Ben-Gurion University Press, 2005), p. 29 [Hebrew]. Hereinafter abbreviated as: Azaryahu, The Real City. Mark LeVine reports that Jewish construction in Jaffa was sometimes met with Palestinian violence. See: Overthrowing Geography, Jaffa, Tel Aviv, and the Struggle for Palestine, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), p. 48.

[16] Rotbard, White City, Black City, pp. 83-84; LeVine, Overthrowing Geography, p. 60.

[17] Rotbard, White City, Black City, p. 84.

[18] LeVine, Overthrowing Geography, p. 61.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid., p. 64.

[21] Ibid., p. 69.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid., p. 71-72.

[24] Azaryahu, The Real City, p. 33. Theodore Herzl was the progenitor of “political Zionism” and in his novel Altneuland he set a blueprint for the Jewish state. The Hebrew translator, Nahum Sokolov, was a prominent Zionist leader and a journalist. His translation is, however, rather convoluted: “Tel”, or hill in Hebrew, has a specifically ancient connotation; “Aviv”, or spring, is supposed to convey regeneration; hence, an “old-new” land.

[25] Levine, Overthrowing Geography, p. 72.

[26] Manshiyya was a Muslim neighborhood; Kerem Hateymanim (in Hebrew: the Yemenites’ Orchard) was a mixed neighborhood, populated by oriental Jews, Gypsies, Egyptians and Afghans. See: Rotbard, White City, Black City, p. 84.

[27] Ibid., p. 130-136.

[28] W.J.T. Mitchell, “Christo’s Gates and Gilo’s Wall” in Critical Inquiry, Vol.32, No. 4 (2006), p. 588.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid., pp. 589-590.

[33] Ibid., p. 590.

[34] The wall was taken down in 2010. The same residents that demanded its erection in 2000 campaigned to have it pulled down a decade later; the snipers stopped shooting and the wall did not agree with the middle-class facade that the locals were trying to cultivate. They had, however, only good things to say about the painting on the wall. See: Ma’ariv (online edition), 13.8.2010,  Omri Meniv, “Hasart homat hamagen be-Gilo: hatoshavim megivim be-regashot me’oravim [The Wall in Gilo is being Taken Down: The Residents Respond with Mixed Feelings]”, accessed 27.12.2011.

[35] Mitchell, “Christo’s Gates and Gilo’s Wall”, p. 590.

[36] On the “museumification” of indigenous architecture see: Paul Rabinow, French Modern: Norms and Forms of the Social Environment, (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1989), pp. 299-301; Yair Paz, “Shimur ha-moreshet ha-adrichalit ba-schoonot ha-netushot le’achar milchemet ha-atzma’ut [preserving the architectural heritage in the abandoned neighborhoods after the War of Independence], in Cathedra, Vol. 88 (1998), pp. 95-134 [Hebrew]; Nurit Alfasi and Roy Fabian, “Preserving Urban Heritage: From Old Jaffa to Modern Tel-Aviv”, in Israel Studies, Vol. 14, No. 3 (2009), pp. 137-156.

[37] Menachem Begin, Ha-mered [The Revolt], (Jerusalem: Achiasaf Press, 1965), p. 433 [Hebrew]. Begin would later become the leader of the Likud and in 1977 the prime minister of Israel. See above, p. 5.

[38] Yaakov Peleg, “Ha-ma’aracha ‘al Yaffo ve-‘al svivoteyha [The Battle of Jaffa and its Environs]”, in Alon Kadish (ed.), Milchemet ha-atzma’ut diyun mechudash [The War of Independence, a New Debate], (Tel-Aviv: Ministry of Security Press, 2005), pp. 397-398 [Hebrew].

[39] Ibid., p. 410.

[40] Haim Lazar, Kibush Yaffo [The Conquest of Jaffa], (Tel-Aviv: Shelach Press, 1951), p. 171 [Hebrew].

[41] Rotbard, White City, Black City, p. 183.

[42] Ibid., p. 186.

[43] See: David Campbell, Stephen Graham and Daniel Bertrand Monk, “Introduction to Urbicide: The Killing of Cities?”, in Theory & Event, Vol. 10, No. 2 (2007), accessed online in HTML format, 27/12/2011.

[44] Tel-Aviv incorporated Jaffa in 1950.

[45] Rotbard, White City, Black City, p. 231.

[46] Ibid., p. 235.

[47] Ibid., p. 239-240.

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