(English translation: Sharon Rotbard and Orit Gat)
White City, Black City: The cover of the Hebrew edition, Babel, Tel Aviv 2005
Sometimes, in order to change a city one has to change the story of the city.
In Tel Aviv, the only city in the world that was named after a book, the story of the city since long time is called “White City”.
Despite some inaccuracies, the story of the White City with its Bauhaus buildings emerging from the dunes has been largely adopted by the Israeli public and gained international recognition that its culmination was the inscription of Tel Aviv in the World Heritage Sites list of UNESCO.
White City, Black City shows how the story of the White City has deviated from the debate on modern architecture and Israeli architecture; how it served as a fundamental element not only in the building of the city but also in the building of national identity, culture and rhetoric; and how it became a part of the “general”, political history of Tel Aviv, Israel and the Middle East.
White City, Black City tries to sketch a new story, in which Tel Aviv is no longer emerging by its own from the dunes, as drawn by the national painter Nahum Gutmann, and is no longer built “from sea foam and clouds” as written by the national poet Naomi Shemer, but is born in Jaffa and shaped according to its relation to Jaffa.
This story is not only about architecture, building and writing, but also and maybe mainly, about war, destruction, erasure and the erasure of the erasure.
One might argue if in this story, that its end is allegedly known in advance, there are good guys and bad guys, but there is no doubt that it has victors and losers; and if the victor's story is called “White City”, the story of the losers might be titled “Black City”.
(English translation: Sharon Rotbard and Orit Gat)
Part I - White City
"They told me that the city is white. Do you see white? I don't see any white."
French architect Jean Nouvel standing on a Tel Aviv rooftop, looking at Tel Aviv for the first time in his life. November 1995
"If you will, this shall not be a legend."
Theodor Herzl, Altneuland, 1902
July 2003, UNESCO's World Heritage commission recommended inscribing the “White City” of Tel Aviv in the World Heritage Sites list of the organization. “The White City of Tel Aviv - argued the official text supporting the inscription declaration – "is a synthesis of outstanding significance of the various trends of the Modern Movement in architecture and town planning in the early part of the 20th century. Such influences were adapted to the cultural and climatic conditions of the place, as well as being integrated with local traditions.”
Almost a year later, in spring 2004, the UNESCO declaration was celebrated in Tel Aviv by a series of events, exhibitions, ceremonies and conferences. This was a culmination of a two decades’ long historiographic campaign. The implications of this historiography go far beyond the architectural history of the Modern Movement or its (dis)integration with local traditions. They have much to do with the political history of the Middle East and that of the State of Israel. This history of Tel Aviv, presented for a moment as an architectural history, is part of a process in which the physical building of Tel Aviv and its political and cultural construction are interwoven; thus it has an important role in the construction of the case, the alibi and the apologetics of the Jewish settlement in the country. In that sense, the architectural history of Tel Aviv not only reveals some of the true political colors of the modernist architecture and the Israeli architecture, but it demonstrates how history can change geography.
"The Tel Avivians have good reasons to look up - now the whole world knows why!": An add of Tel Aviv municipality after UNESCO declaration, 2004
Book of Paper, Book of Stone
A city is built in the same manner as history – always by the victors, always for the victors, and always according to the victors’ history.
As with history, a city does not greet everyone equally, and certainly does not satisfy everyone’s desires equally. To change a city and its stories and to write history takes a great deal of power, and power is never distributed equally. There is a kind of war that takes place in the physical space of a city, and within its cultural space. Those who control the physical space often control the cultural space, and they are never those who have lost the battle over history.
Nevertheless, those who control the cultural space have many ways of influencing the physical one. Those who have the power to shape the physical space to suit their needs, can shape it to suit their values and stories; and those who are able to obtain for their values and stories a hegemonic stature, can reshape the city in accordance with their proper values and stories. We may formulate this state of things in the following paradoxical rule: a city is always a realization of the stories that it tells about itself.
One of the most common ways to realize the stories that a city tells about itself is conservation. A reverse way is demolition. Hence, whatever is done or not done in the physical body of a city is also a kind of historiographic deed. The decision to demolish an old building, to build a new one, or to conserve an existing one, defines what is doomed to be forgotten, what is spared and what is worthy of remembering. Therefore, there is a direct and necessary relation between the history of the city and its geography. The geography of a city conserves what history tells it to remember and erases what it tells it to forget. Sometimes a city chooses to highlight certain parts of its story that were found worthy of a particular mark – to erect a monument, to set a commemorating plaque, to outline a walking axis, to conserve or even to reconstruct a building.
The process of the physical building of a city is interwoven with the process of its cultural construction. The control over the process of cultural construction of the space may even be more effective and profound than any other political governance or program, because hegemony, in opposing to all the other forms of governance, is ubiquitous but also hidden. It is hidden behind the common sense of the rulers and the subjects, suggested by the obvious, defined by the unthinkable, and told through details of numerous stories. Finally, it composes what we tend to designate as "normality.”
And like that “Peepers’ Beach” in Tel Aviv, named so after the film shot there, at times a city can change only by being looked at differently, only because its story is told differently. Victor Hugo once wrote, “The book will kill the edifice.” Therefore, victors or vanquished, whoever wants to change a city must first change the city's story.
Writers and Builders
Cover of the first 1902 edition of Theodor Herzl's visionary novel "Altneuland"
Tel Aviv may be the only city in the world named after a book. The revival of the Hebrew language and the building of the land is the essence of Zionism, and this might be the very particularity of Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv is the living proof that books can erect buildings and establish cities. In that sense, it is a full size realization of the oxymoron Altneuland and its first Hebrew translation by Nahum Sokolov titled "Tel Aviv." Tel Aviv was at first a book and only later, a city.
To understand how this happened, it would be worth while to start with the victors' story, the "White City,” the urban legend Tel Aviv tells of itself. Although sometimes it is told slightly differently (usually it is preceded by a short preface that includes two previous episodes – Neve Tzedek, the first Hebrew neighborhood in Jaffa, and Ahuzat Bait, which was the first Hebrew neighborhood built separately from Jaffa, that later became Tel Aviv), and despite the fact that it is full of inaccuracies, this is the story, more or less, that each inhabitant of Tel Aviv is supposed to know:
[…] In the 1920s, in a small town named Dessau, in the Weimar social-democratic republic, there was a school called the “Bauhaus.” An avant-garde, international atmosphere was prevalent in this school. Among its students there were many German Jews and also sons of Jewish pioneers from Palestine. The Bauhaus teachers and students believed that it was possible to shape a better and more just world. In 1933, Hitler came to power in Germany, and closed the Bauhaus. The school’s teachers and students dispersed in all directions. The Jews among them fled to “Little Tel Aviv,” “a small city with not many people,” and “eclectic” architecture, where they revived the Bauhaus style and built the White City[…]
The White City exhibition
Michael Levin, White City: International Style Architecture in Israel. Cover of the exhibition's catalogue, Tel Aviv Museum of Art, 1984
The theme of the White City became a reputable architectural theory and received a "scientific,” historical and architectural stamp in the summer of 1984, with the exhibition "White City" curated by the architectural historian Michael Levin at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. In the context of Israeli culture, it was a revelation. The exhibition succeeded to draw attention to a coherent ensemble of high-quality modern architecture and to a number of excellent architects who were active in the thirties – Erich Mendelsohn, Richard Kaufman, Dov Carmi, Karl Rubin, Zeev Rechter, Aryeh Sharon, Shmuel Mestechkin, Sam Barkai and many others. But the White City exhibition was a first attempt to invent the history of Israeli Architecture. It wrote it as a story and established the White City of Tel Aviv as the inaugural place and moment of Israeli architecture, as its point zero. Hence, the White City exhibition itself became a key moment for Israeli architecture, and in a sense, the very beginning of its historiography and a main reference for any debate on Israeli architecture from the eighties to this day.
It was a reflexive moment: the first time that Israeli architecture spoke of itself and to itself, that it creates history and understands its own self as history. It is important to see this moment in the context of the historicist tendency that reigned the architectural world from the mid-sixties. But the particularity of this moment in Israel was that while the European gaze towards the past went back to the medieval city, to the Renaissance and the Baroque, or to vernacular and local traditions; the Israeli gaze toward the past was set on the near past, halted in what could be seen as the most modernist moment in architecture. In other words, the uniqueness of Postmodernism in Israeli architecture lies in its historicist gaze directed backwards and its rebounding from the modernist progressive moment that had been aiming forward. If in Italy the Postmodern architects longed for the Baroque city or Neo-Classical architecture (which was longing for another past), Israeli Postmodernism longed for European Modernism. The best demonstration of this paradox is evident in the fact that the architect Shmuel Mestechkin, one of the few Bauhaus graduates in Israel, often argued that no building should be conserved, not even "Bauhaus Style" ones.
The Exhibition was an important moment in many other domains as well. Twenty years following White City, it is impossible not to recognize Michael Levin's achievement. He succeeded in placing the International Style architecture not only in the agenda of the Tel Avivians’ agenda and that of Israeli architects, but, as it turned out, also on the cultural agenda of the world. With a small exhibition, a thin catalog with a short, modest, and straightforward text, Levin succeeded to do what no curator had done before. The White City exhibition influenced profoundly not only the work of architects or the taste of designers, but also the way Tel Avivians looked at their own city, the way they showed it to others, and finally the way the city of Tel Aviv has been shaped since.
 “Metzitzim” (Peepers), Israel 1972, director: Uri Zohar, with Uri Zohar, Arik Einstein, Sima Eliyahu, Mona Zilberstein. This film, showing the vulgar and unpurposed lives of youths on a Tel-Aviv beach, is considered to this day as one of the summits of modern Israeli cinema. Over the years, the film has gained status of a cult film, to the point that the beach where it had been shot was named after the film’s title.
 "Ceci tuera cela. Le livre tuera l'edifice" – "This will kill that. The book will kill the edifice." says the archdeacon at the beginning of the fifth volume of Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Hugo adds a detailed explanation of what he qualifies as "that mysterious remark,” while apologizing for delaying the plot. Besides the archdeacon’s concern with the consequences of Guttenberg's invention on the church, the great revolution of print made human spirit search for other means of expression. The one-time phenomena of the "book of stone" (the city, the building) is doomed to leave its place to the printed book, which by its great distribution is more durable than stone. And not only "the print will kill the church" but "print will kill architecture" as well.
 It would not be completely unfound to say that the oxymoron is the typical, paradigmatic figure of the Zionist Project, accompanying it from the beginning by settling the "old new country,” reviving the living dead language. Even at our time the oxymoron keeps on accompanying this project with paradoxal definitions such as "Jewish democratic state,” "Israeli Arabs,” "Peace in Galilee War,” or "unilateral separation.”
 Theodor Herzl's visionary novel Atneuland ("old-new country") was first published by Herman Seeman in Leipzig in 1902. The Hebrew translation appeared in Warsaw two years later under the title "Tel Aviv,” borrowed by the translator Nahum Sokolov from the book of Ezekiel (3, 15).
 In fact, Tel Aviv was not the first settlement to adopt the translated title of Herzl's novel. It was preceded by a small settlement that had been founded in 1904 near the colony Nes Ziona but was united with the latter two years later.
 This is the title of a book by Nachum Gutman published in 1959. Gutman (1898-1980) was an author and illustrator, famous for his graphic and literary picturesque approach, and one of the establishment’s most beloved artists. A Small City with Not Many People was perhaps the first nostalgic book published about the period of “Little Tel Aviv” of the 1910s and 1920s.
 Michael Levin, White City: the International Style Architecture in Israel, a Story of an Era (Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv Museum of Art, 1984). The second part of the exhibition displayed photographs of Tel Aviv buildings by Judith Turner.
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
Excerpts from the English translation of "White City, Black City: Architecture and War in Tel Aviv and Jaffa"
(English translation: Sharon Rotbard and Orit Gat)