Thursday 12 April 2012

Back to Tel Aviv - Bauhaus, Bialik and Blumenthal

There are many reasons to visit Tel-Aviv. One of the biggest attractions of the city, and the magnet that first drew me here, is its collection of Bauhaus buildings.  There are more Bauhaus/ Modernist buildings here than anywhere else in the world and it was this that secured Tel-Aviv UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 2003.

Many of these wonderful buildings are now crumbling, but steps have been taken to preserve them with protected status preventing demolition and governing restoration. The reason for this embarrassment of architectural riches is that during the 1920's and 1930's, many central European Jewish architects came to Eretz Israel either through choice or as refugees, forced out of Germany, Austria and the former Czechoslovakia. Europe's loss was Israel's gain as these architects defined the way Tel-Aviv would look for decades, and indeed the way most of it looks today.

Bauhaus was a design school and philosophy founded in Germany in 1919 until it was forcibly closed in 1933, although it is known that some of the non-Jewish designers co-operated with the Nazi regime and worked throughout the war period. The school's main principle was the unification of arts and crafts in order to achieve "total" works of art. As well as producing interior design items, the Bauhaus style was extremely influential in the architectural world. Although the style developed over a number of years, its key components embraced functionalism and rationalism. Ornament was (generally) rejected but individual character was given to these, almost universally white buildings, by the addition of features including ribbon windows, thermometer windows, balconies, roof terraces and some internal flourishes on staircases or with lighting.

Some buildings feature beautiful curves, perhaps with no better example than the former Cinema Esther, now the Hotel Cinema (pictured below) on Dizengoff Kikar and its sister hotel the Center, directly opposite. Fully restored these buildings give a hint of the grandeur that was Tel Aviv in the 1930's. The architect for the Cinema was Yehuda Megidovich. Work began on the building in 1938 and was completed the following year. Mr. Megidovich was responsible for a number of outstanding buildings in Tel Aviv including the Great Synagogue on Allenby (see it here) and the smaller Moshav Zkenim Synagogue opposite (see it here).

Israel by Yekkes

The Cinema is the larger hotel and retains many original features including the dramatic main staircase, movie posters, old cameras and assorted cinema paraphernalia. I must confess a slight prejudice in favour of these hotels as I always stay at the Center when visiting the city. The staff in both hotels are excellent, the location is great and the recent refurbishment of the rooms at the Center is another reason to keep coming back.

Another favourite building of mine is the former home (pictured below) of the great Israeli photographer, Avraham Soskin at the Neve Tzedek end of Lilienblum Street. The house is easy to find and has a commemorative plaque to Soskin. Architect Ze'ev Rechter was responsible for the building which was constructed in 1933. The house includes classic Bauhaus features of asymmetry, roof terrace and a small balcony facing Lilienblum. It stands out as a real jewel on this once very elegant but now somewhat neglected street.

Israel ישראל by Yekkes

There are many other Bauhaus gems in this most vibrant of cities and its great to discover them by walking the streets. But, if you don't have much time in Tel-Aviv you may prefer to have a guided tour of the key Bauhaus sites. If so, you can do no better than to visit the wonderful Bauhaus Centre on Dizengoff. The centre is owned and run by Micha and Shlomit Gross, and offers tours lasting about 2 hours for a very reasonable 60 shekels. They are real experts in their field and can tell many interesting stories about the city too. If you are more independent you can pick up a self guided tour from the Centre, which is also a great place to see changing exhibitions, or to pick up books, postcards and souvenirs to take home. The current exhibition focuses on Brno in the Czech Republic, which is now on my long list of cities to visit. The Bauhaus Centre also inspired my visit to Eritrea back in 2010 (see here and here) after I saw their excellent exhibition on Asmara. There is also a branch of the Bauhaus Centre in Kikar Kedumin in Jaffa.

A good place to visit for more of the Bauhaus experience is Bialik Street. As well as having some lovingly restored Bauhaus buildings, it also houses a small Bauhaus Museum (pictured below) of interior design items. Exhibits include architectural drawings, Marcel Breuer chairs, Wagenfeld lamps and other Bauhaus classics. The museum is small, but entry is free and its definitely worth a visit. A catalogue is available, price 100 shekels.

Israel by Yekkes

Bialik Street has many other delights.  These include my favourite building in the city - Beit Bialik, the former home of Haim Nachman Bialik, generally acknowledged as Israel's national poet. The house was closed for several years for restoration but is now open for visitors. The exterior is in eclectic style rather than Bauhaus and has a distinctly levantine appearance.

The interior is truly stunning. On the ground floor, you can visit the reception room with its beautiful fireplace, deep blue walls and Ze'ev Raban designed ceramics, whilst the lobby is a dramatic deep red. The colours are based on images of the original decoration. The dining room is more subdued but includes some original furnishings. There are also a number of paintings on display from Bialik's collection. these include original works by Reuven Rubin (Hassid from 1933, Rabbi, 1925) and one by Mane-Katz (Jewish couple at a feast, 1928). There are also works by Hermann Struck, Yosef Budko and Pinchas Litvinovsky in various parts of the house. Bialik's study and library have also been restored and are open to visitors.

No photographs are allowed in the Bialik House, but you can buy some very good postcards with excellent images of the interior as well as one showing the original plans of the building. There is currently no English language publication about the house in the small shop and ticket office. This is a shame - a well illustrated guide book would certainly sell, but better still would be an English translation of the fantastic little book they sell about the history of Bialik Street. The pictures alone are very tempting!

There are two other museums on Bialik Street. - The Rubin Museum featuring highlights of the works of Reuven Rubin, a reconstruction of his studio, a short film and a number of interesting documents and artefacts. For me, Rubin's work epitomises the aspirations of the pioneers of the state - showing the beauty of the landscape as well as scenes from urban life. I can almost feel the heat of the hamsun and need to shield my eyes from the hot middle eastern sun when looking at his work. Like several of the early modern Israeli artists (Gutman, Janco, etc) he also acknowledged the Arab presence in his work viewing them in a slightly romantic way but clearly with hopes for an optimistic future. I have another Tel Aviv confession, and that is that Rubin is my favourite artist.  Two of his works hang in my lounge at home - poster format reproductions of course. As well as being a great artist, he was also Israel's first ambassador to Romania when independence was declared in 1948.

You can also find the Tel Aviv City Museum on Bialik Street. It is located in a renovated eclectic style building at the kikar end of the street, opposite the fountain in what was once the Tel Aviv City Hall. There are regular exhibitions of contemporary art - currently an exhibition of the work of Tel Aviv University fashion students. There is also a permanent display of photographs collected from city residents past and present, to mark the city's centenary year. The pictures are grouped into themes such as "the beach" "parks" "festivals" and give a fascinating glimpse of Tel Aviv in its glorious formative years. The museum also has the reconstructed office of the city's first mayor - Meir Dizengoff who was responsible for so much of the development and innovation of the early years.

As if this wasn't enough, just across from the City Museum you can find the Felicia Blumental Centre (pictured below). Established by the famous pianist of the same name. the centre offers several concerts each week, mainly classical but also including jazz, Ladino and other music forms. The Centre also regularly showcases young musical talent with youth performances. There is also a library and a small cafe here, but the cafe is only open for performances.

Israel by Yekkes

I went to a concert here some years ago to hear Ari Erev, a local jazz artist, playing a tribute to the deceased piano maestro Bill Evans. The concert was very good and I have since acquired Mr Erev's two CDs, but I also met an interesting character at the interval - an octogenarian named Yehuda. He asked me where I was from and commented that my accent was similar to that of Newcastle - its a little further south than that, but he was close. He told me that he had studied in England in the 1930's and then when war broke out had been unable to return to Eretz Israel, had spent several years living and working in Newcastle and asked me if they still use expressions like "hinnie" and "bonnie lad". I was able to reassure him that they do. Strangely, he also remembered that Newcastle folk are very sociable and some of them like a few drinks. He told me, still somewhat shocked all these years later, that often on the last bus home in the evenings "about one third of the people would be drunk". I was able to reassure him that this tradition has also been maintained although I wouldn't like to guess what the percentage is today. Small world.

Bialik Street also boasts a good cafe - Cafe Bialik at the Allenby end of the street. The interior is cosy and features Gaudi-esque mosaics and a good menu of light meals (Hebrew only last time I went but staff are happy to help). There are tables outside for those who prefer to drink in the fresh air.

Cafe Bialik also offers regular musical performances. One of the great things about Tel Aviv (and Israel) is that some of the smallest places can give you the biggest surprise. I went to Cafe Bialik a few years ago to hear a new young girl jazz singer to find she was the protege of Edna Goren. Not only that, but Ms Goren was present that evening, and not only that, but after ten minutes of resistance to the crowd's cheering, she took the floor herself (no stage here) and led a rendition of La Vie en Rose - a bit different to Yonatan Avishai's version (see here), but nonetheless excellent.

Ah yes, I love Tel Aviv.

Oh, and no news of Dudi...

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