Tuesday, 16 June 2015

An art deco lobby, Bauhaus balconies and history on every corner - a little square in Tel Aviv

Lobby, Pashkovsky House, 4 Ruth Street
My recent visit to Tel Aviv coincided with the city's Open House weekend. One of the events I attended took place in Shulamit Square, a quiet corner just a short walk away from the frenetic Dizengoff Street where Shlomit Gross from the famous Bauhaus Center explained why some of Tel Aviv's buildings still have shutters, ceramic tiles and other features that were manufactured in Germany in the 1930's.

Following the election of the Nazi regime in 1933, many Jews left Germany for Tel Aviv and although denied the right to bring currency out of the country, they were allowed to retain some of the value of their property by purchasing German goods that were then exported to Eretz Israel. This arrangement was formalised through what was known as the Transfer Agreement concluded between the Jewish Agency the German government and the British Mandatory authorities who then controlled the country. Once the goods arrived the immigrants were paid for the items they had purchased before leaving Europe and so held on to some of their former assets. The remainder of their belongings were lost to them, stolen from them back in Europe.
Glass bricks, Pashkovsky House lobby
Wood and marble, Pashkovsky House lobby
Although this arrangement meant that at least some of the Jews forced out of Germany were able to retain some of their assets, the scheme did not meet with universal approval. Some Jewish groups were vehemently opposed to the agreement, preferring to support an international boycott of German goods. The lead Jewish negotiator for the scheme was Haim Arlozorov, a leading light on the left wing of Jewish politics in the 1920's and 30's. Shortly after returning from negotiations in Germany in June 1933, he was assassinated whilst walking on Tel Aviv's beach. There were many theories about the identity of his killers, including that they may be political opponents of the Transfer Agreement. No proof of this was ever exposed and no lasting convictions secured.

Back to the imported goods. Many were re-purchased for use in the construction industry and during the Saturday morning tour I was able to admire the art deco lobby of number 4 Ruth Street which links to the square. The Pashkovsky House was built in 1939 and designed by architect Robert Hoff. The exterior of this apartment building stands on stilts overlooking the square and is quite ordinary. However, the lobby is spectacular with its extensive use of dark and light marble for the floor and the staircase. The lines of the staircase are exquisite with round edged steps at ground floor level and a curved stairwell. There is also a curved wall in the lobby made from glass bricks and marvellously detailed wooden mailboxes on the exterior wall - one for each flat and a space for the name tag although the boxes seem not to be in use now. The lobby retains a sense of style and grandeur but is in need of restoration  let's hope this is forthcoming soon.

Round edged steps, Pashkovsky House lobby
The Pashkovsky House is not the only treat in this little square. Next door at 3 Yael Street stands the Dunkelblum House, designed by Oskar Kaufmann and built in 1935. Theatrical in style with sweeping symmetrical staircases that lead visitors from the street to ground floor level at the front of the building the house also has half-oval balconies on the western elevation. These are extremely unusual as are the small windows to the side of the facade which seem slightly at odds with the overall modernist design of the building. I especially like those balconies and the simple but stylish metalwork on the lower balcony that looks on to Shulamit Square.

Kaufamann was born in a small town in Hungary (now in Romania) and studied and worked in Berlin before leaving for Tel Aviv in September 1933. He was responsible for designing a number of theatres, including Habima, the equivalent of Israel's national theatre and also a cinema in Haifa. Work began to dry up for him in the late 1930's and amazingly, he returned to Europe where he somehow managed to survive the war and then go on working in Hungary.

Detail, Dunkelblum House, 3 Yael Street
Facade, Dunkelblum House, 3 Yael Street

Corner view, Dunkelblum House, 3 Yael Street
These two apartment buildings stand next door to each other at the junction of Ruth and Yael streets. Just across the road from the Dunkelblum House at 8 Yael Street is another notable site, not for its architecture, but because of what happened there in 1942 when the Lehi movement led by Avraham Stern assassinated two British policemen, one of whom was Jewish during a series of violent confrontations with the Mandatory authorities. Tel Aviv. Stern was in tern shot dead by a Briths policeman just a few weeks later. Sometimes I think that every inch of this city has a story attached to it. And if all of this isn't enough, there is even history in the names of these streets - Ruth and Yael - both important female figures from the Bible. All this in a couple of quiet streets…

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