How to visit Israel’s best buildings
Tel Aviv is perhaps best known for its nightlife and as the most cosmopolitan city in a country that is often mired in conflict, but it is also home to the highest number of Bauhaus-style buildings in the world. A Unesco-designated World Heritage Site, its White City district is home to over 4,000 listed buildings and makes a good spot from which to commence an exploration of the country’s often surprising design and architectural heritage.
The Bauhaus style was brought to Israel in the 1930s by German-Jewish architects, alumni of the Staatliches Bauhaus school of art, and was characterised by the prioritisation of function over aesthetics and the use of inexpensive materials, which was ideal for the emerging city. Some of the best examples of Bauhaus and other historic styles are found on Bialik Street, Tel Aviv’s most picturesque avenue. Saluted by a line of palms, the road is home to a host of restored listed properties including the now publicly accessible Bialik House, the former home of Israel’s national poet Hayyim Nahman Bialik, as well as the Rubin Museum, which was the home of Israeli painter Reuven Rubin and now showcases the work of contemporary Israeli artists.
A partner at Rubin Museum designers Gottesman-Szmelcman Architecture, Asaf Gottesman considers Tel Aviv, and Israel as a whole, an essential destination for anyone keen to encounter the best of Bauhaus. “What truly defines the emergence of Israeli architecture is the whole-hearted adoption of modernism in the Thirties. It is during this period that Bauhaus architecture came into its own in Israel and evolved to reflect the climatic, social and political characteristics of the country,”
The restoration of Bauhaus buildings has been a Tel Aviv priority since around 2000 and in 2015 a new 10-year restoration project was bolstered further by a donation from the German government. Complementary new-build projects are further solidifying the sense that Tel Aviv is crafting a unique architectural persona. Unlike in Dubai and other Middle Eastern cities carved out of an arid desert landscape, buildings here aren’t governed by a height-driving narrative. Designers in Israel are more about embracing, rather than defying, a challenging surrounding environment and playing to the strengths of its local landscape.
“You always discover new opportunities by not building things the conventional way,” London-based Israeli architect Ron Arad tells Telegraph Luxury. Born in Tel Aviv and educated both in Jerusalem and London, Mr Arad is the brains behind the striking Design Museum Holon, Israel’s only museum dedicated to design art.
Just 15 minutes outside Tel Aviv, the museum’s facade is formed of six steel ribbons that cocoon the museum, itself built entirely without columns. The form creates a soothing, flowing effect and an intimate enveloped space. “The design of this museum is quite unique” Arad notes, “it’s a building where, once you get in, you’re completely taken out of its surrounding neighbourhood and absorbed entirely into its world. I like the way the building ages – things do age and we should embrace it rather than be hysterical about it.”
Mr Arad’s latest project, ToHA in Tel Aviv, is set to become another landmark when it completes next year. At 63 storeys high, the taller of the complex’s two office towers will be Israel’s tallest building. Its cooling and heating systems will be secreted underground and every desk will have access to natural light. “When it comes to my approach to architecture,” says Arad, “I always say aesthetics and function are not at odds with each other. You don’t need to compromise one over the other.”
Also emerging from the shadow of Bauhaus and attracting attention anew are Tel Aviv’s Brutalist buildings. “In my view, the golden age of Israeli architecture is the Brutalist era between the middle of the 1950s and the late ‘70s. In this period Israeli architecture found a wonderful and original language..the design was based upon a strong sense of locality, context and a deep understanding of the environment and function,” says architect Amnon Rechter.
His practice has led the redesign of the recently opened Elma, a restored Brutalist structure from the late 1960s that was designed by the renowned Israeli architect Yaakov Rechter and which won the prestigious Israel Award for Architecture in 1973. Purchased by art collector and philanthropist Lily Elstein, the building by Mount Carmel mountain range (about 22 miles from Tel Aviv) has been carefully restored and reopened this year as an arts centre with galleries and concert halls, and a hotel in which each of the 95 spacious guest rooms overlooks the Mediterranean Sea.
The sprawling complex combines an unaffected aesthetic – featuring exposed concrete, white plaster and wood – with a striking mountainside,seafront setting. It is, notes Asa Bruno, the Israeli-born director of the Ron Arad Studio, one of the most noteworthy buildings in the country: “the concept behind the design of the Elma is so simple – these misregistered boxes that hug the hill – yet it’s so rich and varied and nearly everyone who studied architecture in Israel has tried to mimic or pay homage to the style of that iconic building.”
While much of Israel’s modern complexes are based in and around Tel Aviv, the country is rooted by its incredible historic architecture, with Jerusalum housing key religious structures including the Dome of the Rock. the Western Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the al-Aqsa mosque.
“Israel has a tremendous history and legacy, architecturally speaking, much of which dates back to the architecture in Jerusalem which evolved over three millennia, formed by inspirations from the best Persian, Roman, Ottoman Turkish architecture, with a bit of colonial German architecture thrown in the mix”, Mr Bruno adds.
But modern architecture has also made its mark in the historic city, as exemplified by the Israel Museum – the largest cultural institution in Israel. Consisting of a collection of boxes that serve as galleries, the Israel Museum was really ahead of its time when it launched in the 1960s, and is one of the pivotal architectural projects in Israel. “The way the boxes interact with each other by sitting on a hill is a design that’s very particular to Jerusalem and not something you would find in London, New York, Los Angeles or Paris”, says Mr Bruno.
Further north along the coast sits the city of Acre, which has been inhabited from around the Middle Bronze Age nearly 4,000 years ago. Acre’s Unesco-designated Old City is home to several medieval structures such as the city walls, which dates in part to the Crusader period, and an Ottoman-era citadel beneath which is a series of halls that were onced used by the military order of Jerusalem (the Knights Hospitaller) and today serve as the setting for cultural events such as the Israeli Opera Festival.
Near the citadel is also the Efendi, an Ottoman palace turned intimate luxury hotel overlooking the city walls and the Mediterranean. Having undergone one of the most ambitious, meticulous renovation projects ever seen in Israel, the structure retains many restored features. Its wine bar houses remnants of 12th-century Crusader cellars; elsewhere are buildings with Byzantine elements from the 6th century; original intricately designed ceilings, including an original 1878 fresco depicting Istanbul; and a 400-year-old Turkish bath.
Excavation and restoration work continue across Acre on various historic structures such as the Suffi mosque, dating back to 1862. Featuring beautiful minarets decorated with stained glass, it aims to be an open space for respite and self-reflection, be it by praying, eating or sleeping.
Throughout history, architecture in Israel has been burdened by a host of restrictions, from bureaucracy to security concerns and conflict. “Yet surprisingly it is these same set of restrictions that have driven designers to think differently and evolve an approach to problem solving which is rarely seen elsewhere,” Asaf Gottesman notes. “The past 20 years have seen the re-emergence of an architecture that aspires to confront the complexity of contemporary and Israeli culture.” Architecture fans who make the decision to tour Israel will have much to discover.
By Soo Kim. Originally published in The Telegraph.