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Discovering the White City and its architecture

There is something special, and even unique, about the residential areas of central Tel Aviv. Firstly, there is a good chance you will find the streets alive with people; not as many as on the commercial roads, but still a lot. This is the result of the creation of neighborhood leisure areas through careful city planning. Secondly, many of the buildings have a very different appearance than that seen in other residential areas in Israel. This entire area of central Tel Aviv is a UNESCO World Heritage Site because it has the largest number of Bauhaus buildings in the world, over 4,000. This is also why central Tel Aviv is called the White City.

 

Without some guidance, you may not appreciate the full dimensions of the Bauhaus architectural style. However, the Bauhaus Center on Dizengoff Road close to Dizengoff Square offers a movie, guided tours and audio guided tours. The Liebling Haus on Idelson St close to Bialik Square also offers an audio tour.  Audio tours on your mobile are offered by The GPSmyCity App with the “Tel Aviv White City Architecture Tour” as does VoiceMap.

 

The city has also produced an excellent brochure “The White City. Self-guided Walking Tours. Tour of Rothschild Boulevard and Bialik Street.” The material below will help prepare you for this and other tours. It also describes a tour that is limited to a small number of buildings and is not quite as detailed as these others. It does, however, provide a perspective on the different architectural styles found in the White City.

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Why are there so many Bauhaus-style buildings in central Tel Aviv?

 

Following the separation of Jewish Tel Aviv from the mixed Jewish-Arab city of Jaffa, Tel Aviv became a popular place for immigrants, particularly those from Eastern Europe, and with the rise of Nazi Germany also from Germany and Austria. As a result of this immigration, by the early 1930s there was a need for a lot of new housing. A confluence of factors resulted in many of these buildings being built in the Bauhaus style.

 

The Bauhaus movement arose in Germany at the Bauhaus School, a pioneering art and design institution founded in 1919 by the architect Walter Gropius. It promoted a new form of architecture to help rebuild society after the ravages of World War 1. It promoted the idea that the ideal of form should follow function, and advocated simplicity with clean lines and geometric shapes, the use of industrial materials such as steel, glass and concrete that reflected the spirit of the modern age, flat roofs that permitted roof gardens, terraces, open floor plans, horizonal band or ribbon windows, and building asymmetry.

 

Hitler closed the Bauhaus School in 1933 and this led to its disciples migrating throughout the world. As a result of this, its principles would have a profound effect on modern architecture and they influenced architectural design worldwide.

 

This style broadened into what became known as the International Style, or modern style. An influential figure in its development was Le Corbusier (1887-1965). He was an architect and urban planner who lived in France and his principles were accepted worldwide. He had no direct institutional connection with the Bauhaus movement, although they shared modernist ideas. An integral part of his architectural philosophy was constructing buildings on pilotis or stilts. This meant that the walls of buildings were no longer weight-bearing, and this allowed for the freeing of ground space, a free façade, open interior space plans, and ribbon windows. He also emphasized functionalism, the use of modern building materials, including steel, and the absence of ornamentation. There is much commonality between the Bauhaus movement and the International Style, and at least in the tours of Tel Aviv architecture, the two terms often seem to be used interchangeably.

 

All this came together and flourished in Tel Aviv in the 1930s. The founders of Tel Aviv had a vision of creating a modern garden city on a par with New York and the capitals of Europe. Its first mayor, Meir Dizengoff, commissioned a Scottish urban planner, Patrick Geddes, to draw up a masterplan for Tel Aviv and this was completed by 1929. By the 1930s, there was an obvious need for more housing. German architects trained in the Bauhaus Institute and who had immigrated to Israel, as well as East European architects influenced by this school, were more than happy to design these buildings. The Bauhaus movement and the International Style significantly influenced their designs. The principles of the Bauhaus movement, in particular, were influential in shaping the city’s landscape with buildings with white facades, clean lines, flat roofs, geometric forms, and use of modern building materials.

 

However, architectural adjustments were necessary for the hot Tel Aviv clime. The main traffic arteries were designed to be north-south and the residential buildings to face east-west. This allowed for the sea breeze to circulate between the buildings. Ribbon windows allowed in too much sunlight and needed to be recessed. Balconies were designed with shade in mind.

 

As you wander through these neighborhoods you will notice that each Bauhaus construction is a stand-alone building, usually with a totally different design to its neighbor. Also, because of excellent city planning, many of the buildings are grouped as small neighborhoods, with gardens in which people can walk and socialize. This, and other reasons, make Tel Aviv a highly desirable (and expensive) place in which to live.

 

Because central Tel Aviv is a UNESCO World Heritage Site the city cannot destroy its Bauhaus residential buildings and replace them with high-rises. Hence, a major aspect of the White City nowadays is the renovation of many of these Bauhaus buildings, as after almost 100 years many of them are looking dilapidated. This is being done in a planned way under the auspices of the city. Extra stories are often added, with the new apartments usually built somewhat recessed so as not to change the façade of the building.

Walking tour including Dizengoff Circle, Bialik Circle and Habima Square

 

This walking tour views impressive squares and buildings in central Tel Aviv, and enables a comparison pre-Bauhaus and Bauhaus architecture.

 

Start your tour at Dizengoff Square. Put in “Dizengoff Square” into Moovit. Located in the heart of Tel Aviv, Dizengoff Square has been a focal point of the city, since the circle was first established. It is named after the wife of Meir Dizengoff, the first mayor of Tel Aviv. Its full name is Zina Dizengoff Square.

 

It was inaugurated in 1934 as a circular plaza at the intersection of six streets. However, by the 1970s it needed to redesigned because of traffic congestion and was made into a split-level, with the elevated central area connected to sidewalks by ramps. The streets of Dizengoff, Pinsket and Reines ran below the square. In the 1980s, Yaacov Agam designed the fountain at its center, and it was renowned for its unique kinetic and colorful features. The circle had its third redesign in 2016, as its elevation meant that people were using it less, and the square was brought back to ground level. Agam’s Fire and Water Fountain was also stripped of its color and technological mechanisms.

 

The buildings around the square are in the Bauhaus style. All have been renovated. They have the appearance of floating in the air because of their pillar support, and some of their ground floors have become part of the public space. The hotel was formerly a cinema.

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This building is on the perimeter of Dizengoff Square, the meeting place of 6 arterial roads. It was formerly a cinema and is now a hotel. The buildings around the square, all of which have been renovated, seem to float in the air because of their pillar support.

  • Now make your way to the delightful Bialik Square. Go down Dizengoff St. from the square. Take the first turning on the right onto Bar Kochva St. Continue on this street until you come to a T-junction. Turn left at the T-junction and follow this street, Tsvi Brock St., directly to the square. For the final section, you will need to climb some steps.

 

Bialik Square was renovated in 2009 and is a popular area for visitors. Three buildings around it are now museums. A fourth museum, Liebling Haus, is a short distance away. The exteriors, and even interiors, allow a comparison of two different architectural periods. There are fixed chairs with a drinking water fountain by the side of the square. You can also sit on the perimeter of the fountain.

 

You will immediately notice Bialik House at 27 Bialik Street. This was the home of Hayim Nahman Bialik when he came to then Palestine in 1924. His home is now a museum dedicated to him and his work. As is probably appropriate for Israel’s leading poet there is nothing in English in the house. Everything is in Hebrew.

 

The museum is of interest because of the interior and exterior design of the property. It is not in the Bauhaus style, as it was built somewhat earlier. Rather, it was built by one of two architects who were attempting to develop a “Hebrew style” of architecture that combined Western forms with features from the Middle East, especially that used in the ancient Jewish kingdoms.

 

Notice traditional Middle Eastern motives on the outside such as arched windows and ornamental work with intricate ironwork and ornate carvings. Its dome has features of Rachel’s tomb, symbolizing the connection of the house to biblical sources and the Land of Israel. The roof is red tiled. The courtyard garden is very beautiful and you are welcome to walk thought it. There are shaded chairs.

 

The interior of the building is marked by beautiful tiling designed by the Bezalel school of art, which also at that time was attempting to develop a Hebrew style of art. Note the columns for the reception room on the ground floor. One has tile cartouches of the twelve tribes of Israel and the other the twelve months.

 

The house is open Monday to Thursday 9 a.m. to 5 pm, Friday, Saturday and holidays 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and it is closed on Sunday. The phone number is 03 525-4530.

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The eclectic architectural style of  Bialik House.

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The two columns in the reception room of Bialik House. One shows the 12 tribes and the other the 12 months of the year.

Across the square from Bialik House is the Beit Ha’ir Museum at 27 Bialik St. It is considered one of Tel Aviv’s most beautiful and impressive buildings. It was constructed in 1925 and therefore before the Bauhaus style hit Tel Aviv. Its style was inspired by classic culture and representing a lighthouse spreading its light into the distance, symbolizing Tel Aviv’s role as the “port of entry for Jews of the diaspora.” It was initially intended as an apartment hotel, but was immediately converted into Tel Aviv’s City Hall. which it remained until 1965. This is where Meir Dizengoff, the first mayor of Tel Aviv, worked, and his reconstructed office can be viewed.

 

The museum has recently been redesigned. It aims to be an experiential museum. The city is presented based on four main pairs of themes – international and national, sacred and secular, material and spirit, and connected and detached. A section illustrates stories of people who have worked in Tel Aviv, for example. You can even use a function called Shitutim (Roaming) outside the museum. You can be in a neighborhood and open an online map and see all the stories that relate to that neighborhood. A Tel Aviv Time Machine chronicles the story of the city. The roof terrace is open and has tables and chairs.

 

My own opinion is that this museum will be fascinating for people from Tel Aviv. For an outsider, however, it is difficult to get a handle on what this museum - showing a bit of history, a bit of art, and a bit about people - is trying to say.

 

The museum is open Monday to Wednesday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Friday and Saturday 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. There is an admission charge.

 

On the ground level is the entrance to a café with drinks and pastries that has seating inside and in the garden. You do not have to pay the museum admission fee to enter the cafeteria.

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A view of Bialik Square. The Beit Ha'ir Museum is the impressive building on the left.

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The reconstructed office of Meiir Dizengoff, the first mayor of Tel Aviv in the Beit Ha'ir Museum.

On the east side of Bialik Square is the Shlomo Yaffe House at Bialik 21. This building is often referred to as Bauhaus, but its designer was not from the Bauhaus school. Its designer, Shlomo Gepstein (Salomon Kalmentevic), was a graduate of the St. Petersburg Academy, and he used the fashionable "International Style." It was built in 1934. It is a simple box-shaped apartment building, without ornamentation, with horizontal windows and light, and surrounded by a garden. It is now owned by Ron Lauder, owner of the Esti Lauder cosmetics company, who bought the building in 1989. It houses the Bauhaus Foundation which is a private, non-profit exhibition and research center dedicated to the conservation, study and display of Bauhaus architecture, design and art. On the ground floor in one room are displayed exhibitions of art and utilitarian designs of the Bauhaus school in Germany.  The museum is only open twice a week, on Wednesdays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and on Fridays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Admission is free.

Max Liebling House on Idelson 29 is only a short distance from Bialik Square. It is home to the White City Center, a joint project between the Tel Aviv-Yafo Municipality, the Tel Aviv Foundation and the Federal Republic of Germany. The German government funded restoration of the house for use as a museum to oversee the restoration and preservation of Tel Aviv’s Bauhaus buildings. This building is in a typical International Style and was actually the country’s first building to have elongated recessed balconies for maximizing shade and allowing for good ventilation. It is an adaptation of Le Corbusier’s strip windows The building has a long narrow shape and consists of two blocks each of three stories connected by a stairwell between the two blocks. The entrance includes a luxurious staircase room.

 

There is a display on the ground floor showing a timeline of the city’s architectural development, but not with any modern visual aids. Hence, it will need a significant allocation of time to study it. Explanations are also in English. There is a café in the building. It is possible to walk up the stairwell to the roof for the view. There is a table and chairs.

 

The building is open from 8 a.m. to 4.00 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, Friday 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., and Saturday 10.00 a.m. to 2.00 p.m. There is no admission charge.

 

Historically, Bialik Square is part of. tree-lined Bialik Street and there are a number of buildings in this street of interest including numbers 17, 18, 16 and 14.

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The Max Liebling House. Note the elongated recessed balconies that maximizeie shade and allows for good ventilation.

  • We now walk to Habima Square, Tel Aviv’s cultural center. Retrace your steps down the stairway and then take the first left onto Tchernikhovski St. This will lead you past Meir Garden. Turn right just past the end of the garden onto an alleyway. At the T-junction turn left onto King George St. Take the first right on Ben Tsiyon Blvd. After some distance this becomes Kikar HaBima. You will see Habima Theater by the intersection of Sderot Rothschild and Dizengoff St.  The distance is 1.2 Km and it will take you about 18 minutes.

 

The idea of a cultural center was part of Patrick Geddes’ masterplan for the city and the construction of Habima Theater was begun in 1935. It was designed in the International Style by the architect Oscar Kaufman and completed 10 years later. HaBima was subsequently declared the national theater of Israel. Habima means the stage in Hebrew. The Helena Rubinstein Pavilion of Contemporary Art and the Fredric R Mann Auditorium, the home of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, were subsequently added to this cultural center.

 

Habima Square is a popular gathering place. In its center is a sunken garden in which is local vegetation, including lavender, cacti and almond trees. The square itself is not that impressive, but this focuses attention on the design of the Habima Theater and the Mann Auditorium. There are benches along Sderot Rothschild. The indoor mall Dizengoff Center is not that far along Dizengoff St. and is close to Dizengoff Square.

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The sunken garden at HaBima Square and the Mann Auditorium.

The Bauhaus Center is at 77 Dizengoff St (not far from Dizengoff Square) and offers self-guided audio tours with a map in Hebrew and English and a proceeding short movie, both of which can be in English. They also offer guided tours in Hebrew, English and German, although because of the Gaza war these are no longer operating. They were held twice a week in English on Friday and Sunday at 2.00 p.m. Private tours can also be booked in advance. Its current hours are also reduced to Sunday to Thursday 10.00 to 6.00 p.m. and Friday 10.00 to 2.00 pm. They sponsor and sell books on Tel Aviv architecture. The phone number is 03 532 0249. This is their website.

Note that the regular tours of the Bauhaus Center are not about wow buildings that will blow you away with their architectural brilliance and beauty. To the contrary, they are about ordinary buildings in the mainly residential areas of Tel Aviv. Nevertheless, you will learn about interesting architectural features of these buildings that you would otherwise have totally missed.

 

There is also a small Bauhaus Museum at 21 Bialik St. This is a single space museum occupying the basement of an original 1934 Bauhaus building. It traces the history and development of Bauhaus building. However, it offers only limited hours, from 11.00 a.m. to 5.00 p.m. on Wednesday and 10.00 a.m.  to 2.00 p.m. on Friday.                                                    

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The Bauhaus Center is close to Dizengoff Square and offers architectural-focused tours. It also has an extensive book store. 

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This impressive building at 3 Yael St was designed by Oscar Kaufman. He was an expert in theater design and was also the architect for the Habima Theater. This would explain the staircases at the front of the building. Note the rounded corners of the building, rounded windows and the symmetry of the building.

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A city plan for Tel Aviv was designed by Patrick Geddes and included many gardens, such as Gan Ruth, which also has a kiosk and restrooms. 

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This is a corner house at 12 Shlomo Hamelech St built in the Bauhaus style. Note the roof garden and that center of gravity of the building is in its corner. The large balconies are possible because the skeleton of the building is of reinforced concrete rather than its walls.

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