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Where Is the White City and Why Is It Important Today?

20th century Europe flourished with many radical and innovative art movements, creating an eclectic art legacy that still inspires today.

A multi-story building in the White City of Tel Aviv, built in the Bauhaus style

A multi-story building in the White City of Tel Aviv, built in the Bauhaus style

Premier Example of Bauhaus Architecture

Today, the White City in Tel Aviv, Israel is considered to be the most extensive remnant of Bauhaus architecture. The multi-block city section is so distinctive that UNESCO has designated the whole area as a World Heritage Site. Many of the buildings house urban residents, with upscale stores, coffee shops, and boutiques often found at street level.

A Brief History of Tel Aviv

Before 1900, the coastal city of Tel Aviv in modern-day Israel did not exist. At that time the area, that currently houses the Israeli capital was nothing more than a large tract of undeveloped land, situated just outside the ancient port and walled city of Jaffa.

All of this changed in April 1909, when several dozen families gathered on a large parcel of arid land, sitting adjacent to the Mediterranean. Through a lottery system of sea shells, each family received a plot of land, where they could build a home and become part of a new and growing town. The neighborhood would be called Ahuzat Bayit, eventually growing into a larger municipality known as Tel Aviv.

The growing city began to take on an organized shape in 1925, when a city planner from Scotland, named Patrick Geddes arrived. By adding public space for gardens and introducing pedestrian avenues, the city started to grow. Further immigration from Germany and Russia produced even greater growth in the 30s.

The Poli House

The Poli House as seen in the mid-20th century. Today, this place is a renovated hotel that will set you back $300-500 for a one night stay

The Poli House as seen in the mid-20th century. Today, this place is a renovated hotel that will set you back $300-500 for a one night stay

First Bauhaus-trained Architect Arrives In Tel Aviv

During the 1920s, Tel Aviv experienced extensive population growth. With an initial headcount of about 2,000 people in 1920, the new city in the sand expanded to approximately 40,000 persons by the end of the decade. This spiraling arrival of humanity proved to be fertile ground for young and innovative city planners and state-of-the-art architects. One such architect was a Swiss emigre, who went by the bane of Schlomo Liasowski.

Liasowski left Zurich in 1929, after completing his training at the prestigious Bauhaus in Germany. Four years later, Liasowski designed the Poli House, the same year that the Nazis shut down the famed Bauhaus School. Shortly thereafter, four other architecture students from the Bauhaus arrived in Tel Aviv, forming the basis for the design team that planned many of the International style buildings that would eventually be known as the "White City".

An Original Bauhaus Building in Dessau

This Dessau building was designed by Bauhaus architects in the 20s. Even the lettering has a distinct Bauhaus style to it

This Dessau building was designed by Bauhaus architects in the 20s. Even the lettering has a distinct Bauhaus style to it

History of the Bauhaus

The Bauhaus was an innovative collection of artists, architects, photographers, and designers, who came together in post-WWI Germany to form an art collective that is still studied today. During its 14-year run, the institution was physically located in three German cities. The Bauhaus, which literally translates as "building houses", opened in Weimar in 1919, and moved to Dessau in 1925. Here it remained until 1932, when local politics, namely the growing influence of the Nazis, made it necessary to move the school to Berlin, where it only lasted one more year.

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What Is Bauhaus Design?

Why Is It Called the White City?

This place is named the "White City" because most of the buildings have been painted white or a similar pastel color. This was done when the ten-block area was originally built and has remained that way ever since it was constructed back in the 30s and 40s. Not surprisingly, the reasons are very basic. This part of the Middle East sees many hot and sunny days, so the light color was applied to reflect the heat.

The Dark Side of the White City

According to Sharon Rotbard, dissident Israeli architect, and author of White City, Black City: Architecture and War in Tel Aviv and Jaffa, the architectural history of Tel Aviv and Jaffa, could be a bit overblown, as the true history of this place might be much darker. The well-known architecture professor goes on to say that the creation of modern-day Tel Aviv involved the murder and forced relocation of a large number of Palestinian families, often at the hands of an armed Israeli militia. Rotbard also adds that the presence of the Bauhaus-trained architects working in Palestine numbered about four and most of the buildings that they created have become part of expensive, gentrified neighborhoods.

UNESCO Discovers the White City

In 2003, UNESCO (The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) declared the "White City" of Tel Aviv to be a world heritage site. This classification was based on numerous examples of buildings designed and built in the Modernist tradition and on the considerations the builders had given to city planning principles and to constructing architecture compatible with the harsh arid climate. Today, many of the standing buildings are in a dilapidated state, while those that have been fixed and repaired are so pricey that only the very wealthy can afford to visit or live in these places.

10 Restored Bauhaus Buildings in Tel Aviv

© 2018 Harry Nielsen


Harry Nielsen (author) from Durango, Colorado on April 24, 2018:

Thanks for your interest. Actually, I stumbled upon the Tel Aviv story, while looking into some stories about the Bauhaus school in Germany. I have always been fascinated by the many European art movements of the early 20th century, actually visiting some of the key places like the Bauhaus Archives in Berlin.

RTalloni on April 23, 2018:

Such a lot to love about this post. So enjoyed seeing the photos with the article. Though I knew something of the White City these details fill out some of the story. You've made me want to dive into the records and gather all the facts.

Have you ever read Zvi? Hated by so many, this tiny little nation's history is profound for all of humanity.

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