A network for the White City

German and Israeli building conservationists are joining forces to preserve Bauhaus architecture in Tel Aviv.

BMUB - Tel Aviv

Tel Aviv is famous for its White City. It is the only place in the world with such a large collection of Bauhaus style buildings – Germany’s most well-known school of architecture and 
design that was closed by the National Socialists. Around 4,000 bright and functional constructions with their flat roofs and deep, rounded balconies shape the face of the entire Old Town through to the coast. Gereon Lindlar first went to Tel Aviv in October 2013 as the head of a research team of preservation experts, architects and restoration specialists. The conservator from Bonn was fascinated by the 
homogeneous construction and the original condition of the houses. “Everything from the rendering of the facades to the lighting and the garden borders is still preserved in its original state,” he says.

During their visit the team of experts made some exciting discoveries: many of the building materials in the White City came from Germany, because some of the architects who designed the residential settlements during the 1930s had emigrated from Germany. “The emigrating German Jews were forced to bring most of their assets in the shape of goods,” explains Dr. Diet­linde Schmitt-Vollmer from the Institute of Architectural History in Stuttgart who belongs to the team as a historian. “So, in the White City we find light switches, door handles and windows from 1930s Germany that are still intact today.”

The impressive complex of Bauhaus buildings was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003. However, ten years after the decision was taken, the United Nations Organization for Education, Science and Culture is threatening to withdraw the status. This is because the bright sunlit facades in the White City look far less impressive at close quarters. The salty sea air has eroded the outer walls, and many buildings are dangerously unstable in this region threatened by earthquakes. So now, the conservationists in the fast growing city are facing a colossal challenge. “We don’t have the know-how or the skilled crafts­people for such specialized renovation work,” stresses Sharon Golan Yaron, architect with the Tel Aviv Conservation Department.

This is where the Tel Aviv White City Network, a project supported by the Federal Ministry of Transport, Building and Urban Development, comes into effect. “Our aim is to preserve our mutual historical and architectural heritage,” explains engineer Miriam Hohfeld who is the person respons­ible for the network project at the German ministry. The project partners include not only the city of Tel Aviv and the German-Israeli Association (DIG), but also various chambers of crafts, Bauhaus institutions and universities. “We want to bring German and Israeli specialists together from all areas of expertise in building, construction and conservation,” says Ms. Hohfeld. “We want to collaborate closely with Israeli colleagues to develop joint strategies on efficient and sustainable heritage conservation in the White City.”

One important step is the establishment of a Centre for Heritage-Led Building. For this purpose, the city of Tel Aviv has placed the Max Liebling House, a representative villa designed by Dov Karmi on Idelson Street, at the disposal of the German-
Israeli network project. It will become the venue for lively exchanges, for dialogue between experts, for the further training of craftspeople and restoration specialists, and for heightening awareness of the city’s cultural heritage among the city’s younger generation.

“The protection of historical buildings has little tradition in Israel,” says architect Sharon Golan Yaron. “So we can learn a lot from German experience, as well as more about efficiency and sustainability in construction.” Gereon Lindlar and his team have already monitored the condition and the history of several Bauhaus ensembles in Tel Aviv. Based on this survey, they are now developing a catalogue of measures.

The conservationists are proposing a procedure that systematically monitors the present condition of the entire building 
on a room-by-room basis. Such an inventory focuses not only on the facades, but also on details concerning the interiors. “This particular application of room books is new for us Israelis, and it’s incredibly exciting,” says Sharon Golan Yaron. “The city is really interested in 
the information centre, but we’re still looking for a partner to provide financial support.”

The process of conserving the buildings will be using a very special financing model. Investors will be able to add floors to the privately owned properties if they renovate the lower parts of the building in keeping with prescribed professional standards. About 800 of the protected buildings have already been renovated in this way. German experts, such as Gereon Lindlar and him team, express their reservations towards this approach. “Generally, we conservationists tend to think it’s better not to interfere too much in the appearance of a building,” the restoration expert says rather warily. “We’d be far more dogmatic about such things in Germany. On the other hand, it displays an open approach to cultural heritage from which we might be able to learn.” ▪

Gunda Achterhold