Art, design and architecture of the Bauhaus period excite to this day – even in distant Tel Aviv
BY ANJA FAHS
(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue Q2 2019)
Bauhaus: a concept that set a precedent – both in Germany and across the globe. Functional design and modern construction shaped an era; this dream of a synthesis of all art forms and crafts, architecture and design, dance and theatre provides inspiration to this very day – for our cultural output and for our living environments. The Bauhaus School was a lively school of thought and a testing ground for liberal and applied arts, design, architecture and education. Even though the Bauhaus School only existed for 14 years, it is celebrating the 100thanniversary of its establishment this year. Initially it was set up as the “Staatliches Bauhaus” (State Bauhaus School) in Weimar, than as the “Hochschule für Gestaltung” (University of Design) in Dessau and finally as a private educational institution in Berlin. Its ideas have had an impact that has reached far beyond the school, its sites and its time.
It was founded within the context of the Arts and Crafts movement and the modernisation of art schools. Its journey on the road to success started when the architect Walter Gropius took the helm at the Weimar Academy of Art in 1919, merged it with the School of Arts and Crafts and gave it a new name: Staatliches Bauhaus Weimar. For his ambitious architecture and design project, with the goal to design a better world, Gropius soon set about attracting well-known fellow creatives. At the school, he gathered the crème-de-la-crème of the European avant-garde, including Klee, Kandinsky, Feininger and Schlemmer.
The anniversary of the founding of the Bauhaus movement will not only be celebrated by means of numerous events and activities in Germany. We would also like to venture outside Germany and explore Bauhaus – because, in addition to celebrated avant-garde artists and aspiring junior masters, the Bauhaus Style was shaped by the most diverse protagonists, including more than 1,250 students from 29 different countries, along with their friends and families. We are in Israel, strolling through the so-called “White City” of Tel Aviv. This is home to the world’s largest collection of Bauhaus-style buildings. This district of the city was awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 2003. Numerous radiantly-white buildings dazzle us with their flawless Modernist Style, showcasing just how creatively and progressively the immigrants built their new homes in Israel after 1933. Dr Micha Gross, founder and Managing Director of the Bauhaus Center in Tel Aviv, tells us about the history of the movement in Israel and how the country will be celebrating the 100th anniversary.
Bauhaus turns 100 this year. What does this anniversary mean for Tel Aviv?
Tel Aviv is often described as the Capital of Bauhaus. For this reason, the 100th anniversary of Bauhaus in Germany is also relevant to Tel Aviv. The local Bauhaus buildings were predominantly built after the Bauhaus School closed in Germany, although they have been kept in the “spirit” of Bauhaus Modernism.
Bauhaus is widespread in Israel. How many buildings are there in Tel Aviv and where else can Bauhaus structures be found?
Around 4,000 Modernist buildings were constructed in Tel Aviv in the 1930s and 1940s. There are also large numbers of Bauhaus buildings in Haifa, Jerusalem and in the kibbutzim. However, Tel Aviv is home to the vast majority, which is why the “White City” was awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 2003.
How did Bauhaus become so popular in Israel?
Back then, the Modernist Style corresponded to the ideology of these new émigrés: progressive, future-oriented, practical and relatively inexpensive. Add to this the fact that a huge number of Jews were forced to flee Europe for Palestine in the 1930s and 1940s and new homes had to be built for them. The result was an entire Modernist city rising out of the sand: residential developments, schools, factories, administrative buildings, theatre structures, exhibition spaces, booths, etc. – all in the International or Bauhaus Style.
Which Bauhaus architects shaped Israel the most?
Around 150 architects were involved in building the White City of Tel Aviv, of which very few studied at the Bauhaus School in Germany. Nevertheless, they used the Modernist urban architecture also taught at the Bauhaus School. Erich Mendelsohn must undoubtedly be considered an outstanding architect and had been a well-known master of his profession in Germany even before escaping to Palestine. He is famous in Germany for the Einstein Tower, which he built in Potsdam. In Palestine, he built the Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem and the Weitzmann Villa in Rehovot, among other things. The architect Arieh Sharon actually studied at the Bauhaus School in Germany. He built workers” settlements in Tel Aviv, using design techniques acquired at the Bauhaus School, studying under Hannes Meyer. Later, Sharon drafted the settlement plan of the entire country and decisively helped shape the new state of Israel.
What significance do Bauhaus and the White City have for Tel Aviv?
There are about 4,000 Bauhaus-style buildings in Tel Aviv, of which half – in other words, approximately 2,000 – are now listed monuments. The city is becoming increasingly aware of its architectural heritage, with restoration projects being undertaken. If you stroll through the city today, you might be forgiven for thinking you are in the middle of a giant construction site: restoration is going on everywhere. The residents of the city perceive the Bauhaus buildings as typical of Tel Aviv.
Bauhaus architecture was able to further develop very differently in Tel Aviv than it did in Germany. Where do you see differences?
Modernist architecture is also known as the International Style or the Bauhaus Style. The guiding principle of Modernism is deemed to be functionalism: buildings should be practical and inhabitant-friendly in design. Adornment and embellishment without function are frowned upon by Modernists. Hence, the style is less defined by formal design elements than it is by practical construction solutions. The difference between Bauhaus here and in Germany is above all manifested in the disparate approaches to solutions, the result of different local requirements.
What other aspects has Bauhaus architecture influenced here?
Here, functional construction above all means adapting the architecture to the local climate. For this reason, we can discover a huge number of constructional elements in Tel Aviv Bauhaus that the architects “invented” in order to adapt the buildings to local conditions. These include the small windows that protect against excessive light and heat, the large balconies that can be used throughout the year, concrete skirtings that create shade, east and west façade orientation in order to exploit the sea breeze as a natural form of ventilation, etcetera.
How can all these buildings be preserved and maintained? This is hugely expensive for owners. Are there any special state grants or support from the City of Tel Aviv for these buildings?
Indeed, most buildings in the White City are privately owned. The buildings have in part been neglected for decades. Due to Tel Aviv’s huge popularity as a place to live, the value of these buildings has risen and their restoration is worthwhile. The city issues building rights as indirect incentives for owners of buildings. In other words, if owners agree to have their building restored externally, they are permitted to add between one and three floors to the listed building. The overall restoration of the buildings is financed through the sale of new apartments, creating a win-win situation: neither the building’s owner, nor the city have to pay for the restoration and the restoration can nonetheless be carried out.
When we think of Bauhaus, it is above all buildings and architecture that come to mind. But Bauhaus design was also prevalent in other areas. What are the most important areas in your opinion?
Modernism is also evident in new graphic design, typography, furniture design and in innovative forms of everyday items. These innovations have sustainably changed our aesthetic, influencing design to this very day.
The Bauhaus Center in Tel Aviv was only founded in 2000. What is your mission and what else would you like to achieve?
When we opened the Bauhaus Center, our primary goal was to showcase the uniqueness of this architectural heritage to a local audience. We have also inspired artists and designers to create products in the spirit of Modernism. To achieve our objective, we host changing exhibitions and issue publications. Our Bauhaus tours have proven to be particularly popular. These can be booked with a specialist or conducted alone using an audio guide. The tours take around two hours and start with a film presentation.
Since the Bauhaus Center was established 20 years ago, the situation in the White City has improved dramatically and we are really happy with the development. For the future, we are hoping to increasingly collaborate with Haifa and Jerusalem, but we would also like to develop international ties with institutions interested in Modernism.
DR MICHA GROSS
Dr Micha Gross was born in Zurich in 1959. He studied psychology at the University of Zurich and earned his PhD at the Israel Institute of Technology (Technion) in Haifa, Israel, in 1990. In 2000 he founded the Bauhaus Center Tel Aviv in collaboration with Dr A. Ben-Shmuel and Shlomit Gross. He has published numerous articles on the topic of Bauhaus and is the spokesperson for the “White City” of Tel Aviv at both national and international congresses.
Picture credit © Sabine Kärger