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White City, Black City: Sharon Rotbard and the politics of architecture in Tel Aviv

In 1994, the city of Tel Aviv held a festival dedicated to the Bauhaus architectural style. There was a conference, which attracted academics from all over the world; there were exhibitions and symposiums. There were even special celebratory stamps.

The mood was optimistic: in 1933, the Berlin Bauhaus school had been closed down by the Nazis, but now its architects, and the architecture they produced, had found their new home in Israel. Tel Aviv may have been a young city – it was only founded in 1909 – but it had culture and heritage aplenty.

Sharon Rotbard, a young Israeli architect and writer fresh from his studies at the École Spéciale d’Architecture in Paris, was asked to write an article on the Bauhaus festival for a local publication. “The piece I wrote was very critical of the campaign”, he says 20 years on, over a patchy Skype connection. “It annoyed many of my friends. I was trouble-fête, spoiling the party. I found a few cracks in their nice story.”

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Commemorative stamps from the Bauhaus conference.

In 2005, those cracks found their way into a full length book on Tel Aviv and its architecture: White City, Black City, published in English for the first time this month. In it, Rotbard examines the relationship between Tel Aviv and the Arab city it was built outside, Jaffa – the “black city” of the book’s title. The two are allegedly one city, known as Tel-Aviv-Yafo; but the north and south are distinct, with different demographics, levels of wealth, and, of course, architecture.

The book’s first part examines the White City. It focuses on the celebration of Bauhaus, and the modernist ideals of the Israeli city first aired in 1994 (despite the fact, as Rotbard points out, that only four of Berlin’s Bauhuaus architects ever emigrated to Tel Aviv).

The second tells the rather less happy history of Jaffa. Rotbard’s research shows how Sir Patrick Geddes, Tel Aviv’s main architect, designed the city in such a way as to prevent Jaffa, which was then the largest city in Palestine, from expanding to the north. To make matters worse, in 1948, Jaffa found itself at the centre of a clash between Israeli forces and the Muslim Brotherhood. The conflict saw the city’s centre all but destroyed; it ended with the city reduced to the status a southern suburb of Tel Aviv under strict militia law. 

The city remained in ruins until the 1960s, when it was rebuilt as a tourist district, filled with museums and souvenir shops and inhabited by Tel Avivian artists. Israeli military are still stationed across Jaffa, and rates of violence and crime are high. 

Image courtesy of Pluto Press.

Rotbard’s interest in the untold story of the “black city” was sparked in the late 90s, when he bought a piece of land in Shapira, a neighbourhood on the border of Tel Aviv and Jaffa, where he planned to build his own house. As he worked on his designs, he realised just how contrasting the two cities were, and began walking around to observe the differences. “I love to walk, and as I started noticing the contrasts between the two areas, I became obsessed. I concluded that something was being hidden: kept in silence.”

It was during these walks, Rotbard says, that he realised he needed to undertake a “politicisation of architecture” in Tel Aviv. In the afterword added for the English edition, he writes that the resultant book was “written in anger”  in response to the “mental iron curtain” dividing the city, and what he perceives as constant injustices against its southern residents. 

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In the years since White City, Black City was first published, some progress has been made in the relationship between the two sides of the city, but not enough to merit a rewrite. The “White City” has gone from strength to strength: “Now, Madonna and the Rolling Stones tour there. It’s the ‘coolest city in the world’, the ‘most creative city’”, Rotbard says. 

Meanwhile, rising real estate prices in Tel Aviv and new luxury developments in Jaffa are pushing out poorer people to other cities. An influx of refugees from South Sudan, Sudan and Eritrea to Jaffa led to a 2010 rabbinical decree in Rotbard’s Shapira neighbourhood, stating that Jews could not rent or sell apartments or houses to “infiltrators”. 

“In the Middle East, everything is about territory – about finding a home”

Nonetheless, the book was widely read and reviewed in Hebrew, and was reprinted 13 times. Rotbard says it encouraged a more critical approach to Tel Aviv’s planning policies: “People started to understand that the issue was both urban and political.”

Now, Rotbard hopes the translation will be read abroad as a wider allegory for divided cities all over the world. In the afterword to this edition, he notes: 

These local conflicts that divide Tel Aviv and Jaffa may seem far away, beyond the seas, borders, and airport checkpoints. Nevertheless…. I think that many of the processes, encounters and conflicts encountered in my city concern directly other scales and other regions too… [It raises] questions such as whether we are to live together or separately, in one city or two.

Rotbard has an almost obsessive interest in the way books, history and cities interact. When he first moved to Shapira, he found that the neighbourhood, while older than Tel Aviv by around ten years, warranted only a single paragraph’s mention in a book on the area.

He responded by forming a local group to write a history, Neither in Jaffa, or in Tel Aviv, eventually published in 2009, by collecting together stories and interviewing older people in the area. The episode also left him, he says, with a growing conviction that “If places aren’t documented in books they might be demolished or disappear”.

Rotbard today. Image: Roy Boshoi.

It’s reasonable to assume that, by “books”, Robard here means any kind of permanent, collective history or narrative, fed by architects, planners, and government and political forces alike. When Tel Aviv’s romanticisation of the Bauhaus movement and the “White City” are examined, it seems clear that those who produced and sustain that narrative have the same fear, and are marking their territory through an architectural narrative. 

This may have something to do with how young the city is, and how much it has to gain from asserting itself.  Rotbard tells me that, in conflict-torn Israel, and other parts of the Middle East, “It’s all about territory – about finding a home, even while evicting others from theirs.” That’s why the role of architects and planners is central in creating that home – or, as Rotbard starkly puts it, “finalising the occupation”. 

Above all else, the book centres on the fact that cities have narratives, and the promotion or questioning of those narratives is always in someone’s interests. As Rotbard puts it: “The relationship between what we build and what we tell is crucial to our understanding of cities.”

When we forget or remember; demolish or conserve, we’re always choosing one story over another. It would be naive to think that those choices are anything but political. 

White City, Black City is out now from Pluto Press
This article is from the CityMetric archive: some formatting and images may not be present.