White City, Black city (a kind of introduction)

by Sharon Rotbard


A city is built exactly as history is, always by the victors, and always
according to the victors‚ history. Those who control the physical space
always control the cultural space, and they are never those who have lost
the battle over the history.

Sometimes, in order to change a city one has to change the story of the


In Tel Aviv, maybe the only city in the world that was named after a book,
(1) the story of the city since long time is called
“White City”.

Since its first appearance in a 1915 forgotten novel, “The Riddle of the
Land”, by Aharon Kabak, the theme of the White City accompanies the building
and the growth of Tel Aviv. In 1960 it became a song: “White City” was
written by Naomi Shemer (2), appeared in Arik Einstein
(3) first solo album and became not only almost the
official hymn of Tel Aviv but at least one of its most memorable

In 1984, in a Tel Aviv Museum show under this title curated by Michael
Levin, the White City received a historical and cultural support. The “White
City” show, (4) in a very subtle, modest and sober
way, helped the Israeli public to discover the phenomena of the
international style architecture that was made in Tel Aviv during the

The theme was taken from there and developed by Nitza Smuck, the
conservation architect of the Tel Aviv Municipality and by the artist Dani
Karavan and became a huge historiographical campaign that supported a vast
and ambitious conservation project. The story of the White City, with its
“Bauhaus Style” buildings emerging “from the dunes” was built up through a
long series of actions, projects, events, conferences, shows, books.

At the beginning, the story only changed the way Tel Avivians perceived
their own city. It changed the local geographies, influenced the real estate
market and affected the conservation policy of Tel Aviv‚s municipality.

But soon it deviated from the debate on modern architecture, Israeli
architecture and by the means of its idealization and theorization it became
a fundamental element not only in the building of the physical city but also
in the building of the identities, Tel Avivi and therefore Israeli ones.
Soon, its self-righteous false nostalgia for a progressive utopian European
modernism became a rhetoric that was first aimed within the local culture
war, against the Israeli right wing massively supported by the Mizrahi
(5), Asiatic populations. This modern, ordered, normal,
clean and white idea of the city allowed the Tel Avivians to cultivate a
certain hedonistic and escapist attitude towards the Israeli reality, to
separate Tel Aviv from the rest of Israel and to maintain the illusion that
they do not live in this ocean of madness and violence combined with
tradition and religion, we usually call “The middle East”, but in a European
island of freedom, secularism and progress. This rhetoric, supported by the
false Bauhaus legend was at it turn turned back to Europe as if to say: “You
didn‚t want us in Dessau, so please accept us in Tel Aviv.”


Despite some inaccuracies (Tel Aviv has never been really white; Only 4
Israeli architects studied in the Bauhaus; but had very little to do with
the Tel Aviv Bauhaus Style; (6) Only in Tel Aviv such
style has been reported) the story of the White City and its Bauhaus Style
building emerging from the dunes, has been largely adopted by the Israeli
public and gained international recognition that its culmination was in
2004, when the White City of Tel Aviv was inscribed in the World Heritage
Sites list of UNESCO.

But the story of the White City falls apart not because of specific
problems, inaccuracies, or narrative difficulties, but because of
fundamental flaws.

In the spirit of Flaubert‚s definition of “Architecture”,
(7) they might be said to stem from the arbitrary
process that determines what goes into the story and what is left out and
the way in which the whole story, the whole perspective, is constructed from
the blind point of the obvious, the story outside the story. In this sense,
the most interesting part of the story of Tel Aviv is, without a doubt,
those chapters that did not make it into the story of the White City: one of
the results of this historiographic campaign was that the story of the White
City and the history of this rather short moment in the Thirties became the
most elaborated chapter in the city‚s history, thus replacing the History
(8) of Tel Aviv with an architectural history of Tel
Aviv, leaving out of its story the places beyond the perimeter of the White
City and the crucial times before and after the Thirties.

This Pandora box known as Tel Aviv holds not only the story of the White
City, a narrative of building and creating, but also the story of war,
obliteration, destruction, and suppression. And just as the historical and
cultural construction of Tel Aviv was allied with its physical construction,
so the voids in the story of Tel Aviv are allied with the physical erasure
of sites and landscapes from its geography.

The geographical borders of the White City coincide precisely with other
geopolitical borders - economic, social, and political - and this is no
accident. The perimeters of the White City are the borders of Tel Aviv
before 1948, the very same mental line that has divided the city into north
and south ever since the 1930s. It is marked in an infinite number of ways:
from prohibiting northbound traffic from Jaffa to determining the flight
path for planes landing at Ben Gurion Airport; from the amount the city
invests in infrastructure, landscaping, and sanitation

in the various areas to the mapping of pizza delivery routes.

The correspondence between the different sorts of borders is evidence of the
homogeneity of Tel Aviv, which in every aspect is constructed and
administered as a distinct entity, historically, ethnically, and
geographically. As a Hebrew city, it is distinct from Arab Jaffa; as an
Israeli city it is distinct from Diaspora Jewry; as a modern city it is
distinct from the history of Europe and the Middle East. In the same spirit
of homogeneity, Tel Aviv defines everything outside it as its opposite. Thus
what is outside the history of the White City coincides with what is outside
Tel Aviv‚s geographical borders, and what is outside the historical city is
outside both the city and history. Consequently, places, streets, and
structures that do not appear in books are eventually expunged from the map
as well. More and more residents, more districts and neighbourhoods, whose
history is no less as long as that of the White City, find themselves absent
from the annals of Tel Aviv. In certain cases, such as that of Jaffa, they
are even stripped of their own history, wiped out of the Geography.


The White City’s conquest of the symbolical and historical space of the city
is the war of Tel Aviv against Jaffa.

Like it or not, the stories of war, destruction, and suppression will find
their way back into the story of Tel Aviv.

In this new story, Tel Aviv is no longer emerging by its own from the dunes,
as drawn by the national painter Nahum Gutman who had erased the
neighbourhood of Manshieh in his drawings decades before it was effectively,
physically erased, and is no longer built “from sea foam and clouds” as
wrote Naomi Shemer in her famous song “White City”, but is born in Jaffa and
shaped according to its relation to Jaffa.

More than to the utopian manifestos elaborated in European academies, the
Story of Tel Aviv is planted in Jaffa and is nourished from Jaffa, and its
development was a result of the relations between the two cities.

From the very beginnings of the Jewish colonization of the country, starting
with Napoleon siege on Jaffa and the carnage that took place after the
taking of the city in 1799, accompanied with a first major European
declaration in favor of the restoration of Jewish sovereignty over the holly
land, the war between the two cities shaped the geography of the region.
This war has always been conducted in both military and municipal fronts
(9) and by the using the whole palette of means from
“restoration”, through “preservation” and to “demolishing”. This war took
place also through songs and shows that naturalize the political deed, and
as the latest example shows, even by the means of mobilizing the
international architectural history in order to receive the “Bauhaus”
validation to Tel Aviv‚s white and clean history. But it is important to
note that in order to establish itself as a modern, ordered, normal, clean
and white city, Tel Aviv had to shape Jaffa as a mirror image of it, as a
dirty, criminal, devastated and black city.

One might argue if in this story, that its end is allegedly known in
advance, there are heroes and villains, but there is no doubt that it has
victors and losers; and if the story of the victors is called “White City”,
the story of the losers may be called “Black City”: and it would have to be
that of the city of Jaffa and its missing neighbourhoods and quarters
destroyed since it was conquered in1948, its missing 120,000 inhabitants
exiled, and it missing thousands years of history that could not have been
inscribed in the UNESCO list..


(1) Tel Aviv is the title of Nahoum Sokolov‚s first
translation (1904) of Theodor Herzl‚s utopian novel Altneuland (1902). The
decision to name the city after the book was adopted in 1910, almost a year
after its official establishment under the title Ahuzat Bait.

(2) Naomi Shemer (1930-2004) is considered
(unofficially) as Israel‚s national poet and songwriter. Many of her songs
(“Yerushalaim shel Zahav” for example) are sung and treated as hymns.

(3) Arik Einstein (born 1939) is a singer and an
actor, one of Israel‚s most important icons of Sabra culture, pop culture
and in some phases of his career, even of counter culture. As such, he is
also one of the best known Tel Avivian monuments.

(4) Michael Levin, White City: Architecture of the
International Style in Israel, Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Tel Aviv, 1984

(5) Mizrahi-oriental. Mizrahi identity applies to
Jews whose origins are from Muslim countries.

(6) The first one was Shlomo Bernstein, who spent
two semesters at the Bauhaus before returning to Israel, where he worked for
most of his professional life in the Tel Aviv Engineering Department, making
only a very modest mark on the city‚s landscape. The second was Munio
Weinraub-Gitai, who worked in Haifa and northern Israel, producing a series
of unique structures in the spirit of Mies that stood out prominently from
the typical architecture in the country at the time for their focus on
detail and construction, but had never built in Tel Aviv. The third Bauhaus
student was Shmuel Mistechkin, who built several apartment buildings in Tel
Aviv during this period, but most of whose work was done for the planning
department of the Hagana underground or the kibbutz movement in other parts
of the country. The only local architect to leave a distinct marc on Tel
Aviv (and on Israel as a whole) was Arieh Sharon, who studied at Bauhaus
Dessau. In terms of Tel Aviv‚s urban legend, the major problem with Sharon
is that as a true student of the Bauhaus, his simple, straightforward,
pragmatic structures in no way resemble the stylized boxes typical of what
is conventionally known in Israel as “Tel Aviv‚s Bauhaus Style.”

(7) Gustave Flaubert, the definition of the term
“Architecture” in his “Dictionary of Received Ideas”: “There are only four
types of architecture. Leaving aside, of course, the Egyptian, Cyclopean,
Assyrian, Indian, Chinese, Gothic, Romanesque, etc.”

(8) “L’Histoire avec sa grande hache” - as
Georges Perec used to say. (a pun: History with a capital “H,” / History
with its “big ax”). in Georges Perec, W ou le souvenir d’enfance (W or the
Memory of Childhood), Paris: Denoël, 1975.

(9) Even nowadays, when apparently Jaffa is
occupied completely by Israel, there are still many military bases scattered
all over town.