Building the promised land
Joachim Schlor's talk in the rca/Reaktion Books Topographics series explored the fascinating phenomenon of Tel Aviv, without evoking a fascinating city. Founded 90 years ago this year, it is the unusual case of a city deliberately conceived and designed as a home for and by a highly specific ethnic group, which would provide a spatial and material embodiment of its religious and cultural values. Even more intriguing is the fact that this was a group that was culturally very diverse, having been brought together in Israel from many different parts of the world.
Furthermore, Judaism itself is regarded as a culture or concept of time, rather than space, defined from the outset by a journey (to the Promised Land), and from thence onwards by the dynamics of migration - arriving at and leaving places. The dynamics of migration mean that the organisation of the inner life of the community must always take its material form in relation to the laws and patterns of life of the alien society within which it makes its home.
One of the results of this way of life was that Jews became essentially city people, not being allowed to own or work on the land. It allowed the Jews to adapt easily to modernisation, says Schlor, and this commitment to modernism emerged as a defining factor in the creation of Tel Aviv.
When the city was first mapped out, however, in the sand dunes north of Jaffa by 60 families from the Jewish community established there in the 1890s, the idea was that it would be small and green, without any of the usual symbols of urban life - even shops. It was only as the settlement of 'dream houses' grew in response to subsequent waves of immigration into Israel that these aspects began to emerge. The first public building was a high school, the first Hebrew-speaking school in the world, and at the same time attempts were made to establish a 'Hebrew' architectural style. But it was not until 1935 that Patrick Geddes created the first formal plan for the city, based on garden-city principles.
Only with the emigrations from Nazi Germany, bringing many Berliners, did the city begin to acquire a modern character - defined by Schlor in terms of taxis, shop-window design, advertisements, cafes, street life, and ultimately industrialisation. In 1936 the decision to build a harbour was taken, affirming an outgoing, trading future for Tel Aviv. These developments were eloquently expressed in the implementation of Bauhaus design principles for the construction of many new buildings, including workers' housing. Schlor suggests that the Bauhaus structure had an 'openness and gentleness' that provided a fitting framework within which the inhabitants of the city could live their own lives freely and relax. Disappointingly, he did not provide the information about the social and political life of the city and neither did he examine the highly-charged question of how far Tel Aviv can or should preserve its Jewish identity today.