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Tel Aviv Develops Its Past Into the Future

December 26, 2007

By Esther Hecht

The Azrieli Center’s sleek silver-and-blue towers, designed by Eli Atia and Yaski Sivan Architects and completed between 1999 and 2006, symbolize modern Tel Aviv, the commercial and cultural hub of Israel. But with the proliferation of these and other skyscrapers has come a new appreciation for the city’s historic buildings.

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Image courtesy Pei Cobb Freed & Partners
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An ambitious plan is under way to preserve more than one-third of the White City, an unparalleled collection of 4,000 low-rise, International Style residential and commercial buildings. Built mainly in the 1930s, they were designed by some 200 Jewish architects who fled Nazi Europe. A preservation plan, in development since 2001 and approved last November, will apply to a 1.35-square-mile area, roughly 7 percent of the city, recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Many of these buildings, as well as older ones that eclectically combined Middle Eastern and 19th century European styles, are located in the financial district around Rothschild Boulevard. By the 1970s, many were run-down or slated for demolition, but then the city realized their potential as up-market residences, boutiques, and restaurants—and their importance in maintaining a sense of place. Tel Aviv now grants permits for skyscrapers in the area only on the condition that old buildings be preserved. Thus, Pei Cobb Freed & Partners’ sharp-angled, glass-faced bank headquarters on Rothschild Boulevard incorporates two eclectic-style 1920s buildings: a single-story structure designed by Dov Hershkovitz, and a two-story residence designed by Judah Magidovich.

Tel Aviv’s city architect, Danielah Smits-Possek, notes that preservation has helped draw both commerce and well-heeled residents back to the inner city; it’s also spurred development on the few large sites available. For instance, a 32-story tower of luxury condos by Richard Meier is slated for the corner of Rothschild and Allenby. Northeast of Rothschild, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art is doubling its size. Preston Scott Cohen has designed a triangular, 172,000-square-foot addition, with three levels below ground and three above, centered on a spiraling atrium; its curving facades will be clad in faceted stonework. Work on the $45 million project began in May and is expected to finish by the end of 2009.

Nearby, the city has committed $125 million to developing Sarona, a village built by the Templers, a German Christian sect, in the 1870s. The project includes preserving 37 houses and transforming them into galleries, cafes, restaurants, and cultural institutions that are expected to open by 2010. “The main issue was the landscaping to preserve the character of the German village and avoid a Disneyland effect,” says Jeremie Hoffmann, director of the city’s conservation department. “We tried to preserve the historic paths and roads and the scale of the front and back yards.” Within a decade, he adds, two rings of high-rise residential and office buildings will surround the village.

The mix of old and new is also present in Jaffa, Tel Aviv’s southern section and the biblical “Joppa,” where both Jews and Arabs live. There, next to a cemetery divided between Muslims and Christians, is the Peres Peace House designed by Massimiliano Fuksas. The 34,000-square-foot building will contain exhibition space, meeting rooms, and a library; it will be faced with strips of prefabricated green concrete alternating with clear glass. Construction began in 2004 and is expected to finish by the end of 2008.

The Peace House is part of a larger reclamation project along the waterfront that includes transforming a construction-debris dump into a park. A promenade, whose design was overseen by Smits-Possek, will run through the park and, on its completion in 2009, stretch uninterrupted for eight miles. Elsewhere on the waterfront, in both Tel Aviv and Jaffa, old port buildings are being reclaimed for arts, entertainment, and retail shops—proof that Tel Aviv’s past is the gateway to its future.

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