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Sharon Rotbard, White City Black City: Architecture and War in Tel Aviv and Jaffa

[trans. from Hebrew by Orit Gat, first published by Babel, Tel Aviv, 2005], London: Pluto Press, 2015
Liora Bigon
Référence(s) :

Sharon Rotbard, White City Black City: Architecture and War in Tel Aviv and Jaffa, [trans. from Hebrew by Orit Gat, first published by Babel, Tel Aviv, 2005], London: Pluto Press, 2015.

Entrées d’index

Indice de palabras clave :

Bauhaus, patrimonio urbano, Estilo internacional

Index géographique :

Asie, Moyen-Orient, Israël, Tel Aviv

Territoires anciens :

Palestine, Jaffa
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Texte intégral

1Sharon Rotbard’s book White City Black City cleverly examines the planning and architectural histories of Tel Aviv and Jaffa during the twentieth century. These histories are deeply entangled in the broader political and cultural climates that brought about the creation and crystallization of Tel Aviv and Jaffa, at first one against the other, and then one at the expense of the other.

2The book is in three parts, with the first two parts—“White City” and “Black City”—constituting the bulk of the work; these were conceptualized reciprocally and dialectically.

3In “White City,” Rotbard critically investigates the multiple ways in which the myth of Tel Aviv as a “White City” has been gradually created—culminating in July 2003 with the declaration of UNESCO’s World Heritage Commission that this historic area in Tel Aviv is inscribed as a World Heritage Site. It is shown that “[t]his history of Tel Aviv, presented for a moment as an architectural history, can be seen as a part of a wider process in which the physical shaping of Tel Aviv and its political and cultural construction are intertwined, and play a decisive role in the construction of the case, the alibi and the apologetics of the Jewish settlement across the country.” (p. 2) In his poignant yet exuberant style, which sometimes waxes poetic, the author narrates the architectural history of today’s metropolitan area of “Tel Aviv-Jaffa” as a series of warlike hegemonic projects that transform its physical-cum-cultural spatiality. Opening with the narrative of the victorious, Rotbard has managed to identify the formative moment of this urban legend with an exhibition entitled “White City,” curated by Michael Levin at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art in the summer of 1984. This exhibition was unprecedented in bringing to the fore in a coherent manner a collection of modern, International Style buildings, together with a number of architects who were active in the area during the 1930s. Yet the exhibition has managed to break free from Levin’s original intention by serving as a starting point for historiography and self-reflection at both the scientific and the popular levels. Far beyond the exhibition’s influence on local professional taste in architecture and design, it influenced the image and identity of the city’s residents, their branding of the city for outsiders, and the ways in which the city has been shaped ever since.

4With the architectural analysis serving as almost an excuse to trace the cultural, economic, and political consequences of the sweeping “White City” myth, the first part strips this myth of its kitsch and nostalgia, pointing out its subconsciously “whitened” aspects.

5The Bauhaus Style seemed to blend the spark of utopia with the patina of tradition, and fuse the radiant whiteness of the European avant-garde with a dazzling Mediterranean light. It enabled many Tel Avivians to conduct wealthy bourgeois lifestyles while at the same time projecting a socialist and progressive façade, to take solace in the assurance that while their city was clearly gray and faded, it was actually white and clean; that although it was no more than a provincial Western outpost, it was as international as the International Style; and that although it was modern, it was historic. In this sense, the White City and the Bauhaus Style narratives, with all their contradictions, were a perfect extension of Theodor Herzl’s own oxymoronic vision for Tel Aviv—Altneuland, the “Old-New Country.” (p. 11-12)

6The identification of the International Style in Tel Aviv with Central Europe corresponded to the Central European hegemony of the Jewish elite (confronted with those of Eastern European descent). At the same time, this identification corresponded with the geographies of contemporary power relations within modern architecture itself. And in passing from intra- to inter-group relations, the “white” image as echoing the white dunes out of which the city virtually emerged in the urban legend conforms to the city’s image as a tabula rasa. That is, it conforms to an escapism and avoids the fact that in the late nineteenth century, its “lands were made up of vineyards, vegetable gardens and orchards and that most of the dunes were concentrated in the Muslim neighborhood of Manshieh [destroyed in the 1948 war].” (p. 46)

7The second part of the book, “Black City,” is constructed relationally as the flip side of the same coin. However, its subject is not a creative construction. It is rather an erasure, deconstruction, reconstruction, marginalization, and forgetfulness—on the physical and perceptional levels—of anything beyond the delimited area of the “White City.” The latter area corresponds to the border of Tel Aviv before 1948, which is exactly the same mental border that divided the northern and the southern parts of the city in the 1930s. And since the 1930s, through 2005 (when the original Hebrew version of this book was published) and to 2015 (the present publication in English), this north/south division has been marked in many ways. These include diverting traffic from Jaffa Road to the north, determining the flight path of planes landing at the nearby national airport, differentiating municipality investments in infrastructure and sanitation, and mapping pizza delivery routes, inter alia. The correlation between these past and present boundaries is evidence, argues Rotbard, that in every aspect of its construction and administration, the “White City” reinforced its historical, geographic and ethnic distinctiveness. “As a Hebrew city, it is unlike Arab Jaffa; as an Israeli city, it is dissimilar from the Jewish diaspora; as a modern city, it is at odds with the ancient urban history of Europe and the Middle East.” (p. 59) What is outside of its bottled homogeneity is considered otherworldly and is marginalized in terms of historical record and urban administration.

8The author now traces the creation of the “Black City” versus its “White” antagonist, showing that Tel Aviv was not born from the dunes at all, like Botticelli’s Venus emerging from the waves, and was far from being innocent like Venus, though the city would have liked to have been. Rather, Tel Aviv was born out of Jaffa and on the top of its Arab neighbor—in a simultaneous struggle to desperately try to escape Jaffa and to put it down. The author narrates a series of violent events initiated by both Arabs and Jews, leading to the final defeat of Jaffa, its being cut off from the immediate hinterland, the emptying of much of its Palestinian population, and its Hebraization and annexation to Tel Aviv. These events are contextualized in the built (and ruined) form, through using an extremely rich collection of visual evidence and by often reading this visual evidence against the grain. As the “White City” dismisses anything and everything that is not white, the same problematic relations are duplicated in the spatialities of its southern quarters, populated largely by Mizrahi (Eastern, Sephardic Jews) and other underprivileged and marginalized groups (currently immigrants and asylum seekers from the Horn of Africa). In fact, whole streets in these quarters are subjected to a top-down erasure, led by the Municipality, from time to time. Moreover, the location of the Old and New Central Bus Stations in the southern zones, behind an iron curtain of smoke, pushes them out of sight and out of mind, thereby constituting the “out-there” of the “White City.”

9The book’s third and last part is the most interesting for any architectural historian who wishes a more comparative glimpse of the case study in question and other colonial cities and postcolonial situations. By developing the idea of the “Rainbow” though not from an idealistic, romanticist perspective, this short part goes beyond the specificities of Tel Aviv-Jaffa, Israel-Palestine, and the complexity of Jewish-Arab relations in the Middle East.

10The reader will have been struck that so few cities (mostly in Europe) are mentioned at all until this point, so this addition is welcome. It settles and unsettles issues such as how really “international” the International Style is in our context; more globally, Palestinian reactions at the present time; and the truly cosmopolitan nature of Tel Aviv’s southern quarters. At the same time, it expands on the architectural “whiteness” of some “classic” colonial urban cases with a passing reference to three cities that experienced an exclusively French regime: Casablanca, Algiers and Dakar.

11Yet the author’s comparative notes here are of an associative and impressionistic character (this includes reference, at last, to Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, which might have heavily inspired the present book’s title), grounded in astoundingly meager research literature on architecture and (post-)colonialism. An example of this impressionism is the argument that the “relationship of convenience” that existed between the British imperial project and the Zionist movement “could be compared to the bond forged between the pieds-noirs settlers in Algeria and the ruling, imperialist French government.” (p. 82)

12It is indeed questionable whether the pieds-noirs under the French colonial regime were comparable to the Zionist movement under the British colonial regime. The first were part of metropolitan France in flesh and blood, and their massive settlement on mostly confiscated land was enabled by governmental legislation proclaiming the territory as no less than la France d’outre-mer during an exceptionally long colonial rule of 132 years. The Zionist activists, however, were subjected to the British imperial project and its own nationalist and strategic interests. This was a project that was itself overseen by the League of Nations for a very short period (27 years) of temporary legal status as a “Mandate.” Further disparities between imperial France and Britain regarding their approach towards the indigenous Muslim cultures under their aegis directly derived from their different colonial mentalities (indirect-rule British preservationists versus the essentially assimilationist French) only render such a comparison more problematic. In addition, even if we presume that such a seemingly convenient relationship ever existed between the British regime in Palestine and Zionism, it should be noted that in the same paragraph in the original Hebrew version (p. 148), the “Zionist settlement project” paralleled the “settlement project of the British empire.” However, modern colonialism (of the kind in question, i.e., from the mid-nineteenth century) did not normally promote white settlement, instead favoring economic exploitation through indigenous cooperation. This was true in British Palestine, and especially in the tropical colonies. Thus, there was hardly any modern governmentally planned “settlement project of the British empire.”

13Another example is the argument that “[e]ven in nation-states outside of Europe with a large concentration of International Style constructions, the emphasis on indigenous heritage and the natural antagonism towards commemorating periods of colonial subjugation means these buildings are rarely maintained.” (p. 164-165) Putting aside the misconception that ex-colonized countries in the Global South are nation states, today even countries that experienced extreme colonial situations such as post-apartheid South Africa do commemorate colonial architectural styles (in this case, from Edwardian to Cape Dutch) as part of their national heritage. This is also true in countries in which the colonial experience was much gentler, such as Senegal, where explicitly colonial buildings (from military, commercial, and transportation depots to public markets, in a variety of architectural styles) are proclaimed part of the national cultural heritage, intended for preservation. Still, in many cases in the southern hemisphere, colonial buildings are neglected less because of any ideological reasons, such as a “natural antagonism” towards the colonial past, than because, like many other buildings from the postcolonial present, they are neglected due to chronic lack of funds and failing urban management.

14Though of lesser theoretical and academic value, the unquestionable importance of the author’s comparative notes in the third part is to provoke the imagination and rethink the built heritage of Tel Aviv. What we have here is a unique textual and visual project that critically examines the architectural history of Tel Aviv.

Figure 1: The vicinity of the New Central Bus Station south of the “White City,” with scenes explaining the “Blackness” of this part of Tel Aviv.

Figure 1: The vicinity of the New Central Bus Station south of the “White City,” with scenes explaining the “Blackness” of this part of Tel Aviv.

At the left: a surviving Arab house from ex-Jaffa’s hinterland (tile roofing), together with self-built market stalls and an East African presence. At the right: Mizrahi house/slum built just over a white calcareous layer that is still preserved in the southern quarters (this layer ironically contradicts the “Blackness” of these quarters). According to Rotbard, the “White City” was not really built on the white dunes and sandstone layer, but instead of them, “shaving” the topography in order to plant its concrete foundations. (p. 43)

Source: Author's pictures.

Figure 2: White City’s Bauhaus (left) versus a counterpart from Dakar’s Plateau.

Figure 2: White City’s Bauhaus (left) versus a counterpart from Dakar’s Plateau.

Similarities between the applications of the International Style in both cities, as pointed out by Rotbard, certainly invite further, in-depth, research.

Source: Author's pictures.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1: The vicinity of the New Central Bus Station south of the “White City,” with scenes explaining the “Blackness” of this part of Tel Aviv.
Légende At the left: a surviving Arab house from ex-Jaffa’s hinterland (tile roofing), together with self-built market stalls and an East African presence. At the right: Mizrahi house/slum built just over a white calcareous layer that is still preserved in the southern quarters (this layer ironically contradicts the “Blackness” of these quarters). According to Rotbard, the “White City” was not really built on the white dunes and sandstone layer, but instead of them, “shaving” the topography in order to plant its concrete foundations. (p. 43)
URL http://journals.openedition.org/abe/docannexe/image/3550/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,5M
Titre Figure 2: White City’s Bauhaus (left) versus a counterpart from Dakar’s Plateau.
Légende Similarities between the applications of the International Style in both cities, as pointed out by Rotbard, certainly invite further, in-depth, research.
Crédits Source: Author's pictures.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/abe/docannexe/image/3550/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,2M
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Référence électronique

Liora Bigon, « Sharon Rotbard, White City Black City: Architecture and War in Tel Aviv and Jaffa », ABE Journal [En ligne], 11 | 2017, mis en ligne le 28 septembre 2017, consulté le 15 décembre 2017. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/abe/3550

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Auteur

Liora Bigon

Senior Staff Member, Holon Institute of Technology, Holon, Israel; Research Fellow, Harry Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel

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Licence Creative Commons
La revue ABE Journal est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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