Using Buildings as Cyphers

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

Pluto Press, 256pp, £14.99, ISBN 9780745335117

reviewed by Alison Hugill

In his essay ‘On the Concept of History’, Walter Benjamin writes - quoting the Austrian dramatist Hugo Hofmannsthal - that the true historian must ‘read what was never written.’ Echoing this sentiment, and taking up the task, Sharon Rotbard remarks that ‘…the most interesting chapters in Tel Aviv’s account of itself are, without doubt, the ones that have been left out.’

From this conceptual starting point, he aims to lay bare the myth of Tel Aviv’s architectural history, particularly with regard to the legacy of the Bauhaus school in the city. White City, Black City challenges the official historiography of Tel Aviv, and its subsequent demarcation from neighbouring Jaffa. Rotbard, who is an Israeli architect and a professor at Bezalel Academy in Jerusalem, criticises the Israeli appropriation of the so-called ‘Bauhaus style’ (encompassing all forms of modernist architecture) in the service of a whitewashed architectural narrative that helped to re-brand Tel Aviv as a tourism-worthy, ‘global city.’

In 2003, in the midst of the Second Intifada, UNESCO bestowed upon a section of the city (comprising over a thousand 1930s buildings made in the Bauhaus ‘style’) the status of ‘World Heritage Site,’ putting it in line with the Bauhaus school building in Dessau and prompting the epithet ‘New Dessau.’ Rotbard tirelessly unravels the tenuous historical facts upon which this designation relies, in a section of the book titled ‘White Lies.’ The first target is the insistence that the so-called White City is a direct descendant of the Bauhaus school. Rotbard points out the hypocrisy of the repeated use of the term ‘style’ in relation to the Bauhaus school, amongst which one of the few agreed-upon principles was an opposition to describing its work as a ‘style.’

The title ‘White City’ came about in the wake of an exhibition by the same name in 1984, at which point, Rotbard argue, Israeli architecture began to speak of and to itself for the first time. It was here that history was (re)written, and the dominance of central European Jewish racial hegemony was solidified in Israel’s national narrative. This had far-reaching consequences in the region, as it furthered the divide between the Eurocentric inner city and the grey Middle Eastern rabble of the suburbs. Rotbard rightly points out that this kind of spatial class separation was not uncharacteristic at the time. The French International Style of Le Corbusier found in Tel Aviv was also heavily influenced by Mediterranean and North African sources, with strong architectural similarities being found between Tel Aviv and Algiers. Rotbard writes that ‘both were attempts to found new, modern European cities overlooking or beside what were perceived as ancient, crumbling Arab dwellings. Both were exercises in settler colonialism and both were called White Cities.’ As such, the White City of Tel Aviv was more than an apparent theme, but grew into a ‘well-ordered ideology.’ The story retroactively justified the urban legend that Tel Aviv was built on the dunes, ‘crucially associated with the ideal of tabula rasa – dear to both Zionism and Modernist architecture.’

Equating Zionism and modernism is a heavy indictment, and underscores Rotbard’s general distrust of the architectural establishment. As the subtitle of the book suggests, architecture and war are inextricably entwined in the context of Israel-Palestine. Rotbard would take the argument further, claiming that the political purview of architecture is the same everywhere, in a however more concealed form. This kind of analysis is not uncommon in the Left Israeli architectural world, as Eyal Weizman’s studies of Israeli architecture, Hollow Land (2007) and The Least of All Possible Evils (2011), aptly demonstrate. Building is never apolitical in the region, and both critics encourage readers to question whether it can be apolitical anywhere.

Despite Rotbard’s enormous success at demystifying the architectural-historical narrative of the ‘White City,’ the second part of the book fails to present concrete alternatives, or to prop up a modernist architectural counter-narrative in the predominantly Arab city of Jaffa. The borders of the White City were geopolitically defined, and have numerous prohibitive consequences today that are common across the State of Israel and the Occupied Territories, as well as other colonised regions of the world. The dialectic of the White City vs. the Black City provides a tidy account of the complex divisions rocking the region, and serves as an anchor for Rotbard’s excellent analysis of how history is ideologically formed. By using buildings as cyphers, he takes up Benjamin’s injunction to unveil the history of the oppressed, against that of the coloniser. White City, Black City is adept at criticising colonial powers – in Israel-Palestine and elsewhere – through a reading of what was never written, but it only hovers at the margins of this critical historical reading. In his Afterword, Rotbard notes that, since the book’s original publication (it was first published in Hebrew in 2005) the White City has become ever whiter. Rotbard’s task is not merely to ‘shed light’ on the Black City, but to tear apart the binary distinction between the two cities, by exposing its ideological underpinning.