The Historama
Alex Ben-Arieh
P.O.Box 32128
Tel Aviv, Israel 61321
Phone: +972-547-680-086
Fax: +972-3-546-1971

The Bauhaus and Israeli Architecture Page


On Israeli Architecture

Some Historical Statistics

Photo Gallery

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A 1936 bauhaus building in the Hadar neighborhood of Haifa

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Though being over 5,000 years old and considered the source of western history, Israel lacks the architectural grandeur of a place whose significance would presumeably justify such structures. What she has instead - particularly from the modern era - is a trove of architectural designs ranging from the Ottoman to the Levantine, Bauhaus and our own domestic specialty of "box" buildings on columns.

She hasn't often had the luxury of looking back and appreciating the greatness of her architecture, though its presence has been celebrated in song and in the popular culture - the piece "White City" ("Ir Levena" in Hebrew) celebrates the beauty of (old) Tel Aviv when its bauhaus structures were still white from newness; Chava Alberstein remensices about the centrality of the Israeli balcony in peoples' lives in her song "Playing Cards on the Balcony". The balcony in our popular culture is the little citizen's plot of the congested land on which he can survey the landscape, spy on - or, in days past, shout across the street to - his neighbor, hang out his laundry or beat his carpets, entertain his guests - or do a barbeque. The balcony is also a key hallmark of the various architectural styles in our country and a centerpiece of attention when observing the buildings.

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One of the first things that strikes a new visitor to Israel is the appearance of the country's architecture - it is at once both striking and "different". For a physical entity that has existed and been populated by several different cultures over a period of 6000 years, Israel lacks many of the architectural features possessed by the homelands of those cultures or of other countries of similar age. If we consider contemporary times, we would imagine palatial structures, large ornate complexes, red-brick or key stone buildings; from ancient times, Arabian styles we commonly associate with biblical times.

Ironically, for being such a historic land, Israel lacks many of the more ancient forms of architecture because the land lay undeveloped nearly since the time of Christ's birth - the final conquest of Israel by the Romans in 79 AD. The country's architectural fabric has a large gap missing in its continuum. What architecture there is to see in quantity was built in abundance by the recent redevelopment of the country, and those styles arose en-masse.

Although modern Jewish immigration to Israel began in the 1870s, most of the structures visible today date from after the First World War. Immigration to the land before 1918 was far smaller than after: before the war it was an impoverished and underdeveloped backwater, under a disorganized Ottoman controlling apparatus, with roving bands of bandits, suffering from a vacuum of infrastructure, and whose Jewish immigrants lived in impermanent structures on farming communities. During the war, most Jews in the region were expelled by the Turks, and the area suffered from outbreaks of disease and a halt in economic and structural development.

With the establishment of British control, under the Mandate (of the League of Nations), in 1917, Jewish immigration rose, and with it, sturdy urban construction. One of the earliest types of modern architectural styles visible today was the then fashionable hybrid which combined local oriental motifs with those taken from classical architecture.

This "Ecclectic Style" was especially popular in the city of Tel Aviv (whose name means "Hill of Spring"), the first modern Jewish city since 79 AD, established in 1909, though this is not surprising since the city was first established as a garden community (called then "Akhuzat Bayit" - 'Home-Estate' in loose translation) to adjoin the then Arab city Jaffa. Thus, many of Tel Aviv's earliest buildings were a Jewish/Zionist attempt to create an "Eretz Israel" (Land of Israel) style of architecture by combining Eastern flavors with Western influences.

Allenby St. in Tel Aviv: Ecclectic styled building with ornate but symmetrical balconies

Strangely, there is a certain uneasiness in the combination of the then contemporary European forms with nostalgic Oriental flavors, especially as the future geometric lines and curves of the Bauhaus design movement gradually made themselves felt in this architectural style. Structurally, these buildings had Western styled protruding bay-windows, angular three-sided corners or balconies, and semi-ornate balcony supports. Blended - or "fused", depending on the smoothness of the stylistic integration - into the overall structural design, these buildings exhibited many of the features of the then current Ottoman-style of architecture: tall ground-floors, primarily for shops, keystones, decorated roof-top rims, ornate hand painted floor-tiles, peaked windows in Oriental style, sometimes adorned by concrete arches with curved peaks between them, ornate metal work for balcony railings, and much wood - on window shutters and tall Ottoman doors. Motifs were often taken from Jewish culture - iron balustrades in the form of menorahs, Stars of David, ceramic work decorated with stories from the Bible. In Tel Aviv, many of these early forms of 'Israeli' architecture are visible the most northerly streets of Jaffo, like Raziel, then in Florentine, Neve Tzedek, and along Allenby, Rothschild and Ahad Ha'am Streets, to name just a few places. Unlike the Tel Avivian version of the "Ecclectic Style" made from brick and concrete, similar buildings in Jerusalem and Haifa were built from Jerusalem stone (the structures are not actually built stone by stone with Jerusalem stone - they have a standard concrete foundation with a facade of Jerusalem stone 'plates' added onto the concrete surface). Also fused into certain building designs is a touch of the local "Eretz Israel" school of ornate art design called 'Bezalel'.

Allenby Street: side view of a long Ecclectic styled building with a rounded corner (and round balconies). Note the ornate wall details and metal balcony handles, and the rounded window at lower right, in the Ottoman style.

Balcony detail of the same building. Note the spiraling detail between the rounded high windows.

Allenby St. 93: the Ismaylof
building (1929) with a name-plate
in the Bezalel style;
with wooden shutters, ornate
metal balcony frames and a
rounded high window at top.

The Ecclectic Style existed in Israel until the end of the 1920s, when the Bauhaus (or "International") movement in architecture became popular, first in Germany, then abroad. Bauhaus was heavily influenced and directed by Jewish artists and architects, leading to its initial importation into Israel.

Buildings constructed according to the "International" Style of architecture were built according to the principles of the "Modern Movement" in art and design: they were functional, with flat roofs earmarked for functional purposes; they lacked frivolous or unnecessary decoration, but they exhibited great geometric artistry: an asymmetrical facade dominated by horizontal lines, and normally combined with vertical elements which designated the staircase.

For a style that championed restrained decor, the International style was both remarkable in its own right and eminently suited to a nation in development under the circumstances of the 1930s and '40s. International Style buildings feature curved corners or curved edges, sweeping balconies that wrap around the side of a building (even if they are straight and not curved), stairwells that rise just above the roof of the building and are lit by a series of windows - either as a tall strip of glass or just a series of windows that don't match up to the individual floors. The stylistic sophistication of these buildings makes up for their economic use of building materials and space - they are both restrained and artistic, and under the increasing warlike conditions of the 1930s, this style was ideal.

Bauhaus in Haifa: corner of Hess and Arlozoroff Streets. The rounded corner end is a now-enclosed set of balconies; there are more enclosed balconies on the left side. Note too the stylized rectangular air vents just above the shop level.

Yosef St. 31 in Haifa
The rise of Hitler and institutional anti-Semitism in Germany brought a wave of International-Style architects to Israel; materials for consumer needs became scarcer as preparations for war increased, so that this style continued to be employed well into the late 1940s. In Tel Aviv, for instance, there are 1,500 buildings marked for conservation, but there are over 4,000 buildings designed in the International Style alone.

All the major cities of Israel have buildings in this style: in Tel Aviv and Haifa, they appear in simple concrete; in Jerusalem - even in the Old City, and also in Haifa, these buildings were constructed out of stone.

The rise of truly Israeli architecture began in the late mid-'40s: as the Second World War ended, the opening rounds of Israel's revolt against the British and the War for Independence began, and the effects of post-war privations, refugee arrivals and demobilized Jewish soldiers became felt. Around this time, architecture in Israel took on an even more functional design, becoming over time, stylistically a more simplified version of the International style. Exterior design became more staid and less artistic, with fewer curves and unnecessary changes in the overall 'box' of the essential structure. By becoming more streamlined these buildings began looking more boxy, more economic, and still more functional.

The lean and rational efficiency of these harsher times in the 1940s was expressed architecturally through modest design. In Tel Aviv especially, buildings from this transitory period are denoted by their 'blistered' balconies: non-protruding balconies with high walls and high overhanging walls descending from the ceiling, yielding narrow slits along building sides, somewhat limiting inflow of air and outflow of light (i.e. during air raids). Since they don't extend beyond the boundaries of the building walls, these balconies look like an integral component of the building, enveloped by walls, such that oftentimes it is also difficult to distingish between adjoining apartments who have access to that semi-exposed space.

The era of economic austerity, of shortages and economies, did not end with 1948. It actually worsened over the next few years as Israel undertook to establish itself as an independent country ringed with hostile neighbors and absorb a wave of a million new immigrants - almost twice the number of the resident population. The box style of architecture in turn became still more modest and then enshrined as the national architectural model. For the first years of the new country, Haifa's 'Technion' Institute of Technology became Israel's leading purveyor of architecture, and chiefly of the 'box' style.

While today buildings of this era are criticized for their appearance (in spite of their inherent aesthetic merits - even uniqueness and functionality in design), even as far back as 1950 Israelis were already complaining about the general appearance of the contemporary boxy structures around them. One student of architecture wrote to a paper suggesting that, "Every local municipality elect a local architecture committee of artists and architects that will require every building to fill certain aesthetic standards... this is the only way to salvage the country's buildings from criminal aesthetic anarchy."

Chovevei Zion 69: corner view of an elegantly styled early version of the Israeli "box", with ground floor supporting columns. Simply adorned, the "elegance" lies in the detailing work of the lipped concrete balconies and the decorative metal frame around the small window sills. Note also the deceptively large size of these types of balconies (on the 2nd floor): half the space is provided by the inset space from the outer building walls. With shutters, the actual space is not apparent to an outside viewer.

Side view detail of the same building. The first set of white blinds (at the corner) are enclosed balconies with side openings (to the front of the building) - these are relatively deep balconies too. The side view also illustrates how many windows there are among the apartments on each floor. The rear apartment balconies are also visible in the back. A minor but significant additional detail: the recently added glass elevator added to the building on the left. This is the modern era's attempt to make these old walk-up flats more practical for the aged and comfort-spoiled young.

Tel Aviv: an unadorned "box"
building with columns at front.
Easily written off for its
unesthetic appearance, the
beauty is in its practicality
under the surface: for one,
the enclosures at front obscure
one large balcony per apartment
per floor...

Side view of the same building. This view reveals greater detail of the neatly inserted balconies on these otherwise unassuming buildings. In its original appearance, all these enclosed sections would have been open and exposed - a lot nicer to the eye than now.

From the time of the founding of the State to the late-mid 1950s, Israeli box buildings evolved ever so slightly to become a more independent style from their International/Bauhaus forebears, and these more developed box structures became not just an enshrined cultural model but also an institution of public policy. During these years, Israeli buildings lost all traces of their Bauhaus curves and offset flairs, like the window-stripped stairwells.

They became quite literally, boxes: the first floor of apartments touched the ground; the buildings developed large balconies with metal railings that jutted well out from the boxy superstructure (which have since been closed off by white blinds to form enclosed balconies, room extensions, or ante-rooms). Over time, these fore-runners evolved still more to include pillared supports along the front of the building on the ground level, yielding some parking space and grass garden swaths, with the main entrance set in away from the sidewalk. Early versions of these buildings had stately semi-stone facades on pillars and balconies.

Typical Israeli "box" building from the 1940s period on Yehuda Ha'Levi Street in Tel Aviv, with twin columns of balconies on the building's facade. This is a commercial street-level version with shops on the ground floor (one and a half floors in height), and without columns. Other versions of this popular design feature columns on the ground floor and an inset entrance. Note the complete lack of adornment in the building's design, but there is a certain stateliness to its high ceilings, balance and symmetry of design with simple lines and metal railings on the balconies.

An Israeli "box" building with Bauhaus flairs, now featuring an early version of a ground floor column. In these early forms, most of the ground floor housed street-level apartments together with an entrance - which in this example is rather stately wide entrance with a double wooden-door and "paneled" concrete tiles around the entrance (and on the column itself - not visible here).

Another Israeli box building in a different form: this renovated one on Ibn Gvirol 10 Street in Tel Aviv is true to the original style of the late 1940s, with nearly no adornment whatsoever, neither on the balconies nor around the windows - except for simple narrow window-sills and a restrained design in the balcony railings. Also true to form are its unenclosed balconies: in their original appearance, Israeli balconies were never built with enclosures or shutters, but only in old photographs can this fact be appreciated. Note the columns - being on Ibn Gvirol Street, a commercial parade, the overhangs formed by the presence of the columns provides shade to pedestrians in the summer and shelter from rain in the winter. Here too the columns are bare and connected - integrally in design and construction - to the superstructure of the building.

A typical characteristic of these spartan-looking box buildings is their stately entrance. Here the entrance at Ibn Gvirol 10 is made up of 3 sturdy wooden doors with simple Bauhaus-inspired line designs and separating colonades which form an integral part of the building's outer wall.

Early Israeli "box" building from the 1940s at Gottlieb 22 in Tel Aviv, with inset ground floor and supporting columns. The round style of columns was an early and somewhat rare design in Israeli architecture - more column buildings feature square or rectangular designs rather than round. At first glance the building design exhibits all the characteristics of spartan design of that time, along with the large semi-inset balconies.

These types of buildings are not completely devoid of personality, and of note is the speckled front facade (as opposed to the simple white-washed side surfaces)- a feature typical primarily on these round-columned buildings and a feature which survives time and wear better than plain smooth surfaces on these types of buildings; the lined patterns on the columns; the simple, layered pattern of the balconies; the thin sill-frames around the windows, which together with the first layer on the balconies usually bears a milled pattern. Here is also a good opportunity to point out that although Israeli balconies were built bare of any enclosure, the fabric overhangs visible here were in fact part of all these box buildings' designs: in period photographs of box and Bauhaus-box hybrids, striped overhangs are frequently seen.

The entrance to Gottlieb 22 with a stately-looking entrance with Bauhaus flairs - particularly the round window at left. The grandeur of the entrance is apparent from its width, two-toned walls (speckling with a band of smooth upper surface), overhanding frames and tiled-stone appearance of the walls leading to the wide double-doors.

Another variation of the Israeli box building, 1950s, at Ha'Kalir Street 7: with large double balconies on the facade and a single window to the side. Here too, very spartan in outward design with almost no small details to speak of, excepting the very lightly speckled facade surface (less than that on the example from Gottlieb Street). In a variation to the previous example, here the building columns are square, and more typical of many other column-buildings in Israel in that regard.

The entrance to Ha'Kalir 7 with a surprisingly detailed entrance (apologies for the lack of clarity in this picture, due to the excessive sunlight). In a square design the entrance here features many of the details noted elsewhere before - the stone entrance-way frame, with lines on the walls and columns and the wooden doors (though here more narrow than elsewhere before).

A variation to a box building entrance: unlike previous examples, the front of the ground level of this building is completely inset and open in 3 directions - so far, the insets have been smaller or "L" shaped (giving the ground-floor apartment more space and the entrance more intimacy). This is a 1950s structure, but from a later period and exhibiting a less stately entrance and no special design features (except some lipping on the balconies and a bottom window-sill). The columns here are presented as wholly part of the structure, with no pretence of being part of a design. Indeed the entrance, while suitable for a garden and with a path leading to a double door, is quite ugly with its lack of sills and unadorned square columns - and quite many of these in number. In subsequent decades buildings would exhibit a greater shrinking of the residential ground-floor space and with it the presence of many more simple columns.

Another variation of the columned entrance - here not appropriated specifically to the "box" style: at Rothschild Street 137 in Tel Aviv is a classic design of a 1930s Bauhaus with a low, inset ground floor with round columns and a semi-commercial front. Hard to spot nowadays due to renovations and changes, many Bauhaus buildings of that period did feature columns and "L" shaped inset entrances affording space also for shop-fronts. Stylistically the building is simple, with few flairs visible today (though in past incarnations this building may have been more adorned). The columned box buildings drew their inspiration from their Bauhaus forerunners, though as the previous examples show, over time the box styles cast off the veneer of design and bore exposed construction features with no design.

The sheer practicality of constructing such buildings, coupled with the functionalism of their internal layout made these box buildings the ideal centerpieces of the Israeli government's housing policies from the 1950s to the 1970s. The government instituted what was then known as the 'National Master Plan' for development, under the architect Arieh Sharon. Seeking to plan the urban development of the nascent state, to house new immigrants, and control social development, the government used the box style of architecture to quickly erect buildings and whole new neighborhoods or cities to help it accomplish its goals.

The box structure came in two basic forms - stand-alone rooms with a kitchenette and bathroom (i.e. houses) and actual residential buildings, and the public quickly coined the phrase "cannon buildings" to describe these prefab structures which were built quickly using special casting machines with long barrels. The machines themselves were even called "Golda's Cannons", after Golda Meir, the then Minister of Labor (1949) who was charged with overseeing availability of building materials. Referring to the single-room homes, she said: "There is no harm if a family of three, or even four, lived in one single room... We intend to provide a roof. Not a ceiling - a roof. No plaster - only whitewash. The immigrant himself will in time plaster the walls and add a ceiling. A few months later he will add a room and a porch. There's no harm in this..." (Segev, p. 133).

Under the British mandate, all residential construction was in the hands of private contractors and entrepreneurs; after the founding of Israel, the Ministry of Housing and Construction did more than half the work in this area, so that over time, coupled with the 'settlement policy' of subsequent governments, it has evolved from being a detached maker of policies, to a super-contractor physically executing housing policy.

An early example of Israeli mass housing, the "Workers Dormitories" on Frishman, Dov Hoz and Mapu Streets in Tel Aviv, 1930s. These early "shikunim" were built in the International / Bauhaus style, but uniquely, over several plots of land (as opposed to just on one) and in that regard diverged from the Bauhaus norm of providing common open space around each building for the use of its tennants. To that end the architects needed special building permits from the city and committed themselves to creating large public spaces in the centers of these buildings, which earned the name "train" ("Rakevet", in Hebrew) buildings owing to their length and repeating pattern. The project here was a set of three buildings forming a square "C" shappe with a large interior courtyard garden. Note this building's wide and precisely measured single and double balconies. Historically, the shikun here on Frishman was also secretly the headquarters of the pre-State army, the "Hagana".

Partial view of the rear of the Frishman shikun building complex from the courtyard. Seen here is a characteristic repeating pattern floor-above-floor of modest balconies and windows, though visible here too are special extensions made by various tennants to their balconies.

Another example of a 1930's workers' residence, on Dov Hoz Street in Tel Aviv: as with the Frishman complex, it was built in a "C" shape of 3 buildings and visible here is the repeating "train" pattern of balconies, some since enclosed. Ironically, although these buildings were once for "laborers" and called "shikunim" (i.e. not a label of oppulence), with the growth of Tel Aviv in the past 60 years, these simple buildings are now located in prime real estate areas and their balconies are quite large in comparison with newer buildings which have had to content for space in more crowded city limits. Also of note, in this and the above pictures is the location of the main balconies: social "policy" in that era dictated that it was desirable to have residents face each other and interact, and avoid construction promoting individualism and exclusion. Here and above, the key balconies face out towards the streets.

The rear side of one of a line of repeating shikunim from the late 1940's to early 1950s in the now upscale Dubnov - Ibn Gvirol area of Tel Aviv, called Kiryat Meir. This project differs from those in the Frishman / Dov Hoz area in its departure from the strict adherence to the Bauhaus style: it is simpler in design overall though there are some elements of the Bauhaus style here too, particularly the offset stairwell windows in rectangular shape, and concrete edge flairs on the building's edges. These buildings are also whitewashed and not expensively painted as private buildings would have been. Also missing are the rear protruding balconies as seen in the picture above: here the rear balconies are entirely inset and nowadays hidden from site by blinds. This is an interesting reversal in "openness" from the projects above where the rear faced an enclosed courtyard and there were balconies which opened towards it.

With the blossoming of gardens between these buildings it's much harder to photograph their sides: here is an attempt to view the front of one row of these shikunim. In this project a chain of these buildings line the space parallely between Dubnov and Ibn Gvirol Streets in pairs side by side. Visible are the large balconies and other characteristics of style at that time - high ceilings, drop-down window blinds, concrete overhangs above windows. By their layout, the architects had one building face another such that their facades and main balconies opened up onto their neighbors across.
From the mid-late 1950's is another chain of shikun buildings along north Ibn Gvirol Street in northern Tel Aviv: similar to the project at Dubnov, these buildings are also arranged in a line one after the other, though less socially planner. Here the facade of one building faces the rear of the next though there is more space between the buildings affording more green open area for the residents. Stylistically these buildings look more adapted to the inner-city, with tall, unadorned columns bearing sections of the building which hang over the sidewalk (and provide shelter for parked cars or space for the odd shop). These buildings are even less associated with Bauhaus - not at all - than those on Dubnov, and here can be seen a standard repeating pattern of balconies and windows, one above the other in a symmetrical balance, though in keeping with that era's style, these buildings do have somewhat "stately" entrances with stone-tiled frames around doorways (barely visible here next to the columns at left).

The architecture promoted by the governments' housing policies has to be seen in the context of Israel's overall social policy of that time. The mass-manufactured, homogenous appearance of buildings from the 1950s belies the socialist orientation of the governments of that era. The egalitarian spirit of the ruling Workers Party ("Mapai") dovetailed with its handling of supply and allocation crises prompted by war and immigration.

Austerity measures on all raw materials, food products and consumer goods were instituted during the War of Independence and even widened in scope thereafter. Supplementing the more socially responsible use of materials was the role played by the Ministry of Supplies and Rationing, which began to oversee the production of low quality, uniformly designed, mass produced - but inexpensive - standard consumer goods. These articles were called "Lacol" (meaning, "For everyone") products: Lacol shoes, clothing, textiles, furniture, stationary, etc. Their production was controlled by quotas and targets calculated by the Ministry.

In similar fashion, the government proceeded to ensure a minimum standard of housing quality for its citizens, and at the time the rationed amount living space per family was 35 square meters. One of the reasons why so many Israeli buildings, from the Mandatory period through to the early '60s, were only three-stories high (albeit with some playful inclusions of half-floors just above street-level shops) was that building codes required the inclusion of elevators for any structures above three floors.

The construction of three-story buildings provided a convenient manner by which to avoid the inclusion of costly excess electrical devices. To this day, elevators seem like an afterthought, and the space allocated for them is so tiny that wheelchairs normally cannot even fit in.

Ironically, the compactness of apartments and their close proximity to one another reflected the national sense of community and self-reliance. Even today, one may notice the preponderance of businesses operating out of these old box buildings. Building codes permit businesses to establish themselves in residential apartment buildings, with approval; if one business is approved for operation in such a building, others may follow suit. Likewise, during the mandatory period and shortly thereafter, even gas stations were sited inside ordinary buildings.

The variety of box-styled buildings that one invariably sees in Israeli cities reflects the naturally evolving style of architecture to fit with the fashion of the times, and gradually rising standard of living of the country's citizens. Over time, apartments grew in floor-space; balconies - those strategic reserves of 'extra' space - gradually became absorbed into the main structure of the buildings so they did not jut out like appendages anymore, but became associated as fixed, calculated segments of apartments. Real estate in Israel is calculated according to covered floor-space, such that uncovered balconies constitute an additional amount of room over and above the covered floor-space of the rest of the apartment: an old building, with an uncovered porch yields a certain floor-space plus the area represented by the uncovered balcony.

A 1950s immigrant absorption camp (maabara) in Israel, with tents and shacks. Photo from the book 1949 by Tom Segev

1960s advertisement for the now well known Rassco Building on Ramat Hadar in Haifa. Photo from Shapes Us article
Architecture in Restrospect:
The "Block" and the "Shikun" Apartment, 1949

The original program for the building of the new State, which was known as the "Sharon Program" - named after its planner, the architect Arieh Sharon - turned the blocks and the "shikun" ("shikun" means 'housing' or 'housing complex' in Hebrew) apartments, known and patterned entities, into a household name in Israel. Housing complex flats ("Shikunim" - one must use this word to truly absorb the uniqueness of the design described here) were originally erected in order to provide a solution to the absorption of the 980,000 immigrants who came to the country between the years 1949-1961, and the project to create them, mostly handled by the firm Amidar, is considered one of the most impressive of Zionist enterprises. A population of 650,000 people absorbed and provided housing in a short period of time to almost a million other people.

Between 1939 and 1953 52,000 apartments in shikun buildings were created, and from 1954, when it was decided to transfer immigrant absoption camps (called "ma'abarot" - many of them tent cities or at best masses of low-cost wooden shacks) to the shikunim, another 60,000 apartments were erected in shikunim until 1985. This was not just the provision of housing solutions: the shikunim also fulfilled political functions like the ambition of "population dispersement" or the attempt to quieten the social disturbances of the type in the Wadi Salib riot in Haifa.

The shikun was a great success story of the young State of Israel, and that is how it is documented in the exhibition "The Israeli Project". In an interview to "Ha'aretz" the treasurer Tzvi Efrat said that the Israeli building enterprise was part of the aspiration to turn the State of Israel into a united and planned State "up to the windows, the shutters and the doorknobs".

The Israeli housing block materialized in difficult conditions and was built under time pressure and through technical difficulties, though in spite of that, says Efrat, "this is the most progressive enterprise of the country, which was accomplished through the full enlistment of the professional community, including the key domestic architects". He praised the small shikun apartment and noted that in order to plan well apartments which would be practical and livable in a space of 32 meters(!), an especially high degree of expertise was needed. "The planning of 'minimum' apartments, frugal in space and in building materials, and even so airy and well organized is not an inconsequential matter".
article from: "Shapes Us" by Dalia Karpel in Ha'aretz Supplement magazine, 28 April 2006, pg. 24
Although the intensity of Israel's wars did not diminish over time, the national standard of living and with it national social mores, rose (or became more 'sophisticated') every year since the founding of the state. Opportunistic outlets for the individual manipulation of living space diminished over the years: balconies became integral parts of apartments, ceiling heights gradually became lowered from almost three and a half meters to just over two, and the preponderance of ad-hoc extensions to apartments - enclosed laundry-line enclosures or extra balconies - diminished altogether. Buildings in this period, from the 1960s to the early 1980s, began to look more institutionalized, with less individualistic flairs.

Although retaining an even more boxy appearance with the gradual absorption of the balconies, these more contemporary buildings adopted a "Brutalist" style of architecture, exhibiting more bare, naked concrete, combined with brick, stone, steel, and glass. Apartment buildings of this style are often long and rectangular, about 4 stories high, and from outside, each level and apartment is split by thick horizontal and vertical bands of exposed concrete. The City Hall in Tel Aviv, and many of the apartment blocks in the Talpiot neighborhood of Jerusalem were built during this period, as were those closer to the [then] outskirts of Haifa. Traditional-styled box buildings combining columns at the ground level now added more supporting columns and internal floorspace on the ground-level shrank down to the minimum area needed for an entrance, elevator, and stairs, yielding more parking or garden space around the building (most buildings attempt to cram in both into this freed-up territory).

In recent years, buildings in Israel have become much taller, and in the words of some commentators, more "original", containing more space to accommodate rising living standards. One architect, a strong proponent of the Brutalist style observes that today, "the public demands shinier, lighter, more transparent buildings. As in apparel - jeans and a T-shirt - the light and spontaneous are preferred over the heavy and serious."

Nevertheless, with these strides towards modernity, there is also a rise in shoddier quality of construction, which is ironic given the relative lack of esthetics in today's architecture. The trend is symptomatic of the times. On the one hand, the quality of construction is disturbing: flimsy, un-uniform floor-tiles, uneven walls, a heavy reliance on plasterboard; the commentator above notes that, "in Israel as in other places, the skill to create worthy bare concrete constructions has become extinct due to a lack of time, scaffolders and patience." On the other hand, rising standards of living have also eroded the nation's general sense of community and collective involvement: individual houses, villas, cottages, or even semi-detached homes have become more popular in recent years. American-styled mass-suburbs featuring plasterboarded homes are now popular outside of the major cities. Even government-built settlement/new neighborhood housing is built with an eye for semi-detachedness as opposed to the traditional unitary apartment block of three floors with next-door neighbors.

For all the complaints that native Israelis and unsuspecting visitors may have about the unglamorous state of Israel's architecture, the country's buildings are a unique documentation of a social and historical legacy of the 20th century that cannot be found anywhere else. Israel's architecture is remarkable both for its frankness, individuality and artistry, but also because it is an accurate portrayal of the country's social evolution. There is no pretence in the appearance of the country's buildings.

Renovated Bauhaus building in Tel Aviv, on the corner of Dizengoff and Ben Gurion Streets: this is a model of Bauhaus design in almost every way - smooth, bare and white, with open exposed floors and lack of enclosures, and outward symmetry. Note the small, significant details like the simple flat metal railings, the wooden shutters on windows and doors (both made of wooden frames), the sliding double-doors and the concrete overhangs along ground floor ceiling. Without the enclosures we've become used to seeing today, original Bauhaus structures in Israel did look just like this: the areas represented by open spaces like balconies looked more like concrete skeletons of ranctangular spaces attached to the building as opposed to integral parts of it.

Another renovated Bauhaus on Rothschild Street and Marmorek in tel Aviv: here with curved exterior walls and balconies which bear metal-lined railings held by a notch of concrete.

A Bauhaus renovation also on Rothschild Street, here with a much simpler facade of long balconies with curved edges and low metal frames - all in white.

Although most Israelis would like to savor the glamour of walking down palatial grand avenues on the scale of Paris, many have gradually come to appreciate the aesthetic and historical worth of their country's own unique contribution to the pantheon of architecture. Over the past 15 years there has been a widespread campaign to protect and renovate older buildings, even those from the recent '50s, '60s, and '70s. And one of the unusually foresighted aspects of the architectural code here is that as long as the renovation preserves the original style of the architecture, it can take advantage of the building's superstructure to expand it, and hence, with steady population growth there has emerged appearance of Israel's 'fourth floor' (or more) onto the older buildings of its major cities. This movement signals the growing appreciation here for the physical, if stodgy, legacy of Israel's understated grandeur from her times of tribulation - a movement which compensates for our lack of the grand architecture of cities in once-conquered formerly great lands which cannot succeed in restoring to their inhabitants the sense of greatness which they lost so long ago.


Both in the best and worst of economic times, issues of investment in property and the eternal question of whether to buy or rent have always been subjects of interest here in Israel. In spite of recent conflicts and recession housing prices today in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are extraordinarily high, so if we could compare today to the past, are prices higher today? And is the housing market significantly different today after 60 or 70 years?

With a copy of the American Council on Public Affairs's economic study "Palestine: Problem and Promise" from 1946 in hand (specifically Chapter 16 on Housing and Construction, pages 242-258), here are a few interesting statistics and observations from before 60 years. To help with the rough currency and purchasing power conversions over time I'm using "What Was the Exchange Rate Then?" and "".

To compare purchasing power in real estate then to now, also keep in mind that Tel Aviv rents are about minimum $350-500 for a 1-room (net of kitchen, toilet and utilities rooms) flat (under $450 for worse parts of town) and $700-800 for a 2-room flat in most parts of the city; it costs about $220,000 on average to buy such a 2-room (circa 65 meter) flat in the city. The average Israeli (gross) salary correct to 2005 was 7,208 Shekels (about $1,605 at a rate of 4.49 NIS to the USD).

The historical narrative in this book speaks of inadequate levels of residential housing even in the prewar period, and particularly in the Jewish parts of Palestine - specifically Tel Aviv - it attributes much of this problem to "lack of intelligent advance planning and zoning, the rapid development of new residential sections, the considerable overcrowding, and the poor construction of buildings" which brought about "the deterioration of housing in a very short time. Parts of Tel Aviv built only 20 to 25 years ago [i.e. 1921-1926] are now considered slums".

The study attributes the source of the poor construction to the presence of few skilled Jewish craftsmen, architects and engineers in the period of the 1920's, and goes on to note that the "most serious aspect of the inadequacy of housing was the overcrowding". It notes that overcrowded living conditions are found at "all levels of income in Palestine", and from Jewish wager-earner statistics from 1937 it further finds that "about half of the workers were living three or more to a room".

In comments eerily relevant to today's Israeli workforce, the 1946 study found that in 1937 "the very low incomes caused rents to be a serious burden on the working population". Israel today, for example, has the unenviable distinction of having the highest parity between rich and poor in the west. For those 1937 income statistics, the study cited a special census of 10,000 Tel Aviv wage earners, though reassured that few earned less than £P6 per month:

Wages per Month 1937 (£P) Wages per Month
(in today's USD)
Wages per Month
(in today's NIS)
Average Rent Paid 1937
Average Rent Paid (in today's USD) Average Rent Paid (in today's NIS) Percent of Wages Paid in Rent
2-4 140 - 280 630 - 1,260 1.27 89 400 42.3%
4-6 280 - 420 1,260 - 1,890 1.51 106 476 30.2%
6-8 420 - 560 1,890 - 2,520 1.80 126 567 25.9%
8-10 560 - 700 2,520 - 3,150 2.33 163 734 26.0%
10-15 700 - 1,050 3,150 - 4,725 3.07 215 967 24.6%
15-20 1,050 - 1,400 4,725 - 6,300 3.93 275 1238 22.5%
20-25 1,400 - 1,750 6,300 - 7,875 5.18 363 1632 23.0%
25-30 1,750 - 2,100 7,875 - 9,450 6.10 427 1922 22.2%
30-40 2,100 - 2,800 9,450 - 12,600 6.60 462 2079 18.8%
40-50 2,800 - 3,500 12,600 - 15,750 7.42 519 2337 16.5%

One Palestinian Pound from 1937 was worth at that time almost $5 American Dollars (the £P being pegged to the British Pound itself); one USD from 1937 was worth $14 USD in 2006, and 1 USD in 2006 was worth about 4.50 NIS.

Compared to the statistics above, today's (2005-2007) Tel Aviv rents for a 1-room flat begin at the 1937 level cited above but can go up as high as $500 if not more - about are about 31% of the national average salary; for a 2-room rental, today's rates relative to that cited next to the national average gross wage are about twice the rate lised - about 45%(!!) of today's average gross salary. On a brighter note the rental rates from 1937 are about $100 higher than today's rental rates in Haifa.

The study summarized the table's finding reporting that the average expense on rent was 25% of a monthly salary, as compared to 18-20% in the US and Canada or 13% in Germany and Japan.

Public Buildings and Their Condition
The study also noted an interesting tendency of the period seen still today in older buildings in major Israeli cities: that the Mandatory Government preferred to rent office space rather than to build structures specially designed for its needs. Institutions such as the Government itself, the Supreme Court, Police Headquarters, district headquarters, hospitals, asylums, colleges, schools, post offices, workshops and stores were often located in hired buildings "usually unsuited for their present uses". The rents the Government paid would rise as each expired lease was renewed and "no alternative accomodations present themselves". The study also noted the consequent heavy expenses in repairs on these older and re-used office spaces.

Rents and Returns
In light of the trend in recent years for property owners in Tel Aviv particular to subdivide an apartment into several smaller units and rent them individually (a disgusting habit which ruined many lovely interior designs), it's interesting to see the study remark upon "the considerable difference of opinion in Palestine as to whether rentals in the prewar period provided a reasonable return on investment": it found that in a market which had little vacancy and low taxes, Palestine rents could yield a gross return of as much as 10-12% of a property's value per year - a rate comparable to that in the US, according to the study. On one small but significant point, these high returns were also the result of the "simple type of structures" enabling cheap repairs - not so today, where replacing a rusty drainage pipe back from the old period usually means the uprooting of whole floors and walls.

On Cost Components
The study's observations on variables affecting property costs are also remarkably pertinent today. It notes that relative to the standard of accomodation provided construction costs are high, though it goes on to note that in an absolute sense, because of the simple standard of construction and the lack of space provided these costs are actually low. As this relates to today's construction in Israel it's unfortunately not unusual to see relatively new and expensive luxury buildings with cracks in the walls or exposed concrete where the cheap tiles which were once affixed have fallen off.

Where construction costs were cheap was in material, 70% of which was imported, nearly all at dump-value. Even wages for construction workers were considered low by the standard then - however, in light of the workforce's lack of skill and experience, particularly in the 1920's and 1930's, these wages were actually considered quite high relative to productivity. As visitors to Israel will see of our old buildings, they are indeed quite distinguishable from one to another in detail and style (as noted in the article above), however for this same reason - the lack of large-scale, standarding construction projects and the fuller use of labor-saving machinery, property prices in Palestine then were also higher than they needed to be. And still the study returns and emphasizes that the relatively poor quality of construction then had knock-on effects on costs and prices, such as maintenance costs and rates of ammortization.

Another component of the costs then was land speculation, and the lack of a capital gains tax at that time spurred the speculative acquisition of land and its rapid and large-scale development. The study notes a related trend very similar to the situation here just a few years ago when the second Intifada broke out: "With the disturbances [i.e. the 1936-39 Arab Revolt] and the Ethiopian crisis, immigration slowed down and the land prices began to recede". In our times, Haifa suffered the most from the decline in Russian immigration and the already low housing prices there plumetted, though in Tel Aviv, the country's economic and cultural center, prices either remained stable (and high) and didn't grow or dipped slightly over the last few years (and were still relatively high - especially when the Dollar exchange rate rose against the local Shekel currency); for different reasons with similar results in the 1930's, as the study notes, price-rises were "steepest in Tel Aviv which received the largest influx of immigrants, and least in Haifa where the Jewish National Fund and the Bayside Land Corporation, a quasi-public enterprise, have large land holdings which are used to exert a restraining influence on speculative dealings".

Another prescient observation of the study is of a phenomenon seen precisely now again in Israel, especially in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv: "sociological factors... serve to reinforce... speculative interests... a sentimental desire to own property in the Homeland". Today for instance, even with security problems on and beyond our borders (i.e. the Palestinian issue, the Lebanon War) and economic concern (i.e. the widening gap between rich and poor and an 8% unemployment rate), property prices in the center of the country particularly have soared - even in Jerusalem, which has the unenviable distinction of being expensive but the most impoverished of the major Israeli cities in supporting services and local economy. The wealthy have invested in propery in spite of local security and economic concerns. In the 1930's too, "speculative bidding up of land has resulted in land costs accounting for 30 percent of total investment compared with 10 to 20 percent in Europe".

Back in the '30s however, the excessive land prices did have a punishing boomerang effect: they caused the cost of capital to rise, which in turn caused land development to be maximized to the point of little public or garden space to be left - and for rents to be abnormally high. In many cases, the purchased land simply remained idle and unused, which "proved a formidable obstacle to an adequate social housing policy".

Click here to see a photo gallery of Israeli bauhaus and architecture