Friday, May 8, 2009

Open House

A room in ha-blok

Following in the footsteps of other major cities, Tel Aviv has been holding an 'Open House' weekend for several years now. The local version is called batim mi-bifnim or 'houses from the inside'. The event, which opens up scores of private homes, workplaces and public buildings and spaces to the general public, becomes more popular ever year. After all, who isn't interested in peeking into other people's habitats? Consequently we met long queues at some of the buildings we'd planned to visit and decided to move on. There was still plenty to see though.

The day started on a green note at the community organic garden in Maoz Aviv, a charming quiet and very green neighbourhood in the north east situated next to the luna park. From small beginnings the garden is now used actively by 40 families in either general or individual plots. The municipality provided the land and the water. The families contribute 50 shekels a month to cover expenses like new plants. Even people who don't use the garden regularly leave their fresh garbage in the active compost heap. In fact we learned a lot about compost heaps - apparently a growing fashion (they don't throw meat and fish onthe pile in Maoz Aviv ). I resolved to start a communal compost heap in the back garden.

Moving on and still in green mode, we visited the "ecological apartment" situated on a picturesque corner of Bialik Square. This is the kitchen whose walls, according to the note, were painted with of flour and milk! The residents are eco activists who run an NGO called A Tree in The City. (Hebrew only). Another lecture on compost (yes you can chuck meat and fish on the heap) and I was ready for some plastic and steel.

But first. more organic kitchen

Over the road, is 'bauhaus tel aviv' , a modest but stylish collection of Bauhaus artifacts, with stress on the tubular chairs that have become modern classics. This was not part of the tour but worth the visit.

Taking the time to see buildings not normally visited whetted the appetite for forays into corners often passed but never entered. Thus inspired, we stopped at Tel Aviv's first cemetery on Rehov Trumpeldor (which actually served the Jews of Jaffa before Tel Aviv was Tel Aviv).

Amidst the crumbling gravestones lie the remains of some of Tel Aviv's and Israel's luminaries: Arlosorov (Zionist leader), Dizengoff and Rokach (early mayors), Haim Nahman Bialik (national poet), Moshe Sharett (Prime Minister) and others - "All the streets ," as A put it.

Many of the old gravestones carry the photographs of the deceased, an un-Jewish custom I always thought but today too, you see photographs on the gravestones of immgrants from Russia so it may be an eastern European thing.

Next stop was a four storey building on Rehov Barzilai near the now trendy gan ha-chashmal (Electric Garden) area. This started out in the early thirties as a set of elegant apartments built in the international style. As the area deteriorated in the 60s and 70s, the building, with its well proportioned rooms, high ceilings and beautiful floor tiles, was let out to small businesses and left to decay. In the early 90s a young couple rented the entire building and tastefully converted it in to a busy post-production studio called 'Edit'

Walking up the central stairwell at Edit. Click to check out the different tiles on each floor.

detail of modernist, early 30s tiles.

editing corner at Edit - each room has different theme.

Next stop was to ha-blok (The Block) which , it turned out, is the location of an Isaeli reality show. I'm a bit fuzzy on the details of the show (and intend to remain so) but what we saw is that a nondescript abandoned 60s block on the corner of Mazeh and Begin had been partially converted into 6 very small apartments, each of which was named after a different young couple (Ma'ayan and Roi, say). Some sort of competition was involved. The rooms, all overly designed and none, to my mind, attractive, were obviously slapped together for the show. Here an ABBA video on a loop competes with Marilyn for no apparent reason.

A dispiriting room in ha-blok

This morning, together with another 300 people, we took a tour with environmental activist, TV journalist, foreign affairs expert and now Knesset Member Nitzan Horowitz through central Tel Aviv: from Dizengoff Square to Gan London next to the Dan Hotel on sea front. The theme was urban sustainability

Ma'onot Ha-Ovdim (Workers Residences)

Along the way, Nitzan (below) pointed out how once throbbing Dizengoff with its smart shops, bohemian cafes and vibrant street life had been handed over to the automobile in the 70s. Historic Tzina Dizengoff Square, surrounded by magnificent International Style buildings (see today's lovely Cinema Hotel for inspiration) was raised to allow cars to flow underneath. Once its connection to the street was severed the whole area went downhill. Today, this end of Dizengoff is a collection of run down buildings, felafel joints and cheap bazaars. The solution: restore the square (actually a circle) to street level and market forces will revitalize the whole area.

Further along the way we stopped at ma'onot ha-ovdim ('workers residences' - see above) built in the 30s in a utopian vision that, according to Nitzan, holds the secret to urban sustainability today. This was the "affordable housing" of an earlier age. Three sides of modest apartments surrounded a large central lawn , protected from the busy street outside , where children could play safely. The apartments were originally populated by a mixed bunch of factory workers, intellectuals and Labour Party workers. In today's terms this would (apart from the party hacks) be considered a good "mix" of types of population. Thirty seconds away and you are on busy Dizengoff street , hence also a good mix of residential and commercial use. The third elelement for sustainable urbanism - an efficent, integrated pubic transportation system with dedicated public traffic lanes and limits on private car usage - was less of a problem in the 1930s.

MK Nitzan Horowitz

Tel Aviv argued Nitzan, is already an "excellent city" but, with a bit of thought and planning, could be a "model".

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