The unbearable whiteness of Tel Aviv: An extract from ‘White City, Black City’

Termed by forensic architect Eyal Weizman as “a path breaking and brilliant analysis that combines architecture, urban design, military strategy and general culture into an exhilarating war of streets and homes”, Sharon Rotbard’s ‘White City, Black City’ is an examination of the urban design of Tel Aviv and Jaffa; an uncovering of the political within the topical. Read and extract here:

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‘Perhaps more than any other architectural tradition, Israeli architecture has a tendency to reveal its own politics.  The story of the international canonisation of the White City of Tel Aviv hardly deviates from this rule. The White City’s journey, from lowly exhibition to global certification, even demonstrates how Israeli architecture unveiled, rehashed and manipulated other political economies; in this instance, the politics of UNESCO and the
politics of international architecture. From the Israeli standpoint, the practical meaning of the UNESCO declaration is that Tel Aviv is obliged publicly, vis-à-vis the world, to realise its own designation as a white city.

What exactly did Tel Aviv promise UNESCO when it accepted its stamp of approval?  Essentially, it promised to be whiter, to bleach itself clean. Of course, had it already been white then this whole exercise would have been utterly superfluous.  Establishing UNESCO’s political positioning is all the more interesting then when we consider that Tel Aviv was not given a carte blanche as a prize for actually being white, but rather for wanting to be white.

There is obviously something politically unsettling about the portrayal of Tel Aviv’s architectural white as an extension of a grander ‘will to be white’. It is problematic at the very least, because only that which is not white can want to be white. Beyond the realms of traditional white racism as we know it, this concept of an architectural white could only have originated in Europe, where the white is hegemonic in any case. This ‘will to be white’ is unlikely to have originated from within Afro-American or Afro-European communities, and is even less likely to have stemmed from post-colonial Africa, where there would have been no benefit for black inhabitants to actively deny their own colour. Even if, as Frantz Fanon observes, the dialectics of the ‘will to be white’ and the resistance against it are a substantial and inevitable part of what it means to be a black man under European subjugation, this would not nor could ever qualify as a determined ideology or a publicly supported strategy. It might be a personal survival tactic at best, or a form of surrender at worst.

Plenty  of  ink  has  been  spilled  over  the  usage  and  quest  for  white  in modern  architecture,  not  least  because  the  most  contentious  of  all architectural  images  has  been  the  flagship  white  box.  For Le Corbusier, modern architecture’s chief propagandist, white was the ideal base for the clinically sharp and beautifully accurate ‘game of forms assembled under the light’. For Adolf Loos, it was a powerful ideological statement, which negated the cheap temptation of the decorative ornament. Among a whole generation of architects (and their clients), white has become almost the sole chromatic option worth working with, despite the availability of an infinite range of other
baughuas-1possibilities. It became a ‘default option’ for the modern movement as it first traversed the field of architecture, there has been no reason to replace it and so it remains – always the safe choice, always in vogue. Of all the colours, it is presented as the ‘natural’ option that does not require explanation or excuse,
in much the same way as the rectangle is considered a ‘natural’ choice for planners when compared with all other building forms. ‘You can choose any colour you want, as long as it’s white’ goes the cry, well- known across every architect’s studio and building site in the land.

When it talks of the nudity of the wall, white is seen as a blank page, a base and a background, ideal to put on display the shapes in the sunlight on the outside, and to show the pictures, furniture and other objects in the electric light indoors. This white default had supposedly formed itself, organically emerging as the most minimalist pigment possible, as the standard, the neutral, the norm, the universal state of things. Over time, white was attached with new attributes and tagged with fresh labels: it became clean, hygienic, fresh, original, naive and virginal.  All of a sudden, what had once been the plain default option now became the basis for a wonderful array of different possibilities and reference points; white as ascetic as a Dominican monastery, as hedonistic as a Mediterranean villa, as classic as a Greek temple, as contemporary as a New York loft, as minimalist as a Japanese boutique.

As soon as white was transformed into an ideology, it ceased to be neutral. In this sense, white cannot be considered as a ‘Degree Zero’ of chromaticity but, similar in a way to the neighbouring concept of an ‘International Style’, is a sufferer of the very same trappings of European universalism.

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The distance between the white box and the white gaze is minute: the gaze establishes the box; the box contains the gaze. White is not only the universal sum of all colours, but above all else, the colour to replace all others, to cancel them out, to erase them. White architecture became the fantasy reflection of the modern movement; a fantasy that suggested innovation and which projected an image of the world as European, international and universal, all at the same time. Since this fantasy had no place in Europe, it was destined to realise itself in the distant, heterotopic provinces of the continent.

If the white architecture which left Europe and made its way to North Africa, West Africa, South America and the Middle East was originally exported as examples of the ‘Bauhaus Style’ or the ‘International Style’, then it reached its destinations under an altogether different patronage; it arrived under the auspices of colonialism, with all its spearheads, its backwinds, its programmes. This is precisely how white architecture was enrolled as one of the chief agents of Europeanism and Westernism and why, ever since, it has established itself as the architecture of the white, created by the white and for the white.

bahha-1Evidence of this can be found all over the world. In the centre of Dakar, Senegal, for example, there is an area very similar in size, scale and architecture to the White City of Tel Aviv. With streets decorated with grand Ficus trees like in Tel Aviv, Dakar boasts a whole range of modern architecture dating back from the 1920s and 1930s, complete with touches of French Art Deco and those early colonial designs which, in Tel Aviv at least, are described (for some reason) as being of an ‘eclectic style’.

In particular locations, like on the island of Goree for example, this colonial architecture is reminiscent of Neve Tzedek, with its pebbled red roofs – here, as in Neve Tzedek, the roofs are covered with ceramic tiles (nicknamed ‘Marseille tiles’), plastered with warm colours, fitted with narrow windows and furnished with wooden shutters. In the Place de l’Independence in central Dakar, a different, more urban architecture is visible; harking back to a classic use of plaster casts, its form is similar to Nachalat Binyamin and Ahad Ha’am streets in Tel Aviv. Prowling through Dakar and it becomes clear that there is really nothing revolutionary at all about the shift between these different styles. Any fluctuation is solely down to a change in taste of the white ruling elites. In fact, more accurately, the shift is just from one colonial style to another; both instances are representative of white, architectural power.

This is where Tel Aviv’s real singularity lies. In comparison with other cities like Casablanca, Algiers or Dakar, where the white architecture represents a present–absent culture of white governance, in which the buildings remain but the rulers do not, in Tel Aviv the white rulers are still present and their culture remains, more than ever, the prevalent culture. ²¹¹ Tel Aviv stands today as the urban prototype of what Casablanca, Algiers and Dakar would or could have looked like had colonialism won out, had the French retained their colonies. Architectural historian Jean-Louis Cohen, who has researched Algiers and Casablanca extensively, claims that, in light of the trauma, humiliation and oppression that went hand in hand with French rule, it is too much to expect the Algerian or Moroccan public to push for the preservation of modern French colonial architecture.²¹² And again, in this respect Israel is outstanding for being one of the few countries in the world to canonise its colonial architecture. Even 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.

While the political relevancy inherent in the whiteness of  modern architecture may not have been obvious at first, the writing has been on the wall for a while now. Primarily, it is important to recognise that many of the values ascribed to the modern movement came from its own propaganda, and that from today’s perspective it is both possible, and necessary, to judge the movement by its actions and their outcomes, as much as by the intentions or ideas which encouraged them. When we do that we can see that the political colouring of modern architecture was always visible; it was always there to be seen, if
anybody had actually wanted to see it. Perhaps in contrast to what we would have expected, or at least in contrast to what adherents of the preservation of modern architecture would have expected, the pioneers of the modern movement never considered architecture to be an autonomous discipline. They never dissembled nor hid their political colours and readily acknowledged the necessary link between their architecture and their politics. As far as the three central figures of the modern flag-tel-avivarchitectural movement – Mies, Loos and Le Corbusier – are concerned, it is a hard task to argue that the white colouring of their pieces reflected the progressiveness alluded to in, say, Tel Aviv’s narrative: politically, there is no doubt that their white was always more brown than it was red; just as in Tel Aviv, white actually read as a translation for blue and white, the colours of the Israeli flag.’

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If this book sparked your interest, please check the Pluto Press website for other similar titles. If you need a gentle nudge in the right direction, we recommend:

Limits to Culture: Urban Regeneration vs. Dissident Art by Malcolm Miles

Straddling the fields of cultural studies and urban geography, Limits to Culture pits grass-roots cultural dissent against capital’s continuing project of control via urban planning.

Palestine in Pieces: Graphic Perspectives on the Israeli Occupation by Kathleen Christison and Bill Christison

Bringing together personal and pictorial perspectives, Palestine in Pieces gives an insight into the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem.

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Sharon Rotbard is an architect, activist, writer and publisher based in South Tel Aviv. He is a senior lecturer at the Bezalel Academy in Jerusalem, and Chair of Architecture at CARE School of Architecture at Tiruchirappalli in Tamil Nadu, India.

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