The Bauhaus in the Middle East: ′Tel Aviv was an oasis′ | Culture | Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 19.09.2019

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The Bauhaus in the Middle East: 'Tel Aviv was an oasis'

Tel Aviv celebrates 100 years of homegrown Bauhaus-inspired architecture with the opening of the White City Center. Designed for White City residents and visitors, it will help preserve the area's storied architecture.

White City is a the UNESCO World Heritage Site in Tel Aviv boasting around 4,000 residential buildings built in the 1930s and 40s by mostly Jewish architects who were often inspired by Bauhaus architecture — or indeed were progenitors of the movement such as Arieh Sharon.

Founded by the Tel Aviv-Yafo Municipality and the German government at a cultural crossroads, the White City Center that opened on September 19 has a mission to actively preserve the sometimes dilapidated buildings in the renowned modernist residential quarter. 

Read moreBauhaus abroad: How a utopian idea spread

Norbert Höpfer, a German mineralogist, has been involved in the restoration of about 30 buildings in the White City since 2006. He told DW how the restoration process unfolded, and how monument protection differs in Germany and Israel.

Norbert Höpfer Restaurator

Norbert Höpfer at work in Tel Aviv

DW: The decades have taken a toll on the Bauhaus-inspired buildings in Tel Aviv. How white is White City today?

Norbert Höpfer: I'd say after a lot of restoration work it is whiter than ever before. We often don't even know how the houses were originally painted because we can't tell from the black-and-white photos. They weren't necessarily all white. Some were green and ochre. I found a house that had apricot as its first coat of paint. Unfortunately, the plaster was often completely knocked off during the restoration process. There are very few remnants and we don't have detailed documentation.

Read more100 years of Bauhaus: Myths and misunderstandings

White City Center has just opened in the restored Max Liebling House. How were you involved?

I provided a report on issues with the facade. It really was a headache because the plaster was not original but maybe 15 years old. There were cracks in every square meter. We had workshops looking at how to manage to get the Bauhaus shape, and how to get the plastering techniques right. That needs to be passed on from one generation to the next otherwise it is lost.

You started restoration work in Tel Aviv in 2006. What special circumstances did you encounter and where did your expertise come in?

At first, I restored Templar houses built by Christian Templars from Württemberg after they emigrated to Palestine in the late 19th century. In Tel Aviv, I worked on Wilhelminian-style buildings and devised a mortar. The Germans always want to know exactly what people are doing — the Israelis, on the other hand, only want to know how long something takes and what it costs. So in Tel Aviv , I was able to try out materials without anyone asking questions. In Germany there's always a lengthy debate about the merits of using this lime or that lime.

White City was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003. How is monument preservation different in Germany and Israel?

In Israel, there is still a lot of manual labor. Israel has a great many Palestinian plasterers who are urgently needed in Germany, we could really use them. In Germany, larger projects can not afford manual plastering. The Israelis are ahead of us where that is concerned. What is negative about Israel is that facades are often rebuilt, even with new materials like synthetic resin paint. Bauhaus is originally painted with lime, which has a different look. Lime has a 10,000-year-old tradition.

Read moreBeat the heat: Architecture and design ideas to cool down

You helped restore houses planned by migrants who fled the Nazis. Were you aware that you you were working on preserving a German-Jewish heritage?

My focus was more on why so many Bauhaus buildings were built in Tel Aviv. Leftists and Jews fled from the Nazis, the country's avant-garde was gone. The Bauhaus students at the time built what was fashionable — Tel Aviv was an oasis compared to Europe because it was hardly touched by the war and houses were being built all at once. Such freedom existed nowhere in Europe. But even Israel no longer had resources after the War of Independence broke out in 1948. From then on, Israel built houses like the Germans did after 1945 — cheaply and with thin walls.

Has working in Tel Aviv made you a Bauhaus fan?

I'm a big critic of these buildings. They are incredibly chic, but they are not designed for longevity. Who builds a flat roof and large balconies in Germany, a country with rain and snow? Bauhaus shifted walls and grew vertically, many high-rise buildings today are based on the Bauhaus idea but are actually nothing more than underground garages built upwards: everything stands on pillars, there is a concrete core for lifts and building services, the facade is encased. The original Bauhaus style with its masonry and lime was more honest.

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