Israel’s cosmopolitan city brings cultural heft to a land steeped in tradition.
BY GILI MERIN
Despite the geopolitical mayhem that percolates around Tel Aviv and its conservative sister city, Jerusalem, only an hour drive inland, Israel’s young metropolis has forged a forward-looking society along the Mediterranean while living by its own rules. That means it’s harder to find a Kosher restaurant than an authentic Sudanese or Vietnamese street-food stall, and that peace rallies are as common as pride parades. It’s an urban manifestation of escapism, in which locals seem to distance themselves from the country’s daily troubles in order to form an enclave of culture and leisure. I joined them, much like other students in creative fields, in the midst of my design studies at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem, decamping from the 3,000-year-old capital for the mesmerizing cacophony of architectural styles and aesthetic languages offered by Tel Aviv—founded in the 20th century, it’s a baby by comparison. Here, the Holy Land’s inherent political tension is broken down and harnessed as a generator for the contextual, and often polemical, art and design scenes.
Spatially speaking, the city is suspended between a nostalgic desire for preservation and an irrepressible thirst for innovation. UNESCO’s designation of the historical White City section as a World Heritage Site in 2003 created a shift in attitude toward architectural relics, and a tremendous investment in refurbishing the Eclectic style mansions and stucco-white Bauhaus structures of the 1920s and ’30s. At the same time, world-renowned architects like I.M. Pei, Richard Meier, and Norman Foster have been busy erecting forests of glass luxury towers.
The juxtaposition of the imported European zeitgeist and the embedded Levantine culture extends beyond the design realm and dates back to the city’s inception. It’s divided into two contrasting parts: the idealistic Tel Aviv proper, and the Biblical port town of Old Jaffa, where Muslims and Jews still live side by side. In the south quarters, an immigrant majority population is forming a melting pot of origins and traditions; it’s also where the artistic energy has drifted, along with a diverse nightlife scene that’s garnering attention for its multifarious venues that meld galleries and clubs. Idyllic beaches, influential museums, a kaleidoscopic culinary identity with global accents, and a thriving tech industry, dubbed “Silicon Wadi” ("valley" in Hebrew), that rivals its California counterpart—are all reasons why Tel Aviv is a beacon of 21st-century dynamism in a region that desperately needs it.
Much like Berlin’s Neukölln borough is steadily replacing Kreuzberg as the focal point for the creative milieu, Tel Aviv’s artistic epicenter is gradually shifting from the now-trendy quarters of Florentine and Noga to the lesser-known neighborhoods further south, which locals are starting to call SoSa, or South of Salame Street. The most ambitious arrival is an industrial compound of 1960s Socialist-Modernism concrete blocks called Kiryat Hamelacha. Over 250 artists’ studios, 17 galleries, and recording rooms utilize its high ceilings and low rents, like the not-for-profit Art Space TLV, a co-op that gives a platform to up-and-coming talent. Just steps away lies RawArt, and Feinberg Projects, which showcase contemporary works; the photography exhibition space Indie (galleryindie.com); and the venerated Rosenfeld Gallery, a booster for top Israeli artists that relocated from the city center in 2009. Close by is architect Asaf Lerman’s new Ravel Museum, housed in a former tahini factory, and Dvir Gallery, whose monolithic entrance is decorated by Lawrence Weiner’s "On Top of the Wind." The avant-garde Center for Contemporary Arts, designed by the veteran Jaffa-based firm Kisselov Kaye with the landscape architects Moria-Sekely, recently established its first permanent home behind the Carmel Market in Herzliya where it hosts experimental screenings. For large-scale contemporary shows, there is the Tel Aviv Museum of Art's 1959-built Helena Rubinstein Pavilion, designed by Dov Karmi and Zeev Rechter. Down the road are the two central wings, including the striking 200,000-square-foot addition by American architect Preston Scott Cohen, featuring a “light fall” atrium in its core and Cohen’s signature geometrically-expressive facade. The summer of 2016 will bring notable exhibitions from around the world, such as “Powerless Structures” by Elmgreen & Dragset and Marcel Odenbach’s “Inside-Out.” Meanwhile, a surprising culture hub is taking hold in the peripheral suburbs. Head to favorite son Ron Arad’s sinewy, rust-colored Design Museum Holon, the ambitious cultural institute MoBY in Bat Yam, and Rishon Lezion’s soon-to-open Yaacov Agam Museum.
Historical buildings have become Tel Aviv’s hospitality treasure as 19th-century Ottoman-era and 1920s Eclectic-style mansions are transformed into boutique hotels. Converted from two 1925 houses in a residential White City neighborhood, the Norman Hotel upped the luxury quotient when it opened in 2014 following an eight-year renovation by local architect Yoav Messer, including the refurbishments of original frescos and floor tiles. London designer David d’Almada is behind the golden imprints on the white-cast ceilings in the 12 rooms, exposed concrete corridors, and the transparent elevator that leads to the rooftop infinity pool overlooking the majestic Pagoda House by architect Alexander Levy. Nearby, a Hollywood-esque contingent hangs out on the brasserie-style black leather sofas at the Montefiore Hotel’s street-level French-Vietnamese bistro. Upstairs, 12 individually designed rooms are outfitted with 1930s furniture by German designer Thonet and floor-to-ceiling libraries; works by different Israeli artists like Ohad Matalon and David Adika are strewn about the public and private spaces, as is photography by Haaretz staffer Daniel Tchetchik. Near the Great Synagogue, architect Ari Shaltiel and artist Lauri Recanati joined forces to restore a bohemian villa, now The Alma. Inside: antique one-off pieces, site-specific artworks, and the reopened restaurant helmed by chef Yonatan Roshfeld. Retreating westbound from the urban scenery and into the seafront, the pared-down Dan Tel Aviv may not have the same cache as it did when it debuted as the city’s first luxury hotel in the 1950s, but a facelift by the German firm Hollin and Radoske restored the lobby and Rudi Lehmann’s mythological sculptures. The rectangular exterior is aligned with the newly-completed beachfront promenade by Mayslits-Kassif Architects, whose wavy wooden decks are the perfect place to gaze at the hotel’s rainbow-clad facade—the graphic by the kinetic artist Yaacov Agam has become an icon all its own. Vstudio and Aline Langlieb were commissioned by Brown Beach House, a new spinoff of the popular Brown TLV in Neve Tzedek, which draws a younger crowd with a democratic design and affordable rates. The retro urban resort features 40 Art Deco-inspired rooms with yellow chesterfield sofas, periodical pop-up shops, and a midcentury tropical-theme bar. The newest addition to the high-end hospitality repertoire, set to unveil this fall, is Old Jaffa’s W Tel Aviv, British designer John Pawson’s adaptation of a 19th-century convent and hospital.
RESTAURANTS AND BARS
Tel Aviv’s culinary landscape is defined by its obsession with relevance. That means not only keeping up with international trends, but also inventing, spreading, and perfecting them. It helps to have the sunny Mediterranean’s fresh produce and the know-how of over-ambitious chefs. While some fads bloom late — the ramen temples that spread across London and New York are only now arriving to Tel Aviv — other global tendencies thrive, such as the amount of vegan concepts that go head-to-head with the best in Berlin and Manhattan. Pastel Brasserie at the Tel Aviv Museum’s Sculpture Garden joins the international wave of superb restaurants at cultural institutions. Designed by Baranowitz-Kronenberg Architects, the interior is dominated by the futuristic gestures of Preston Scott Cohen's wing as its exterior envelope folds inside, encasing the space with metal sheets. Balancing it is the traditional hardwood floor, mahogany seating booths, and chandeliers inside. Another venture by the firm is located on the lesser-known side of the Ayalon Freeway: Yaffo-Tel Aviv is the home of Israel’s culinary monarch, Haim Cohen, and his attempt to fuse both old and new in the ambiance and cuisine. Rough concrete finishing and a metal winery give it a raw industrial feel; wooden shutters and hanged rugs allude to the embedded orientalism of Old Jaffa, while the Piet Hein Eek scrapwood chairs and imported Czech “bell” lamps render the cosmopolitical Tel Aviv. Across a bridge, renowned architect Pitsou Kedem fashioned Taizu as a nouveau adaptation of the Chinese mythological elements. Using bamboo blocks, pivoting metal partitions, black slate tables, and lemongrass plants, he defines five distinct seating areas—all equipped with minimalistic Foscarini and Vibia lighting fixtures, and Vitra chairs. In the White City serenity, Swiss restaurateur family Bindella opened their first restaurant outside of their native country, where they own over 40. Designed by the trio Kedem-Baranowitz-Amit, the Bindella Osteria & Bar evokes the patterns, forms, and colors of the family’s 100-acre vineyard in Tuscany: Oak beams stretch across the ceiling as a wooden pergola painted alternating shades of green, and a metal mashrabiya is perforated with an abstract grape pattern, playfully filtering light onto the warm wooden furniture inside. Don’t be dissuaded by the no-frills entrance of the Imperial Hotel, it conceals a speakeasy-style bar steeped in a post colonial aesthetic, including teal velvet banquettes and custom wallpaper, and has received international praise for its inventive cocktails. Gan Hahashmal’s indoor-outdoor Kuli Alma exemplifies the spate of multi-use spaces cropping up all over town. Situated within an open-air courtyard with wild palms and vibrant street murals, rotating installations filter through white-cube gallery spaces, while a global cast of DJs perform at the club, where projections of vintage films and animation videos adorn the walls.
There isn’t an enthusiasm for high-end flagships, nor an urban need to group them together, which is why the city lacks a central shopping axis like Fifth Avenue or Champs-Élysées, both geographically and conceptually. Thus, the couture archipelago is as varied as it is sprawling. Jaffa’s flea market, for example, is more than just antiquities and memorabilia: The largest selection of young local designers is showcased in Asufa and at the gallery-as-furniture boutique next door, Saga, both directed by Lior Yamin. Proponents of a minimalist lifestyle stock up at Sharon Brunsher’s store around the corner. On the shelves: her signature monochromatic designs, stationery, and textile goods. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the Tel Aviv Port provides views of the Mediterranean Sea and ambitious ventures such as the provocative Harbour House from Israeli fashion brand Comme il Faut. Expect feminist art collections, a women-oriented sex shop, and pop-up stalls of local designers. In the central business district, architect Dan Troim retrofitted a century-old winery into the sprawling industrial concept shop Story Sarona. For upscale names, Verner Boutique on Yehuda Halevi street was crafted by the interior-designer Anat Esteron. The narrow, high-ceilinged former financial building lobby was transformed into a ’60s-inspired fashion institution, appointed with Verner Panton lamps and stylish hangers by artist Giora Lifshitz that display collections from Acne Studios, Comme des Garçons, and Alexander Wang, among others. On the other bank, just off Rothschild Boulevard, Hibino owner-designer Prag Rokach imports specialty Japanese products: wooden bowls by Shoji Morinaga, Ryota Aoki pottery pieces, and Taliesin table lamps designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and produced by Yamagiwa. For commodity architects and wealthy collectors, the Design Museum Holon’s chief curator Gal Gaon showcases singular pieces at Talents Design Studio, a 1920s Eclectic style apartment in the White City. Notable pieces include the famous Morning Glory lamp by Aqua Creations, Ilan Garibi's metal origami pieces, and an It All Began in Africa armchair by Arik Ben Simhon.