Tel Aviv/ The dark side of the mythical White City

The city of Tel Aviv was declared by UNESCO a World Heritage Site, an exemplar of modernism in architecture and town planning in 2004. Yet Tel Aviv was not, as a beautiful myth has it, built “from sea foam and clouds” but born in Jaffa and shaped according to its relation to Jaffa. The topics involved are not just about architecture but also about war, Zionism and erasure of history.

Jaffa, an ancient port which at the time of Tel Aviv’s birth, was Palestine’s modern hub. After a few aliyahs and rapid urban development, Tel Aviv grew out of and consumed its origin, Jaffa. The two are basically one city, known as Tel-Aviv-Yafo; but the north (Tel Aviv) and south (Jaffa) are distinct, with different demographics, levels of wealth, and, definitely, architecture.

Back in late 1920s, Sir Patrick Geddes designed the city in hopes of providing a healthy, comfortable and civic city for Tel-Avivians to live in. But the plan also prevented Jaffa, which was then the largest city in Palestine, from expanding to the north. It led to the fact that in later years, Jaffa found itself bounded by the territories of Israel and became a tiny piece of land which was unavoidably ruined by war and violence.

Jaffa on the South of the sandhill which later became Tel Aviv
Jaffa on the South of the sandhill which later became Tel Aviv ©Wasmuth, 1994

In 1930s, rejecting the Orientalist styles favoured by early immigrants as “a combination of Baghdad and Berdichev”, the German Jewish architects’ pursuance for a whitewashed modernism resulted in a rejection of anything Middle Eastern in favour of a purely Ashkenazi identity. The prevalence of Bauhaus architecture in the 1903s was not only an issue about social and cultural desire but more importantly a political tool to wipe off any Arabian trails in the city, so that Zionist ideologies could be more solid in the mandatory Palestine at that time.

Being a triumph of modern architecture and town planning since 2004, the authority has strengthened its cleanout of Jaffa– the street were being swept clean so that the White City could stay whiter than white. Tel Aviv has seen Jaffa as an inverted reflection of itself—not shining and white but criminal and dirty: a “black city.” The beautiful myth behind the White City was a loss of Jaffa’s language, its history, and its architecture.

Geddes’ urban plan and the extensive construction of Bauhaus architectures granted Tel Aviv “a large number of trophies and titles in addition to its UNESCO diplom”. Too much about the beautiful myth has been reported while the “black city” as a result of the White City has not triggered any concern.



  1. Bard, Sharon, and Orit Gat. White City, Black City: Architecture and War in Tel Aviv and Jaffa.
  2. Bandau, Irmel, and Winfried Nerdinger. Tel Aviv Modern Architecture, 1930-1939. Tübingen: Wasmuth, 1994.
  3. “From Bauhaus to Doghouse.” The Economist. February 7, 2015. Accessed December 20, 2015.
  4. “White City Black City: Architecture and War in Tel Aviv and Jaffa – a demolition job” the Guardian. January 22 , 2015. Accessed December 20, 2015.

1 Comment on “Tel Aviv/ The dark side of the mythical White City

  1. It is interesting to see how similar themes run in both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem yet the city aesthetic results in complete opposite. In Jeruslaem, Zionism in particular was a driving force in maintaining an Orientalist style to establish harmony with the stone quality of the Old City. It would be interesting to explore the identity of the Jews in the lens of Palestine/Israel as a whole, and what the processes were in the Zionists’ embracing of the new Bauhaus style when Zionism by definition appears instead to be backward looking.

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