White City, Black City: Sharon Rotbard and the politics of architecture in Tel Aviv

A Bauhaus-inspied building in Tel Aviv. Image: israeltourism via Flickr.

In 1994, the city of Tel Aviv held a festival dedicated to the Bauhaus architectural style. There was a conference, which attracted academics from all over the world; there were exhibitions and symposiums. There were even special celebratory stamps.

The mood was optimistic: in 1933, the Berlin Bauhaus school had been closed down by the Nazis, but now its architects, and the architecture they produced, had found their new home in Israel. Tel Aviv may have been a young city – it was only founded in 1909 – but it had culture and heritage aplenty.

Sharon Rotbard, a young Israeli architect and writer fresh from his studies at the École Spéciale d'Architecture in Paris, was asked to write an article on the Bauhaus festival for a local publication. “The piece I wrote was very critical of the campaign”, he says 20 years on, over a patchy Skype connection. “It annoyed many of my friends. I was trouble-fête, spoiling the party. I found a few cracks in their nice story.”

Commemorative stamps from the Bauhaus conference.

In 2005, those cracks found their way into a full length book on Tel Aviv and its architecture: White City, Black City, published in English for the first time this month. In it, Rotbard examines the relationship between Tel Aviv and the Arab city it was built outside, Jaffa – the “black city” of the book’s title. The two are allegedly one city, known as Tel-Aviv-Yafo; but the north and south are distinct, with different demographics, levels of wealth, and, of course, architecture.

The book’s first part examines the White City. It focuses on the celebration of Bauhaus, and the modernist ideals of the Israeli city first aired in 1994 (despite the fact, as Rotbard points out, that only four of Berlin’s Bauhuaus architects ever emigrated to Tel Aviv).

The second tells the rather less happy history of Jaffa. Rotbard’s research shows how Sir Patrick Geddes, Tel Aviv’s main architect, designed the city in such a way as to prevent Jaffa, which was then the largest city in Palestine, from expanding to the north. To make matters worse, in 1948, Jaffa found itself at the centre of a clash between Israeli forces and the Muslim Brotherhood. The conflict saw the city’s centre all but destroyed; it ended with the city reduced to the status a southern suburb of Tel Aviv under strict militia law. 

The city remained in ruins until the 1960s, when it was rebuilt as a tourist district, filled with museums and souvenir shops and inhabited by Tel Avivian artists. Israeli military are still stationed across Jaffa, and rates of violence and crime are high. 

Image courtesy of Pluto Press.

Rotbard’s interest in the untold story of the “black city” was sparked in the late 90s, when he bought a piece of land in Shapira, a neighbourhood on the border of Tel Aviv and Jaffa, where he planned to build his own house. As he worked on his designs, he realised just how contrasting the two cities were, and began walking around to observe the differences. “I love to walk, and as I started noticing the contrasts between the two areas, I became obsessed. I concluded that something was being hidden: kept in silence.”

It was during these walks, Rotbard says, that he realised he needed to undertake a “politicisation of architecture” in Tel Aviv. In the afterword added for the English edition, he writes that the resultant book was “written in anger”  in response to the “mental iron curtain” dividing the city, and what he perceives as constant injustices against its southern residents. 


In the years since White City, Black City was first published, some progress has been made in the relationship between the two sides of the city, but not enough to merit a rewrite. The “White City” has gone from strength to strength: “Now, Madonna and the Rolling Stones tour there. It’s the ‘coolest city in the world’, the ‘most creative city’”, Rotbard says. 

Meanwhile, rising real estate prices in Tel Aviv and new luxury developments in Jaffa are pushing out poorer people to other cities. An influx of refugees from South Sudan, Sudan and Eritrea to Jaffa led to a 2010 rabbinical decree in Rotbard’s Shapira neighbourhood, stating that Jews could not rent or sell apartments or houses to “infiltrators”. 

"In the Middle East, everything is about territory – about finding a home"

Nonetheless, the book was widely read and reviewed in Hebrew, and was reprinted 13 times. Rotbard says it encouraged a more critical approach to Tel Aviv’s planning policies: “People started to understand that the issue was both urban and political.”

Now, Rotbard hopes the translation will be read abroad as a wider allegory for divided cities all over the world. In the afterword to this edition, he notes: 

These local conflicts that divide Tel Aviv and Jaffa may seem far away, beyond the seas, borders, and airport checkpoints. Nevertheless…. I think that many of the processes, encounters and conflicts encountered in my city concern directly other scales and other regions too… [It raises] questions such as whether we are to live together or separately, in one city or two.

Rotbard has an almost obsessive interest in the way books, history and cities interact. When he first moved to Shapira, he found that the neighbourhood, while older than Tel Aviv by around ten years, warranted only a single paragraph’s mention in a book on the area.

He responded by forming a local group to write a history, Neither in Jaffa, or in Tel Aviv, eventually published in 2009, by collecting together stories and interviewing older people in the area. The episode also left him, he says, with a growing conviction that “If places aren’t documented in books they might be demolished or disappear”.

Rotbard today. Image: Roy Boshoi.

It’s reasonable to assume that, by “books”, Robard here means any kind of permanent, collective history or narrative, fed by architects, planners, and government and political forces alike. When Tel Aviv’s romanticisation of the Bauhaus movement and the “White City” are examined, it seems clear that those who produced and sustain that narrative have the same fear, and are marking their territory through an architectural narrative. 

This may have something to do with how young the city is, and how much it has to gain from asserting itself.  Rotbard tells me that, in conflict-torn Israel, and other parts of the Middle East, “It’s all about territory – about finding a home, even while evicting others from theirs.” That’s why the role of architects and planners is central in creating that home – or, as Rotbard starkly puts it, “finalising the occupation”. 

Above all else, the book centres on the fact that cities have narratives, and the promotion or questioning of those narratives is always in someone’s interests. As Rotbard puts it: “The relationship between what we build and what we tell is crucial to our understanding of cities."

When we forget or remember; demolish or conserve, we’re always choosing one story over another. It would be naive to think that those choices are anything but political. 

White City, Black City is out now from Pluto Press


Green roofs improve cities – so why don’t all buildings have them?

The green roof at the Kennedy Centre, Washington DC. Image: Getty.

Rooftops covered with grass, vegetable gardens and lush foliage are now a common sight in many cities around the world. More and more private companies and city authorities are investing in green roofs, drawn to their wide-ranging benefits which include savings on energy costs, mitigating the risk from floods, creating habitats for urban wildlife, tackling air pollution and urban heat and even producing food.

A recent report in the UK suggested that the green roof market there is expanding at a rate of 17 per cent each year. The world’s largest rooftop farm will open in Paris in 2020, superseding similar schemes in New York City and Chicago. Stuttgart, in Germany, is thought of as “the green roof capital of Europe”, while Singapore is even installing green roofs on buses.

These increasingly radical urban designs can help cities adapt to the monumental challenges they face, such as access to resources and a lack of green space due to development. But buy-in from city authorities, businesses and other institutions is crucial to ensuring their success – as is research investigating different options to suit the variety of rooftop spaces found in cities.

A growing trend

The UK is relatively new to developing green roofs, and governments and institutions are playing a major role in spreading the practice. London is home to much of the UK’s green roof market, mainly due to forward-thinking policies such as the 2008 London Plan, which paved the way to more than double the area of green roofs in the capital.

Although London has led the way, there are now “living labs” at the Universities of Sheffield and Salford which are helping to establish the precedent elsewhere. The IGNITION project – led by the Greater Manchester Combined Authority – involves the development of a living lab at the University of Salford, with the aim of uncovering ways to convince developers and investors to adopt green roofs.

Ongoing research is showcasing how green roofs can integrate with living walls and sustainable drainage systems on the ground, such as street trees, to better manage water and make the built environment more sustainable.

Research is also demonstrating the social value of green roofs. Doctors are increasingly prescribing time spent gardening outdoors for patients dealiong with anxiety and depression. And research has found that access to even the most basic green spaces can provide a better quality of life for dementia sufferers and help prevent obesity.

An edible roof at Fenway Park, stadium of the Boston Red Sox. Image: Michael Hardman/author provided.

In North America, green roofs have become mainstream, with a wide array of expansive, accessible and food-producing roofs installed in buildings. Again, city leaders and authorities have helped push the movement forward – only recently, San Francisco created a policy requiring new buildings to have green roofs. Toronto has policies dating from the 1990s, encouraging the development of urban farms on rooftops.

These countries also benefit from having newer buildings, which make it easier to install green roofs. Being able to store and distribute water right across the rooftop is crucial to maintaining the plants on any green roof – especially on “edible roofs” which farm fruit and vegetables. And it’s much easier to create this capacity in newer buildings, which can typically hold greater weight, than retro-fit old ones. Having a stronger roof also makes it easier to grow a greater variety of plants, since the soil can be deeper.

The new normal?

For green roofs to become the norm for new developments, there needs to be buy-in from public authorities and private actors. Those responsible for maintaining buildings may have to acquire new skills, such as landscaping, and in some cases volunteers may be needed to help out. Other considerations include installing drainage paths, meeting health and safety requirements and perhaps allowing access for the public, as well as planning restrictions and disruption from regular ativities in and around the buildings during installation.

To convince investors and developers that installing green roofs is worthwhile, economic arguments are still the most important. The term “natural capital” has been developed to explain the economic value of nature; for example, measuring the money saved by installing natural solutions to protect against flood damage, adapt to climate change or help people lead healthier and happier lives.

As the expertise about green roofs grows, official standards have been developed to ensure that they are designed, built and maintained properly, and function well. Improvements in the science and technology underpinning green roof development have also led to new variations on the concept.

For example, “blue roofs” increase the capacity of buildings to hold water over longer periods of time, rather than drain away quickly – crucial in times of heavier rainfall. There are also combinations of green roofs with solar panels, and “brown roofs” which are wilder in nature and maximise biodiversity.

If the trend continues, it could create new jobs and a more vibrant and sustainable local food economy – alongside many other benefits. There are still barriers to overcome, but the evidence so far indicates that green roofs have the potential to transform cities and help them function sustainably long into the future. The success stories need to be studied and replicated elsewhere, to make green, blue, brown and food-producing roofs the norm in cities around the world.

Michael Hardman, Senior Lecturer in Urban Geography, University of Salford and Nick Davies, Research Fellow, University of Salford.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.