Split Identity


Israel is a unique nation urbanistically, in which the internal political and spiritual capital of Jerusalem is not the diplomatic capital recognized outside its (contested) borders. As such, the civic nature of Tel Aviv as the cultural and economic center of Israel has developed a quite distinctive architectural character from Jerusalem, which looks back through thousands of years of history to ground its buildings within a distinct lineage. The idiosyncrasies of the unique political circumstances have been manifested through the distinctive architectonic characters of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

Above | Ram Karmi and Ada Karmi Melamede, Supreme Court of Israel, Jerusalem





An universal means for relating a contemporary building to its historic past is through the repetition of symbolic elements. Jerusalem stone (a number of local golden cream colored stones) is the required facing material for all buildings in the city, and often used for significant Jewish buildings in other parts of the world. Linking contemporary (Israeli) architecture to the Old City, and particularly to the remains of the Second temple wall can be seen as a strategy for demonstrating legitimacy through continuity to an earlier configuration of the urban space.


Supreme Court of Israel | Jerusalem hillside


Knesset passage | Courtroom entryway at the Supreme Court of Israel

The unity of material is a large-scale symbol which happens to be eminently visible for the cityscape as a whole. In this case the architectural requirement can also be interpreted as a multiplication of the wall, both physically and materially. This is particularly effective in Jerusalem with its undulating topography that allows buildings to cascade down the mountainsides and layer their elevations, where every building adds to the entire composition.


A courtroom | the pyramid at the Supreme Court of Israel

In the case of the Supreme Court building finished in 1995 by brother and sister architects Ram Karmi and Ada Karmi Melamede, symbols are particularly emphasized, from the competition stage through the current publicity materials [1]. It could be argued that the narrative created and its motifs echoed through procession, geometry, light etc. make the project more legible and appealing. Here too the idea and materiality of the wall is pronounced, not just on the exterior but through the wall element that runs continuously through and is always dominant in the experience of the building. One sees the wall, climbs parallel to it, and passes through it into the courtrooms.


The Knesset, the Israeli Legislature

Symbolism is a narrative tool, as a reference to the past towards the creation of a future; the use of metaphor is a way to connect disparate moments throughout time. It references generally recognized meanings whether written or cultural in the past. It is a means of didactic narration, emphasizing to the public the significance of each move as relevant in the present. It ensures a place in the historic narrative of those in the future.

1. http://elyon1.court.gov.il/eng/siyur/index.html



Tel Aviv


The once-pejorative adjective “cosmopolitan,” particularly as applied to the Jews, has evolved over time to be a generally-used, non-specific, positive characteristic [1,2]. As simply a word which can be employed by the lay person to describe a city, this term undoubtedly applies to Tel Aviv with its open, worldly atmosphere. In essence, the former application of this derogatory term created the wave of immigration when many European architects would come to Israel and directly shape the city and its character.

Above | Rubinsky House by Lucian Korngold

This can be seen in the myriad Bauhaus style buildings and their influence on architecture in the city to this day. These immigrant architects took the organizational rationality of the international style and adapted it to their new homeland with sunshades, natural ventilation, and screens to create an architecture which is intellectually derived from the Bauhaus, with an emphasis on the local particularities of climate and culture.


Exemplars of Bauhaus style architecture in Tel Aviv

UNESCO in 2003 named the “White City” a World Cultural Heritage site, and that designation has encouraged interest in restoring Bauhaus gems, reviving the city center that was built based on Patrick Geddes’ low-density 1925 guidelines. The need for housing a growing population through further development has created a need for allowing densification and building taller while being sensitive to the street frontages and characteristic massing of the city. [3,4]


Buildings with upwards extensions

Today this cosmopolitanism is underscored by the locating of most, if not all, foreign embassies in Tel Aviv, as well a booming tech industry that allows for an international cross pollination of ideas and money. By the regarding of this city as the recognized foreign capital, other countries are able to avoid murkier questions and take advantage of the economic rewards that are to be had through encouraging connection and investment.


Dizengoff Square with Modernist mid-rise and contemporary tower

A capital is a city which represents the nation to its own people in demonstrating the kinds of infrastructures, relationships, lifestyles and rhythms through which they can frame their professional, personal and – of course – civic lives. But it is also a symbol to the outside world of what identity the nation wants to present, whether it is a true representation of the political and cultural life, or an ideal. This difference of understanding internally and externally in the case of Israel demonstrates the divide of opinions over which city represents the country’s nature, Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. It is also a physical manifestation of the contemporary discussions within the society at large, regarding the nature of Jewish identity, nationality and statehood.

1. This is not the place for a more precise conversation, but for more incisive and theoretical overviews of what “cosmopolitan” means today see: Sznaider, Natan. “Hannah Arendt’s Jewish Cosmopolitanism: Between the Universal and the Particular,” European Journal of Social Theory 10(1): 112–122. Sage Publications: London, Thousand Oaks, CA and New Delhi, 2007.
2. http://www.thejc.com/comment-and-debate/essays/115480/how-jews-hothoused-cosmopolitanism
3. Yavin, Shmuel Curator. Revival Of The Bauhaus In Tel Aviv. 2003 Exhibit. Bauhaus Center, Tel Aviv.
4. Levi, Yaron Curator. Preservation and Renewal: Bauhaus and International Style Buildings in Tel Aviv. 2015 Exhibit. Bauhaus Center, Tel Aviv.



Impressions – Tel Aviv


Above | Preston Scott Cohen, Tel Aviv Museum of Art