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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Ruins in White City, Black City

Babel is one of the few Israeli publishing houses that deals with architecture. It both translates existing works from other languages, such as Learning from Las Vegas and Towards a New Architecture, and publishes original works in Hebrew. One of the co-owners of Babel, Sharon Rotbard, is a studio adviser in Bezalel and has authored two books. Two years ago, Rebecca and I were in Rotbard's studio, where we, along with Yiska Katz, produced egg crate architecture.

Rotbard's first book, White City, Black City, touches on the subject of ruins. The book discusses how Tel Aviv gained a reputation as a "white city," which refers both to its supposed concentration of Bauhaus architecture and its ideological purity, having been built on a clean slate as the first Hebrew city. Rotbard points out many inconsistencies with this view, and contrasts the mythical view of Tel Aviv with a hard look at the concurrent development of Jaffa, the ancient Arab city next to Tel Aviv. Rotbard writes that Jaffa was systematically displaced and dismantled by Tel Aviv. This image of a "black city" contrasts with the other vision of Tel Aviv.

There are a number of things I like about the book. Firstly, I've found that many Israeli books of this type are remarkably un-scholarly. It is quite common to find information repeated as fact in multiple books, only to trace the footnotes and find that all secondary sources lead back to a single, questionable reference that is itself a secondary source and has no footnote. I found it particularly welcome that White City, Black City brought a number of primary sources, such as writings of Ben Gurion or Herzl. Secondly, Rotbard does a good job of pacing, and intersperses his thesis with interesting anecdotes, such as the marketing of Jaffa Oranges (p.245). This makes the book interesting and highly readable. I read through it in a week, and normally it takes me a month to finish a book of this size in Hebrew. On the downside, there were a number of paragraphs in which radical left-wing ideas are thrown in as if every sane person believes them, but this is practically to be expected in Israeli academia.

The book raises a number of interesting and compelling points about ruins, particularly in the Israeli narrative. Early in the book, Rotbard makes the point that the destruction or preservation of a building is a way of writing history:
"The decision to destroy an old building, to build a new building, or to preserve an existing building, sets what will be forgotten, what will remain and what is worth remembering." (p. 15)
When it comes to ruins, this is true as well. A decision to leave ruins, rather than bulldoze them, sets in action a certain historical memory. In many ways, this is even more powerful than deciding to rebuild a building or replace it. The ruin is actually a super-powerful way of reinforcing memory. One of the lasting impressions I took from the book is that ruins can be very important reminders of the past. Only once a building is completely removed it is "out of sight, out of mind." In Jaffa, this seems to have, for the most part, been the goal. Rotbard describes the destruction as complete, going as far as saying that it was more thorough than the destruction of Hiroshima and Dresden (p.191. Comparing destruction is an interesting sport, but it takes a certain mindset to make a claim such as this.) The point seems to be that removing buildings completely leaves no historical record whatsoever. In contrast, leaving ruins gives a remarkably good historical record of a particular past event or process.

The most relevant section of the book begins with the chapter titled "The Large Area" (השטח הגדול). This refers to the large section of the old city of Jaffa that was left in ruins after 1948. Most of the buildings in Old Jaffa were destroyed, while others were given to new immigrants to inhabit. In 1961, a decision was made to rehabilitate this area and turn it into a tourist site/artists colony. This is seen as a further act of erasure of the history of the city, with only Crusader and Napoleonic remains displayed, as a type of exotic ruins that one would find on a grand voyage. (p.239) This is certainly the vibe in old Jaffa today. I would have to agree that, as someone who visited the site as a high school student, the architectural record does not attempt to tell the story of displaced Arabs at all.

Another section of the book, which deals with the Etzel Museum, will be dealt with in a later post.

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