Israel: a holy land for modern architecture

A new exhibition at the Barbican reveals how a Polish-born kibbutznik made the desert bloom — with Bauhaus

By Melanie Abrams, May 3, 2012
the medical school at Tel Aviv University

the medical school at Tel Aviv University

When kibbutznik Arieh Sharon bought a book at Breslau train station on his way to architecture school in Berlin in 1925, it changed his life - and the architecture of Israel. For the book introduced Sharon to the new, radical Bauhaus philosophies of architect, Walter Gropius and artist Josef Albers, and inspired him to take the next train to their recently opened school in Dessau.

His subsequent Bauhaus training turned Sharon into one of Israel's most important architects. He laid the cornerstone of Tel Aviv's White City, the world's largest collection of Bauhaus buildings and a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site. He designed the central forum of the Haifa Technion, restored the pool of Hezekiah in Jerusalem and drew the plans for hospitals, universities and museums, including Yad Vashem. In 1962, he won the Israeli Prize for Architecture. According to Ariel Aloni, Sharon's grandson: "Bauhaus was the core of everything my grandfather did."

In 1948, David Ben Gurion appointed Sharon as Israel's first head of urban planning. His "Sharon Plan" sought to create kibbutzim and cities like Beersheva across the country to absorb future immigrants. "He was the right man at the right place in the right party [the leftist Mapai]," says Dr Michal Gross, director of Tel Aviv's Bauhaus Centre.

Now, as London's Barbican Art Gallery opens the biggest Bauhaus exhibition in the UK for over 40 years, and the White City plays a central role in Tel Aviv's current Year of Art, Sharon and his Bauhaus circle are back in the spotlight - with the Barbican show highlighting Sharon's close relationship with the school's leading players. Gropius, the director, enrolled him; Albers taught him; Gunta Stolzl, the head of the weaving workshop, married him. And Hannes Meyer, the controversial first head of the architectural department and later director, gave him his first big break, managing the complex construction of the ADGB building - the School for the German Confederation of Trade Union. "These live sites were how students got to test their skills and learning," says Catherine Ince, curator of the Barbican Art Gallery.

Separating from Stolzl, Sharon returned to Tel Aviv in 1931 and opened an architectural practice. His Bauhaus training was reflected in the way he used simple square shapes, pure colour, three-dimensional design and above all, functionality, which followed Meyer's Marxist mantra that architecture should answer "the needs of the people, not the needs of luxury". Yet he evolved his own way of working.

the headquarters of Bank Hapoalim in Tel Aviv

the headquarters of Bank Hapoalim in Tel Aviv

His new ideas on social housing combined Bauhaus with the community spirit of his kibbutz, Gan Shmuel. "The Workers' Apartments [part of the White City] were Tel Aviv's first private social houses on a big scale, mixing housing, community services such as kindergartens with communal gardens," says Jeremie Hoffmann, director of the conservation department of the Tel Aviv Municipality.

Sharon gave his hospitals, such as Petach Tikvah's New Beilinson General, a human but still functional twist, including rooms for nurses and doctors to relax. According to Werner Moller, curator of the Kibbutz and Bauhaus show currently running at the Bauhaus Museum in Dessau: "Sharon took the best thinking from other modern movements too." The intricate forms, non-traditional angles and irregular interior space Sharon included in his design for the Warsaw Ghetto museum at Kibbutz Yad Mordechai cleverly combined Bauhaus with the organic architecture of American architectural maestro, Frank Lloyd Wright.

'Bauhaus: Art as Life' is at the Barbican Art Gallery, London EC2 until August 12.

Last updated: 2:11pm, May 3 2012