arts 1.4.09
arts 1.4.09

Photo exhibit angles in on 30s Tel Aviv architecture

Photographer Yigal Gawze usually trains his camera on the classic Bauhaus buildings of his hometown, Tel Aviv. The images are beautiful, the architecture stunning. Just don’t call it Bauhaus.

“Here we call it Bauhaus, but this is wrong,” says Gawze by phone from Israel. “The correct term is ‘International Style.’ ”

Correct or not, the so-called Bauhaus buildings of Tel Aviv — mostly stark, 1930s-era apartments that dot the city — have enjoyed a renaissance in recent years, with a strong local preservation movement keeping the Modernist architectural flame alive.

The Mirenburg House in Tel Aviv is a classic example of the international style popular in the 1930s. photo/yigal gawze

Gawze, 57, has been preserving the buildings, too, with the click of his camera. Thirty of his photographs will be on display locally when the JCC of San Francisco presents “Fragments of a Style,” an exhibition honoring Tel Aviv’s 100th anniversary and running from Monday, April 6, through the end of May. The event is presented in partnership with the Israel Center.

As art photography, Gawze’s pictures pulse with curvilinear rhythm. He calls his images “fragments,” because he rarely photographs whole facades of buildings, preferring the graceful corners, balconies and balustrades.

“I really wanted to capture the beauty,” he says of his photography. “It wasn’t documentary work. It was more artistic.”

Lenore Naxon, director of the JCC’s Eugene & Elinor Friend Center (which is presenting the exhibit), believes Gawze achieves the ultimate in architectural photography.

“He catches these details you might walk by if you weren’t really looking,” she says. And because of his use of natural light and color, she adds, “when he says he’s trying to take the style of ’30s and see how it marries with hot Mediterranean sun, that’s exactly what he’s done.”

Though a native of the city and a trained architect, Gawze says he never appreciated the treasures surrounding him. “I grew up in a city that was always described as ugly but charming,” Gawze adds. “I didn’t feel it was beautiful or had any value, architecturally speaking, because it was hiding behind all this neglect and dirt, and there was no money to maintain the buildings.”

In 1983, he took in the Tel Aviv Museum’s groundbreaking photo exhibit, “White City,” which captured the elegance of the city’s unique twist on the international style of the 1920s and ’30s. And from then on, he was hooked.

The style indeed borrowed from Bauhaus and other European styles, but not rigidly so. Israeli designers passed on large glass windows because of the fierce desert heat. To create shade, protruding balconies and parapets are common.

And virtually all of the structures are shimmering white.

Gawze sees a direct link between the Zionist idealism that typified Tel Aviv’s founders and the architectural style that typifies the city.

It is “the Zionist project turning its back on the shtetl,” he says, “creating the new Jew in Eretz Israel and getting rid of what they thought was negative. There’s a parallel line with the creation of the modern style in architecture. The functionalism and minimalism of it, with all the elegance.”

Though time and neglect took their toll, the latest generation of Israelis realized out they had a cultural treasure on their hands worthy of protection. Funding mostly from individuals and private institutions helped restore many of the 1,200 buildings pegged as historic.

A few are untouchable, but some have had new stories or rooftop apartments added on. Some Bauhaus fans object to tinkering with them, but Gawze can understand the opposing view. “There is the practical other side that says ‘This is not a museum. It’s not Florence or Rome.’ ”

Though he’s been photographing Tel Aviv for years, he has only recently begun showing his work outside of Israel. The “Fragments of a Style” exhibition premiered in Montreal in 2005, eventually opening in Spain and Austria. Gawze says plans are afoot to show the work in Munich, Prague, Berlin and Chicago.

Back home, according to Gawze, even cynical Tel Aviv natives are getting in the architecture groove.

“Tel Aviv is being very practical about its nature,” he says. “You open the newspaper looking for an apartment, and you see ‘Bauhaus apartment for rent.’ ”

“Fragments of a Style” debuts Monday, April 6, and runs through May 31 at the Katz Snyder Gallery in the JCC of San Francisco, 3200 California St. S.F. Free. Information: (415) 292-1200 or


Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at