Israel’s is, to say the least, an old story, and a layered one. Scratch the surface of nearly anything here, and you will find yourself going back in time: Ottomans, Mamluks, Crusaders, Early Muslims, Byzantine, Roman—on and on, a bewildering litany of civilizations that have come and gone. The many tels that dot the landscape provide a perfect metaphor for the nation’s past: giant mounds of earth that represent multiple strata of human occupation, human bravado, human thinking. Many of the towns and cities are a historical jumble of architectural styles—nowhere more clearly seen than in Jerusalem, where Santiago Calatrava’s gloriously contemporary Chords Bridge soars toward the sky from streets that lead to some of the world’s oldest and most venerated structures. Or consider the proximity of Tel Aviv and Jaffa: at just over a century old, Tel Aviv is the infant sibling of Jaffa, whose foundations are thousands of years old.
In its single century of life, Tel Aviv has developed from a discouraging line of sand dunes to one of the most beautiful and thriving seaside cities on the planet. In the 1920s and ’30s, as the metropolis began to flare into activity, it served as an open field for many Bauhaus and International Style architects, among them Genia Averbuch, Dov Karmi, Erich Mendelsohn, Josef Neufeld, and Arieh Sharon. The handiwork of such designers—more than four thousand still extant buildings—sets the architectural tone to this day throughout the city: pale stucco; simple, curving balconies; and solid, minimalist building blocks. Because of these stylish Bauhaus-inflected buildings, the so-called White City of Tel Aviv was deemed a World Cultural Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2003.
Contemporary architects have taken up the mantle from their innovative forebears, bringing new shapes and ideas to Tel Aviv’s streets and plazas. The Tel Aviv Museum of Art, designed by American architect Preston Scott Cohen, is a stunning example: it soars out from the original building like a white marble prow of a ship, dotted with small triangular and rectangular portholes. Its interior is filled with architectural motion: angles and trajectories that direct the roving eye and the roving feet—leading visitors from one gallery to the next.