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What's new in the square?

29 May, 201229 May, 2012 0 comments Footloose in Tel Aviv Footloose in Tel Aviv

Not that long ago there was an old and decrepit theatre complex built around a large ugly parking lot. Today a handsome open plaza gleams in the sunlight while on its western side a striking new building has risen to house Habima, the iconic theatre. On its northern perimeter scaffolding promises that another icon, the Mann Auditorium, will soon be revamped to enhance the scene.

Welcome to Habima Square. Veteran architect Dani Karavan, who is best known for his environmental sculptures, has turned straw into gold.

At first sight you might think the plaza is rather too open, too empty. But then you walk in and you see the reflecting pool that gives an ever-changing picture as the breeze ripples its surface and you hear the gentle flow of water as it cascades over the sides into a hidden reservoir beneath. From here it will return in a never-ending cycle.

Along with its own intrinsic beauty as it reflects the world around, the pool has the advantage of being very shallow so that it does not require a safety fence around it. Children and adults can come close to enjoy the sound of the water as it pours off the side of the pool. So pool meets square and square meets pool.

A row of jacaranda trees, sigalon in Hebrew from the word for purple, line up against the wall of Habima. In their first year they have grown a little, but already we enjoy their beautiful blossom that drifts to the ground and makes a soft carpet. In the fullness of time they will mature and give shade, and also soften the harsh lines of the building.

In front of them, set into the plaza floor, is a line made up of paving and glass. The glass panels are windows into the underground parking below, the natural light filtering down in the daytime.  At night the artificial light filtering up illuminates the walkway above.

On the other side of the square are shade awnings running over undulating stone seats. Some are more taut than others. This drives Dani Karavan crazy as he is a perfectionist. They will be taken down in the winter because they won't withstand the winds. Perhaps next year they will be more evenly hung!

Next to and lined up with each outer pillar of  the awning is a cypress. Some people were unhappy because in Tel Aviv the cypress is associated with cemeteries but in fact Dani Karavan put them there as a memorial to the orange groves that once were not so far from here. The cypresses were planted as wind-breaks and in the older orchards still surviving in Israel today, some trees still stand proud.

The City Council asked Dani Karavan to provide benches with backs somewhere in the square. He asked himself which way to face them and finally he came up with the solution. When you first enter the plaza you may fail to notice that it is not simply a large expanse of open space. In fact there is a vast sunken area in the centre. A hidden garden.

Here there is  continuous wooden seating all the way round, like steps. They are comfortable and wherever you sit you have a back-rest. Speakers are set into these backs and as you sit there the gentle sounds of classical music filter out.

The garden is a memorial to old Tel Aviv. And to Avraham Karavan, the chief landscape architect of Tel Aviv from the 1940s to the 1960s to whom we owe a debt of gratitude. His plantings gave the city the green lungs that make it a wonderful place to live, work and visit. Once he had a plant nursery in this very area where his son Dani would often visit, and so the garden is divided into plots that remind us of the nursery.  Children love to run along the dividing pathways, and not a few adults wander through as well.

The first beds have cultivated flowers that delight with their colours.

Then we come to a grassy area. Eventually the small trees in the centre will grow and give shade, while people sit on the grass beneath. This special grass, zoysia tenuifolia, brought from South-East Asia, has the strange habit of growing in soft lumps as if a frustrated mole is trying to push out from underneath! Walking on this grass, you simply have to take your shoes off, and the children instinctively roll on it! 

The sabra cactus represents the thorns and thistles of Israel. We can't help remembering the parable of Mark, especially when we see the other flower beds are made up of plants that are found growing wild along the coast, such as the evening primrose and the sea-lavender.

The final section, the sand, represents the sand dunes that once covered this whole area, where today a vibrant city stands. It pays homage to those Jewish pioneers of over a hundred years ago who cleared that sand with buckets and wheel-barrows! Of course for the delighted children of Tel Aviv it is simply a giant sand-pit. Every afternoon as the kindergartens and schools close for the day, the children make their way here. Mums and Dads chat and enjoy the cooler end of the day while their little ones relax in this safe and welcoming garden.

And for those feeling peckish, then the cafes tucked away at the side of the square by Habima have plenty of delights on offer.

To enhance the view from Rothschild Boulevard some of the trees there were moved. One beautiful example, a native sycomore fig, now stands at the south-eastern corner of the square, on a built up hill. And lining up with Rothschild Boulevard are the floating circles of a Kadishman sculpture. This one is called "Ascension" - Hitromemut in Hebrew. Like it or loathe it, it certainly gives a definition to that edge of the square.

In the centre of culture for Tel Aviv it is fitting that the square also incorporates three outside stages in the plaza, discretely positioned so as not to intrude on the public space, which will be used for free performances.

The best thing about this square is how popular it is. Any time of the day or night, if you come to visit, you will not be alone!



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