It’s 1:20 p.m. on a Friday, and the bus from Tel Aviv to Tiberias leaves in 10 minutes four floors overhead. At a minimum, I must ascend a floor of the city’s Central Bus Station—a terrifyingly vast and rightfully loathed Dadaist mashup between an ant colony and the Chernobyl sarcophagus—once every 2.5 minutes. Nothing to worry about. No reason to psych yourself out, right? Of course, a task this simple is doomed from the start, and herein lies the structure’s organizing spiritual and philosophical principle: The easier and more sensible the objective seems, be it peace in the Middle East or a seat on the northbound 836 or palatable urban planning or even the easy location of a structure’s exits and entrances, the less attainable it is in reality. Apparently Ram Karmi, the legendary architect who designed this mess, referred to the station as “the labyrinth.” “In a labyrinth you get lost,” Karmi’s widow, the architect Rivka Karmi, told the podcast Israel Story in a 2016 feature about the station, before launching into the single most bone-chillingly sinister description of a building I will ever hear: “You know how you get in but you have no idea how you get out or even if you get out.” First you are cast into a physical and psychological She’ol so deep and hopeless that you may never emerge from it. Maybe you get on the bus to Tiberias if all goes well.
A stairway led to a long empty mezzanine on the fourth floor, a horizon of vacant storefronts set along pathways that human feet had barely ever troubled. I achieved the fifth level by means of an escalator, the next of which was all the way in Hoztenplotz, at the other end of a spacious and dim expanse that I’d rather not have navigated. No problem: I uncovered a narrow stairwell tucked inside a column of bleak concrete that took me straight to seven—but to the wrong seven. The Dan and Egged terminals on the building’s top floor are not connected to one another, which is insane. So it’s down another oddly placed stairway, through a junk mall so isolated from the outside world that it feels like the final redoubt for survivors of a zombie apocalypse, then up more stairs, then into a terminal where the platforms aren’t even labeled. By this point the bus had left several minutes ago, and in a final stroke of psychic coherency the doors to the outside automatically lock behind you. Stranded alongside a roadway that somehow climbs 100 feet into the air, the only way out of the Tel Aviv heat is by bus.
How did a building this terrible happen? Surely there was a point during the edifice’s three-odd-decade gestation period where someone observed that they were building complete and utter nonsense, and suggested that maybe they not do that, right? As the Israel Story episode recounts, the building resulted from a special alchemy of real-estate speculation and architectural hubris: Karmi believed he was building a revolutionary “city under a roof”; the station’s string of soon-to-be-bankrupt developers believed the key to saving their project was to stuff as much commercial space into the thing as possible. As happens in major building projects—and in nations, come to think of it—the higher and lower motives became mutually reinforcing over time, and greed and idealism grew so entangled as to be functionally indistinguishable from one another. Eventually the bus station’s nastiness grew beyond anyone’s ability to really control it. A money quote from Israel Story, from a resident of the nearby Neve Sha’anan neighborhood: The bus station is “a terrible monster that is destroying lives until today.”
It is tempting to think of the Tel Aviv Central Bus station as a metaphor for Israel as a whole. As the Israel Story podcast shows, the building represents the union of a crude central-planning mentality and immature capitalism. It’s the work of a country that didn’t quite know what to do with itself or how to get even the most basic stuff right—or how to get the complicated stuff right, either. In an almost literary touch, this ultimate symbol of toxic ambition opened in 1993, the same year the Oslo Accords were signed. More generously: As architecture, the bus station is a disquieting failure, but it is also a rich pageant, home to a Filipino market and a Yiddish library and a colony of bats. When the station was finally completed, no one would have expected that it would eventually become one of the centers of Tel Aviv’s South Sudanese and Eritrean refugee communities, since it would be a decade and a half until these communities even really existed. As discrete physical entities, nations are violent and ugly impositions, terrible monsters with a limitless ability to destroy lives, whether through killing or through writing parking tickets. But the Tel Aviv bus station should remind us that the shell is not the guts.
The bus-station-as-Israel comparisons grow more compelling when you hold the Tel Aviv monstrosity up against another, far more successful transport-based structure: The astonishing Moshe Safdie-designed Terminal 3 at Ben-Gurion airport, which opened in 2003. The building is functional and not a dystopian hellscape; more importantly, it is equal to the grandeur of its purpose. Passengers enter and exit the gate area through two parallel ramps sloping away from one another, with the arrivals and departures witnessing each other’s anticipation or regret—or perhaps they reflect on the past or future moments that placed them on the opposite side. It is a building whose designers had a subtle grasp not just of human psychology but of the emotions that people feel as they enter and leave their holy land. It is the only building in Israel where even the secular-minded might be tempted to kiss every mezuzah they pass.
In the decade between the Tel Aviv bus station and the new Ben-Gurion terminal, Israel figured out how to pull off a big transportation infrastructure project (well, maybe not). Progress or not, the buildings represent two sides of the same national psyche: One messy and illogical and seized with glorious delusion, the other focused, grounded, and capable of glimpsing the sublime. Both halves need each other, the 1:30 to Tiberias be damned.