The day the Central Bus Station opened in southern Tel Aviv in August 1993, architect Ram Karmi promised it would be an economic engine to its neighbors. Two decades later, few Israelis celebrated the 20th birthday of the grimy, mazelike station that rises out of the city’s most blighted neighborhood. But one pair of architects sees the still-functioning station as a living allegory, and they lead a guided tour through the station that shows the lofty dreams and dreary reality of what was once the world’s largest bus depot.
“This is the gallery, where people walking in from outside could look at the first floor,” said Elad Horn, as he and Talia Davidi led a tour on a late August Saturday. “Those are the tunnels that people went through to get to the local city buses. On the right you can see the booth where people bought their cinema tickets.”
The cinema is shuttered; as I walked up a dust-coated stationary escalator, a statue of Charlie Chaplin stood eerily in the darkness. One level up, by light of cell phone screens, we shuffled through the darkened second floor, peering at a row of glass-fronted shops that were completely abandoned.
Horn and Davidi, recent graduates of the Bezalel Academy’s Architecture program, discovered the planning history of the Central Bus Station while organizing Karmi’s archive. As the pair leafed through the yellowed pages of the architect’s original plans, they were astonished to see blueprints for an attractive and easy to navigate building topped with modern, gleaming towers.
Even before construction started, conflicting demands from the Egged and Dan bus companies, city hall, and the investors transformed those grand plans, and the site instead became a sprawling seven-story complex crammed with 1,500 stores, Horn explained.
Karmi, an Israel Prize laureate, suggested making the space navigable by imagining the station as a city under one roof. Travelers would enter on the fourth floor, and could spend a whole day in the building at the cinema, in theaters, or at the ‘open-air’ market. There were ‘streets’ and ‘plazas’ on each floor—streets being corridors lined with stores, and plazas the polygonal spaces where travelers could sit down.
The cornerstone was laid in 1967, but construction ground to a halt six years later due to an economic crisis and the owners going bankrupt. Building finally restarted in 1989. Karmi himself gave a prescient speech at the opening ceremony in 1993, which is said to be the only time he ever visited the building:
Parts of this station will spring forth green branches into the surrounding neighborhoods and generate an urban lifestyle full of living content—or destroy them completely.
At first, the station was exciting and inviting. Passengers went to the first level for their buses around Tel Aviv. They shopped for clothes or shoes at brightly-lit shops. Businesses rushed to buy up space in the building, and eleven theaters were slated to open.
But the city under the roof soon began to resemble Detroit. Outside, sidewalks were shadowed by soaring concrete bridges that ferried buses to the station. The hold on construction, which lasted nearly twenty years, had eroded the neighborhood; any Israelis who could afford to left the area. Foreign workers from the Philippines and later, penniless migrants from Sudan and Eritrea moved into the neighborhood.
Inside, the Dan bus company moved its terminals from the bottom floor to the top in 2002. Without the departures hall on the first floor, the cinema plus the stores on the second and third floors were all doomed. Today, the top half remains a functioning station, while the bottom floors are outmoded except for what Horn described as a “nuclear Holocaust bomb shelter”—a room that can accommodate 15,000 people, and was used during the 1991 Gulf War, years before the station opened.
The building is widely despised in Israel; a 2012 Haaretz article described the station as the rare platform that all Israelis agreed upon; the sole architect who didn’t want to raze the building was worried about the dust the demolition would cause.
Yet despite the well-deserved criticism, the bus station is attracting a small cult following. For years artists have used the building; there are three theaters and one Yiddish library between the sooted walls. In July, Horn and Davidi helped mount the end-of-year show for Tel Aviv University’s architecture school. During Tel Aviv’s White Night Festival this summer, Horn and Davidi organized a treasure hunt through the building; prizes included bus tickets to Eilat and tickets to productions staged inside the station. And artist Mati Ale has turned the seventh floor into a street art exhibit, featuring graffiti from artists in Israel and around the world.
Station director-general Miki Ziv says art may be the only way to improve the station’s image. He has enthusiastically encouraged offbeat projects, including an opera performance, a flash mob, and theater shows. In the coming year, he said, he plans to host several art exhibitions and to start a library on the seventh floor. “For one thing, maybe there will be artistic organizations that will be interested in the space,” Ziv explained. “And two, I think art will bring more people here and they will have ideas about using the area.”
However much offbeat love the station may be drawing, bus companies Egged and Dan are begging to end their contracts. The city is planning to disperse the major transit routes to other stations over the next 12 years.
For Horn, the station’s flaws are endearing. “This was supposed to be a city under one roof, and this is more or less what’s going on,” Horn said. “This place is a home for hundreds of groups of people who are working and making a life for themselves and their kids. It’s not a usual place most of us know, but it’s home for lots of groups who cannot find a home anywhere else.”
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Daniella Cheslow is an American journalist covering the Middle East.