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The Holistic Conservation Approach of the Liebling Haus

By: Architect Sharon Golan-Yaron

Program Director and co-founder of the White City Center; author of Tel Aviv: Architectural Guide


There are roughly 4,000 modernist buildings in Tel Aviv. Part of everyday life and the growing urban tissue of this fast-paced startup city, these listed buildings must accommodate the lifestyle of their residents with contemporary additions, including reinforcements against earthquakes, new AC systems or open floor plans, and sometimes even rooftop-infinity pools.

The Libeling Haus, designed by Dov Karmi and Engineer Zvi Barak in 1936, is one of 190 buildings classified under strict conservation guidelines. One of the founding fathers of modernism in Israel, Karmi studied under architect Henry Van der Welde at the University of Gent, Belgium, and was the first to win the Israel Prize for architecture. Throughout his long career, Karmi designed international style residential buildings and large-scale brutalist public institutions.

While most listed buildings are privately owned, the Liebling Haus is municipal property, possibly the only typical modernist residential building open to the public. A recently renovated public center, the Liebling Haus is a modernist prototype, maintaining the Genius Loci and the environment of the 1930s.

Seen from the street, the main facade of this long, narrow building appears almost two-dimensional. The free-standing structure is perfectly situated on the lot: the longest facade is parallel to the sea, maximizing the western breeze according to the Garden City principles of the Geddes Plan.

The composition of the front facade emphasizes functionality, while a concrete rectangle slightly extruded from the mass of the facade features the golden ratio, creating an aesthetically pleasing effect.

Efficiently utilizing the irregular lot, the building was designed as two 3-story-high blocks, with the stairwell functioning as a connection hinge. The front volume, almost square on plan, is parallel to the street. The central part of the facade protrudes as a rectangle in shallow relief, creating an overall frame and a counterpoint to the three deeply-recessed balconies, whose horizontal emphasis determines its character.

The arrangement of the windows and the floor layout allow the air to flow, providing cooling and ventilation in the living rooms. The long and narrow balconies across the facade - a local adaptation of Le Corbusier’s strip windows - function as a second skin of the actual building envelope, shading the living spaces behind them and separating the private and public spheres.

The entryway pergola connects the two blocks with a concrete ring beam that wraps around the corner. On the inner angle, the blocks are formally and functionally connected on each floor through a continuous utility balcony, accessible from each apartment. The entryway leads to a goldfish pond - another cooling method to humidify the air in the stairway.

The building was an upscale residence, home to three prominent physicians who immigrated from Middle Europe and settled in Mandatory Palestine. The labor-saving devices and innovative technical fixtures in the kitchens, bathrooms, and balconies are another example of the commitment to functional, economical, and thoughtful design. The Frankfurt Kitchen on the second floor is open to the public.

The building was built by Max and Tony Liebling, the latter left it to the Tel Aviv-Yafo municipality in 1963, stating it should serve as a museum, kindergarten or student housing. The foundation of the White City Center realizes Tony’s testament. To learn more about the international style in Tel Aviv, the early days of the city, and the former residents, visit the exhibitions and walk up to the rooftop to see the city map drawn on the floor.

The renovation of the Liebling Haus demonstrates a holistic approach to conservation. Although some of the original walls on the ground floor were removed, their traces are visible, inviting visitors to notice the floorplan, almost like Lars von Trier’s film Dogville.

The original materials - including terrazzo flooring and wall tiles - remained, preserving their imperfections and damages as traces of the past that allow the walls to tell the stories of the inhabitants.

Some of the surfaces were not painted, just scratched off, to reveal layers of colors and patina. Others were covered with original mineral-based paint and pigments, recreating international style paint and colors from the 1930s. Finally, windows and doors were restored instead of replaced. Additional fittings, such as AC systems and lighting, are visible on the surface rather than hidden in the ceiling.

We applied all these solutions to inspire a new era of conservation, preserving tangible and intangible values, and revealing the existing layers of the building without renewing or trying to reconstruct a perfect image of the building. Rather than creating a staged nostalgia, the Center wishes to show the beauty of the object just as it is.

The Liebling Haus wishes to reconnect the community with the urban landscape, promote public engagement with the building language of the city, and hopefully drive visitors to become aware and interested in maintaining their own buildings and the historical foundation of Tel Aviv.

Renovation: Architect Rivka Karmi

Conservation Advisor: Winfried Brenne

Interior Design: Dan Hasson and Yonatan Cohen

Project Manager: Sharon Golan-Yaron

Photos: Aviad Bar-Ness


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