Thursday, 27 January 2011

Megastructural Infrastructure: The Tel Aviv Central Bus Station

The "station" is a vast, 3dimensional infrastructural knot that draws buses into its volume via fly-overs from the nearby highways, its 10 floors house 800 bus and coach stops which see buses lined up high above the surrounding skyline. But the fly-overs, ramps, roads, depots, bus-stops and parking lots are only a sideshow. They are just an excuse for the creation of a veritable city of in-between crevices, passages, chasms, and halls. Left-over spaces that are formed between the spaghetti pile of intersecting and stacked infrastructure, and which are filled by shops, markets, offices, doctors, restaurants, community centres, billiards halls, synagogues, hair dressers, you name an urban amenity or program and it will be there, clinging to the place's vast forms and labyrinthine corridors like a mad, florescent, candy-coloured coral reef.

It took 26 years to get built, opening in 1993, originaly designed in 1967 by Ada and Ram Karmi, in the megastructural spirit of that period, a sort of inflated Cumbernauld on a drug binge, in a down and out part of a dense metropolis. The building/thing fully occupies an 11 Acre (4.4 Hectare) plot in the heart of South Tel Aviv, and houses upwards of 230,000m² (2.5million square feet) of official floor space, which is the equivalent of two One Canada Square Towers, all crammed inside what from the exterior one would not be able to describe as an occupied building at all. There are no windows visible from the outside or inside until you reach the bus stops on the upper levels, and when daylight does filter through, it seems to always come from some unidentifiable, vague source, somewhere above, from between the shifted floor-plates, ziga-zagging escalators, and bulging concrete forms.

^The YouTube video shows a couple of walk throughs and some shots of the life and space inside the station.

Its external walls and elevated roads are omnipresent in the neighbourhood, either constantly popping up at the end of alleyways, behind buildings, or revealing themselves by the momentary sight of the top half of a bus seeming to glide along the roof of a block of flats.

It is sheer, brutal, and concrete. Formally unrelenting and aggressive in the way it seems to insist on negating itself as a piece of architecture, its relationship to the city is the precise inverse of the little electricity substation I described in a previous post. Where that was visually generous but bereft of any life whatsoever, adorned with ceremonial entrances, but nothing to enter in to do, the Central Bus Station in no way betrays its internal riches and abundant life, offering up the charm of a dirty public loo to the surrounding streets, and relatively few, and tiny, really -TINY, little entrances squashed under the weight of the mountains of concrete above.

As the fly-overs converge on the station they run above existing streets at about the level of the surrounding buildings, meaning that most of the windows in those apartment face a quasi-interior space created between the edge of the main complex and the underside of the roads. While a similar situation may feel gloomy in another city, here the respite from the sun is a relief. These dark spaces are vividly animated, noisy and crowded as hell, livened up with buses thundering on above, the local traffic honking at a standstill below, the clusters of small stalls and shops that seem to thrive on the outside of the station only here in the shade, and the casually relaxed, if sometimes shouting (for apparently no reason) residents overlooking the whole scene from their partially interiorised balconies. 

At some point in the past 18 years there was an effort, much like at London's Barbican, to make the building more legible, and orientation within it a little easier, by adding a bold graphical numbering system and lots of signs that try and point you to your desired numerical destination. For a first time visitor they only act to highlight the complexity of the place, by reminding you at every juncture how even the people who run the station cannot explicate it clearly. And its not just like that for first time visitors. I've spoken to city residents who have used the building many times, and who still dread the disorientating experience of having to navigate its multiple levels, halls and corridors every time they must catch a bus to somewhere else in the country, on time, before it leaves from level squillion, stop 699, without you. There was a quote on the Wikipedia page for the station, since removed but still on the architect's page, where the current manager of the complex said that "if I caught the architect who designed this building, I'd beat him up". Id ask for plans and sections.

The interior is so vast that as you wander around there is a large degree of variation in the amount of activity going on in different areas. There are whole floors where nothing seems to be happening at all, at least when compared to the dense activity occurring in many other places, zones which dont appear to be connected to the general circulation routes in any direct way, viewed obliquely from far away across one of the many atriums. But whilst they seem inactive, people do find them and use them in their own ways, and they are occupied at certain times by activity groups. For instance in the youtube video there is a shot of one of these empty zones being used for a (pretty awful) breakdance gathering. In others I saw people praying, snogging, eating and just simply gathering (a crowd of phillipninas).

The atriums are wildly sculptural, Piranesi meets Corb via Stirling type spaces. The central MacDonalds-crowned-one being the busiest, with the other ones marching away from it getting steadily less cramped until they become huge inert architectural sideshows.

Almost everywhere one finds odd spaces generated by the ramps, shifted half-levels, and massive bevelled forms of the Architecture being turned into small enterprises. The underside of ramps are opened up to be shops, the painted bulbous form above becomes a snooker bar, the underside of an empty piazza in one of the deserted areas below is a gym and physiotherapy centre, and (6photos up and 3down) circular viewing balconies are turned into little kiosk-rotunda-pergolas.

In a city where it is difficult for immigrants to overtly display their presence, the station's labyrinthine interior provides a welcome sense of privacy and protection. There are Phillipino, Sudanese and Ethiopian restaurants, community centres, shops, hairdressers, family planning clinics, and just as importantly, public places to gather. Below is a Russian Orthodox bookstore, replete with a rather overeager deployment of plastic Israeli flags. There is also a man from a religious denomination that sells kosher-le-pesach hot dogs (above) wrapped in wet Matza during the pesach holiday. The offering, which when combined with the bits of sausage skin and flecks of Matza crumbs adorning the gentleman's beard, announcing to all and sundry his personal gusto for the tepid and stomach-churning fare, that he seems to enjoy constantly prodding with his hand, is what I think I may fairly call anything but appealing. Hence his full tray of unsold... stuff.

A bit of a Rogers/Piano inspired touch for the ventilation.


Walking around the outdoor areas of the upper floors, one has the distinct feeling (and probably a correct assumption) that the whole building was dropped into an unsuspecting residential neighbourhood, and that somehow the neighbourhood hasn't really been able to adapt. Or rather the building never made any attempt to adapt to it. Around the sides, where hundreds of bus drivers and passengers every day drive past the windows of flats only meters away, the residents have the only recourse of keeping the shutters of their windows permanently closed during the station's working hours. But then if the building had been more open to the surrounding area, permeable and transparent and legible, it would not have developed any of its intriguing complexities, and capacity for harbouring people and program that is otherwise not welcome in the rest of town, or simply cannot afford to pay enough rent to survive anywhere else. 

And everywhere on the great body of this beast, even at the points where it is at its most grim, are the unmistakeable signs of the interior life that it spawns. Pipes, wires, air-conditioning units crawl along its walls, attach themselves to its ledges, cluster in wild tangles around holes drilled here and there in its monolithic mass, fighting to get inside.

With -as you wonder around its multi-leveld periphery- the occasional, surprise glimpses from the abandoned feeling sweeps of sunburnt concrete, of bustling, loud, and colourful goings on...

And, but of course, just next door, luring you across the road with its enticing and illicit content: the KINGDOM OF PORK!


  1. A fantastic exploration of Tel-Aviv's most hated, yet most sociologically unique, constructs. IMO one of your best posts...

  2. You just made me fall in love with a place I hated for 3 years. Last time I was there a week ago I started to see the beauty and excitement in in and after reading this post I actually feel like spending more time there. :D