It is only from the depths of architectural and urban design purgatory that the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station could have been unleashed on the world. There are ascending layers, literally and metaphorically, to the perverseness of this concrete Hades, but also remarkable hidden secrets throughout, of which an underground batcave is not even the most impressive.
Many Israelis never set foot in the bus station, or else actively avoid the place except to switch from local to intercity sheruts by the entrance. The surrounding area, and even the station itself, are infamous for their violent crime and population of junkies, prostitutes, and undocumented immigrants.
If you make the mistake of taking a bus from the station, you are liable to find yourself mired in the dead zones of this concrete megastructure between ground floor (level 4) and seventh floor, the latter of which is the only remaining level that services bus arrivals and departures.
But the seediness of the area and the unnavigable, Dizengoff Center-style design of the place are just the tips of the iceberg. One notable ‘design’ element even in the busy sections of the station is that the public space is designed to function as an indoor city, with mailboxes and city street trash cans lining the indoor ‘streets.’
As our guide Hila explained, the architects viewed the ludicrous layout of the station as less a bug than an undocumented feature, ‘enabling’ travelers who miss their buses to consume more during the course of getting lost.
This is all very well on the couple of floors that are currently in commercial use, whose Asian groceries and corridor of shoe stores provide a dubious but undeniable public function. But most of the station is pretty much abandoned. Between the miasma of the late 1960s when the first plans were drawn up, and its opening 26 years later in 1993, the station’s private owners managed to find the only architects in the world without the faintest idea of how human beings function, much less how transport terminals should.
In a country of then barely more than 2 million people, they designed the largest bus station on the planet, not designed so much as vomited forth from some hellish architectural underworld in order to crush the souls of a million people a week, or per day, Hila wasn’t quite sure.
In the insanity that followed what must have been a veritable festival of greased palms, because how could any sane city council have approved this monstrosity?, the biggest white elephant of a bus station on earth emerged in South Tel Aviv. Rather unfortunate for South Tel Aviv, but very fortunate for the kinds of people who delight in witnessing a real live train wreck in slow motion. Us, for example.
In spite or because of the carnage wrought by this hulking soulless mass, little surprises emerged. On the upper floor amidst the empty shopfronts and between puddles of what may or may not be human urine are gems like an enchanting Yiddish museum, a couple of fully functioning alternative theatres, an indie art gallery, a tiny little synagogue, and an impressive view of Tel Aviv from the top floor.
Venture down a couple of floors and you find yourself descending into an abandoned netherworld, with seemingly endless corridors lined with vacant stores containing the occasional hidden treasure, like pinball machines caked in decades of dust.
Further down there is a mostly-abandoned bus terminal on the bottom floor that feeds directly into an impressive deserted theatre, replete with period ashtrays in the restrooms. This incredible space is well-preserved, with a fountain in the atrium area and a series of lovely, variously sized movie theaters that were later used by Camel Comedy Club, whose sign still sits proudly out the front.
There have been efforts to hold one-off movie events here, such as a Halloween horror movie special, but they have been thwarted by the space’s outmoded fire and safety standards. Interestingly, soldiers are transported from this floor every Sunday, and there was a unit from the Home Front Command stationed in the theatre space as recently as last year during Operation Pillar of Defense.
We descended deeper into the very bowels of the thing, finding ourselves in the tremendous nuclear bomb shelter with a capacity of 16,000 that was actually used as such during the Gulf War. Nearby, we were unable to escape the smell of the bat cave, an underground section of the station that has actually been declared a nature reserve because of the sheer number of bats that have made their home here.
It is only fitting, of course, that this excrescence is better suited to being coated in bat guano than in actually transporting anyone anywhere. My friend Da called it “the ugliest building I’ve ever been inside” and said it filled him with “a sense of doom.”
Even if it were today brimming with life and logical egress points, architect Ram Karmi designed the building according to – this is no joke – the ‘Brutalist’ architectural school’s sensibilities. And it is a brutal assault on the senses. It is a demoralizing, harrowing ode to the excesses of privatization and architectural ego/ineptitude. The sheer size of it is breathtaking and heartbreaking and surprising and depressing all at once. That visiting it is less architectural tour than archeological dig is a testament to the utter stupidity of the endeavor. Did I mention it had been an orange grove only a few decades before, and it was plonked down in what had once been a dainty little neighbourhood?
Perhaps the most humbling, despairing epilogue to this story: nine years after the Central Bus Station began operating, architect Ram Karmi received the country’s highest accolade, the Israel Prize. For architecture. You read that right.
At some point, words fail, and you simply must see it. Alternative tourism at its finest. The tour costs 60 shekels and goes for 3 hours, though half of that would have been enough. Worth every agora, though.
CTLV Tours operates its bus station tour in English on Fridays at 2pm. They also run other tours of South Tel Aviv and can be reached at email@example.com. The author attended this tour as a guest of the company.