The Jaffa Hotel in Tel Aviv bears the story of today
BY ANJA FAHS
(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue 1 2019)
The ancient, angular stones feel warm and rough. They belong to the wall of a 13th-century Crusader’s stronghold. I wonder about all the things these stones have witnessed throughout the centuries – and what they think of the unusual mid-century design classics of Shiro Kuramata and Pierre Paulin located right next door. An exciting contrast indeed, in the lobby of what may be the most spectacular new hotel in Tel Aviv’s historic Jaffa District in Israel. The hotel is located above the harbour of the Old Town with a dream view of the Mediterranean Sea. This is where Crusaders once landed, a place the Ottomans invaded, and and a corner of Tel Aviv where the refugees of World War II settled to build new homes. Jaffa is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, and the whole world has been trading here for more than four thousand years. Today, it is one of the coolest neighbourhoods of Tel Aviv, and soon The Jaffa Hotel will once again become one of its landmarks – just as the historic building once was in the 19th century.
The historic building, which took more than 25 years to restore, is now home to the luxury hotel operated by The Luxury Collection. In addition to 120 hotel rooms and suites, it offers 30 luxury apartments, an outdoor pool, a sun deck with a bar, a fitness centre and spa, boutiques and two restaurants in a beautifully greened courtyard. The historic structure had to be partially excavated and its lower floors elaborately uncovered. The old chapel with its frescoes has been renovated and is now a cocktail lounge called “The Chapel” – one of the hotspots in the vibrant nightlife of Tel Aviv. Here, history has been modernised to perfection and given a contemporary interpretation. Ramy Gill, one of Israel’s leading architects, has assisted the work on The Jaffa from the beginning and tells us the remarkable story of this building.
Ramy, was this place once an old monastery?
The historic building has never been a monastery per se. It was part of an enterprise initiated by a French businessman who travelled to the Holy Land in the 19th century and was struck and appalled by its desolation and the lack of proper local medical services. He therefore decided to build a hospice for pilgrims entering the Holy Land via Jaffa’s port. However, throughout its history, the building was used as a retiring residence for the Sisters of Saint Joseph de l’Apparition, the sisterhood that operated the hospice, and for a certain period, it was leased to the Israeli Ministry of Health that operated a day clinic for the mentally ill inside the building. When my involvement with the project started, about 25 years ago, the place was in a considerable state of dereliction as far as its interior was concerned. Although the stability and beauty of its exterior walls and foundation was still evident.
I assume that turning a unique landmark into a hotel is always a great responsibility to the heritage of this site?
It was a great responsibility that called for a great amount of expertise in the areas of the history of architecture in particular, and the history of the city in general. Due to the location of the building within the perimeter of the old city of Jaffa and with a history of about four thousand years, the Israeli Antiquities Authority conducted four excavation seasons before any construction could take place on site. The archaeological excavations have unravelled the remains of parts of the fortification system of historic Jaffa from the Crusaders era and Ottoman system which was based on top of it.
So the lobby features remnants from the Crusaders? The new building was then built on the archaeological site and was therefore integrated into the hotel?
Yes, during the excavations some remains of the Crusader bastion were uncovered, which were integrated into the design of the hotel lobby in order to make them accessible to all guests. The lower floors of the historic building were buried and thousands of square metres of excavations had to be carried out to uncover it and bring it to the same level as the ground floor of the new building and the courtyard in between.
Which specialists were involved in these complex tasks?
It was necessary to establish a meticulous preservation plan in order to restore the original features of the building – stucco, stained glass, tiles, and woodwork, to name a few. Craftspeople from Israel and Europe were employed in order to carry out the work.
What were the first steps that had to be done when the project started?
The first step involved establishing a new statutory municipal plan for the site. The new plan established a new designation for the site, allowing its use for residential and hotel purposes. A new site plan determined the positioning of the new construction and its volume, based upon city plans pertaining to the site as well as educated speculation of underground possibilities that could be taken advantage of, once the site was excavated.
The design of the hotel also reflects the local culture, such as references to Middle Eastern architecture. Please tell us about the design details.
The idea of an interior courtyard or garden invisible from the street is a common feature of Middle Eastern homes and public buildings. The new perforated aluminium window system designed for the new building is also present on the top floor of the historic building. It has a lace-like appearance that is similar to the stucco partitions, so-called Mashrabiyas, that can be found throughout the Middle East.
What are the design differences between the new and the old building and what elements connect both?
The underlying architecture allowed the old and the new to remain distinct from each other. Each part represents the culture and technology of its era while letting them coexist harmoniously alongside one another. Thus, while the old building boasts some level of physical ornamentation typical of the 19th century, for example, the new building is very spartan and lacks ornamentation, which creates a very “modern” look. However, in order to promote the harmonious coexistence between the old and the new, the fenestration system of the new construction echoes that of the historic building and the neighbouring traditional construction of the surrounding area. The colour chosen for the envelope of the new building is identical to that of the historic building, with the same purpose in mind.
My favourite place is the lobby where you can find a lot of mid-century design classics but also a traditional Sheshbesh (backgammon) lounge. This is pretty unique. Why backgammon?
Backgammon is a very popular game throughout the Middle East and is at the heart of many social gatherings. It incorporates competitive and social elements, and although it calls for a certain expertise, it does not require as much concentration as chess, for instance, which allows for conversations, fun and humorous encounters among players during a game.
Ramy Gill is one of the leading authorities on the history and architecture of Jaffa, in Israel. He was the leading architect in the redesign of the Jaffa-ports and has published a book about his work, which is now considered a reference guide on the topic. His ecologically oriented projects, including public buildings and private flats, always valorize the culture and the surrounding landscape from which they are inspired.
Picture credit © Amit Geron