Tel Aviv central bus station, also known as the new central bus station (התחנהה מרכזית החדשה, HaTahana HaMerkazit HaHadasha), is the main bus station of Tel Aviv. Located in the south of the city, it was opened on 17th August 1993. At 230,000 square metres, it is the 2nd largest bus station in the world.
Construction began on the bus station in December 1967, but work was prematurely halted due to financial difficulties. The building was finally inaugurated on 18th August 1993. The inauguration ceremony was attended by then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the mayor of Tel Aviv Shlomo Lahat. The station's prolonged construction period gave it the title of white elephant among the public, and in light of this, the inauguration ceremony included releasing a white elephant balloon into the sky.
The station was designed by the leading Israeli architect Ram Karmi in the Brutalist style, with the movement's trademark concrete walls and long, blockish lines. It was completed by the architects Yael Rothshild and Moti Bodek, and opened with six floors. The initial plan called for buses to travel to all six. In practice, only four of the six floors were used as bus terminals (it turned out that underground bus terminals were a bad idea since there was nowhere for the fumes from the buses to escape), and in 1998 the first and second floor platforms were transferred to the newly opened seventh floor. This act killed off the remaining businesses on the first two floors and hurt businesses on the third.
The bus station complex includes a shopping centre serviced by 29 escalators and 13 elevators, with over 1,000 shops and restaurants. It even once housed a (now deserted) subterranean multiplex cinema, originally meant to entertain people waiting for their bus. The main entrances are on the north and east sides of the fourth floor. Most intercity buses leave from a departure hall on the sixth floor and on the seventh floor there is a departure hall for local buses. In the very bowels of the building, alongside a 200 metre bat cave that Israeli authorities have declared a nature preserve, there is a nuclear bomb shelter whose steel blast doors can be sealed in the event of an atomic emergency.
The station was built to accommodate far more passengers than it actually has. Ram Karmi created a space big enough for 500,000 weekly travellers, albeit that in 1967, the year construction began, the entire population of Israel was only 2.5 million! The bus station developers were clearly overly ambitious, as were the oversold investors who bought into the dream. In 2008 approximately 100,000 people visited the station building every day. In 2018 this number went down to 80,000 and most Israelis pass through the station as fast as they can, desperate not to get sucked away into its confusing halls.
From the beginning the station was mired in setbacks and in recent years it has suffered from some neglect and disrepair. By the time it opened in 1993 following decades of delays, Tel Aviv's centre had shifted north. The southern neighbourhood surrounding the station, long a gathering place for newly arrived migrants, was increasingly neglected. Today south Tel Aviv is regarded by most Tel Avivians as the underbelly of the city, and the station is considered a monstrosity. Numerous drug addicts, prostitutes, rave throwers and homeless people take residence there on occasion, and in 2010 there was a murder and three cases of rape in the station.
The station has also been criticised for its complicated design which makes it hard to get around (Karmi designed it to be vast and confusing to navigate, thinking lost shoppers would spend more), and for being built in a neighbourhood that didn't fit its character. It is vast, decayed and dirty, but it has recently become a space for diversity in the city.
With the African and Asian people who work in the station largely shunned by mainstream society, the building fosters a community like no other in Israel. Amongst the shops selling clothes and cell phone covers is a Yiddish book centre housing 40,000 relics of Jewish life in Europe's ghettos, and a Filipino church, above. Refugee health clinics and a preschool and daycare centre for the children of foreign workers and refugees who live in the area can be found. Filipino shop owners and Asian grocers hawk foreign delicacies. On Saturdays, when public transport shuts down for Shabbat, the fourth floor transforms into a Filipino food market.
You can climb up to the seventh floor and onto the bus station's flat, smooth roof which offers panoramic views of Tel Aviv, below. (Please make sure you click on the panoramic photo to get an even better view of Tel Aviv). In 2013 I took my boys to see "The 7th Floor" project, a graffiti and street art exhibition which aimed to transform the central bus station building from a symbol of grey massiveness into a place of surprise and colour. 1,000 metres of painted walls created by 50 artists, including some of Israel's best graffiti artists, greeted us and many of the original floor-to-ceiling pieces, plus more, are still there today.
When the cornerstone of the bus station was laid in 1967, it was described as a place for all of Israel to gather, a "City Under One Roof". In a way, that is what it has become. It does have some things that work, but it also contains those sad, scary and derelict places found in any urban environment. The location is bad, the orientation is bad, and overall it is not a nice place to be. But there some small signs of architectural genius, the building is chock-full of mysterious oddities, and the urban experience, just walking around it, is wonderful. I am pretty sure that the station will still be standing 10 years from now.
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