There are few buildings in Israel as hated as the New Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv. The block-like seven-story fortress, which sits like an anvil on a massive 144,000-square-foot plot of the city’s blighted southern edge, isn’t so new, having been in operation — more or less — for two decades.
And it isn’t central, either; the epicenter of Tel Aviv has long since crept north, yet the Central Bus Station remains rooted on Levinsky Street, a hulking box of a building casting its shadow on the unhappy neighborhood below.
There is no natural light in here, and very little order. Filipino shop-owners and Asian grocers hawk foreign delicacies and slick, hair-gelled young men offer cheap cellphone covers and even cheaper women’s clothes.
Most intercity travelers coming in and out of Tel Aviv view the station like a pox on their journey, a maze-like, foul-smelling, and highly unfortunate stopping point that must be scurried through on the way to one’s bus.
This is not a place to linger, or even a place to inhale deeply. It is confusing and complicated, a labyrinth of seven crooked stories so confounding that it is regularly compared to an M.C. Escher painting or a haunted Halloween funhouse.
And that’s exactly what its architect, Ram Karmi, was going for.
The ambitious Jerusalem-born planner, who also is the man behind Ben Gurion Airport’s Terminal 3 and the Supreme Court Building in Jerusalem, had dreams of creating the biggest transport hub in the world, a space big enough for 2 million travelers each day.
Never mind that in 1967, the year construction began, 2 million people constituted nearly the entire population of the country. Like a madman dreaming up a monstrous Las Vegas casino, he wanted visitors to get lost so they would feel they had no choice but to linger and spend their money.
But from the beginning, the station was mired in setbacks. Karmi, an adherent of the Brutalist style of architecture, designed the building with the movement’s trademark concrete walls and long, blockish lines.
Construction hit so many financial snags that it wasn’t completed for nearly 30 years. And during the decades that the station’s financial backers bickered and stalled, Tel Aviv and its transport system chugged forward. By the time then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin helped inaugurate the station on August 18, 1993, the building was already obsolete.
Today, the Central Bus Station still serves as the city’s major transportation hub, but travelers hustle in and hustle out, hesitant to linger too long and get sucked away into its confusing halls.
Instead, the building bursts with more permanent residents: African migrants, teenage runaways, and other denizens of Israel’s forgotten and unseen.
“The station has these niches where different people can really find their space, totally disconnected from anyone else,” says Yonatan Mishal, an artist and photographer who gives tours of the Central Bus Station though CTLV, a tour group specializing in Tel Aviv’s gritty southern areas. “It gives you a lot of liberty.”
Mishal, who calls himself an “urban explorer,” began wandering the halls of the Central Bus Station a decade ago, obsessed with discovering the pockets of strange beauty amid the chaos. And there are plenty: A pint-sized Yiddish museum housing 40,000 relics of Jewish life in Europe’s ghettos; a Filipino church and preschool for migrant workers’ children; an ad hoc break-dancing rehearsal space where angsty b-boys from Israel’s periphery gather each day to practice their downrocks.
On the third floor, there is an Indian restaurant that doubles as a barber shop for men from Mumbai and Delhi. Two floors beneath, paint peels on the walls of an abandoned multiplex cinema, the lobby of which disintegrates slowly under the watchful eye of a Charlie Chaplin statue.
And in the very bowels of the building, alongside a 200-meter 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.
“It’s so grotesque and ugly and beautiful all at the same time,” Mishal says. “The location is bad, the orientation is bad, and it’s not a good place. But the urban experience, just walking around it, is wonderful.”
There’s something to Mishal’s fascination. If you look past the blinking lights of the station’s gadget shops, beyond its burekas stands and stalled escalators and shops stuffed with knock-off sunglasses and sandals, you can start to see the twisted oasis Karmi envisioned.
Hallways mimic urban streets here; force your way past the fourth-floor crowds and you’ll notice that each clogged passageway opens into a mock city square, complete with street lights and benches.
Make your way down to the third floor and peer over a wall to an abandoned waiting room filled with red, dust-covered couches, a shrine to an earlier decade, a more innocent time.
And if you’re willing to try and sneak past the guard, you can climb up to the seventh floor and onto the station’s flat, smooth roof, which offers panoramic views of Tel Aviv, its squat, green spaces to the south and its sparkling, half-finished condominium towers to the north.
The Tel Aviv Municipality has had plans to demolish the Central Bus Station for years, but like the legacy of this building, the plans are going nowhere. Nitzba Holdings, which owns the structure, is locked in negotiations with the station’s shop owners, who refuse to be bought out.
Local architects warn that the station’s massive concrete shell would be virtually impossible to knock down, and in its wake would leave a coating of dust so thick it could choke all of Tel Aviv for weeks. Mishal, for one, says he is “100 percent sure” that the station will still be standing 10 years from now.
In the meantime, the detritus of forty forgotten years still fills the station’s corners, mingling with its outcast residents like the ghosts of an Israel past.
Tour groups, drawn by curiosity, have begun flocking here, with organizations like the Tel Aviv Arts Council teaming up with CTLV to take a safari of sorts through the twisting halls.
“Just get lost,” Mishal recommends. “Where else in the city can you get lost? We’re in Israel. You always know your way, and if you don’t, you can go in any direction and soon you’ll reach somewhere you recognize. But in the Central Bus Station, you can still wander and get lost. And then you can encounter all this strange beauty.”