It is a great pleasure, in fact a great honor, to be here, in this extraordinary place, to help celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of this remarkable building, as well as the opening of the new visitors’ center, which happily brings another Venturi and Scott Brown project to the Philadelphia area—and one that manages the delicate but essential task of enhancing Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture while neither competing with it nor imitating it, which is the trap into which so many Wright embellishments fall. Venturi and Scott Brown are architects who know better than to imitate Wright, and who know that, in architecture, imitation is often the least sincere form of flattery. They have flattered Wright in a far more serious way by proving not that they can copy him, but that they can learn from him and take his lessons and make of them something their own.
But we are here, of course, not so much to talk about the visitors’ center, happy event though it is, as about the synagogue itself, which marks a critical, not to say unique, moment in American architecture: the one time in which Frank Lloyd Wright designed a Jewish house of worship. There are not many modern synagogues in the United States of great architectural distinction—I will say more about that in a moment—but of the few that exist, there are no others by Wright. And this one, of course, came at the very end of his career, so late that he never saw it entirely complete. Wright last visited Elkins Park in January of 1959, presumably on the same trip East from his home in Arizona on which he visited the Guggenheim Museum in New York, which was also near completion. Both buildings opened later in 1959, several months after Wright’s final visit. The Guggenheim understandably overshadowed Beth Sholom in terms of media attention in 1959, and I suppose we could say that something similar has been happening this year, as both buildings celebrate their fiftieth birthdays, and the Guggenheim has once again been very much in the news.
Today we can at least begin to right the balance, and to make sure that the synagogue gets its due. If this building is not quite the Guggenheim Museum, which is one of the greatest structures built in the twentieth century anywhere in the world, it is one of the key buildings in Wright’s oeuvre, and in American religious architecture. In other words, if you are one of those people who thinks in terms of lists of “ten best” and “hundred best” and so forth, well, this building surely belongs in that kind of company, the roster of the significant architectural achievements of our time.
Fifty years doesn’t seem like that long a time, although I suppose it sounds a little longer when you say half a century. But let’s think about this amount of time in another way for a moment. If you go back fifty years before Beth Sholom, in other words if you project the same distance back from the opening day of this building that we are today forward from it, you end up in 1909, which is in the first year of the presidency of William Howard Taft, and at the end of that of Theodore Roosevelt. The opening of this building, then, is as close to Teddy Roosevelt’s time as it is to Barack Obama’s.
I say this not to make this building feel older than it is, or to make any of us feel older than we are, but just to put time into perspective, and to give us a moment to ponder what half a century means. If you were here when this building was new, as I suspect some of you were, it seems like nothing. But these fifty years are also a great swath of history. When this building opened, jet airplane travel was not yet common. John F. Kennedy had not yet formally declared his candidacy for president. Cars were enormous, they were American, and they had fins, and no, I’m not saying that to segue into the question of this building’s design, since I don’t think it is particularly connected to the design trends of the late fifties and early sixties, the ones we are all now thinking about anew as we watch “Mad Men” on television. The design of Beth Sholom tells us more about Wright himself than about the nineteen-fifties. It was not a typical work then, and it is not a typical building now. This building does not represent a vision of the future that everyone else eventually caught up with. It doesn’t so much represent any particular time as it transcends our normal sense of time. This is the most important reason to talk about the sweep of half a century, and to go backwards as well as forward, to make the point that this is one of those buildings that shows us with absolute clarity what the meaning of the word “timeless” is. Beth Sholom seems, in some ways, apart from time altogether.
Let me go back to the idea that this building connects more to Wright himself than to whatever it was that the world meant, or that the world of design meant, in 1959. Wright was sui generis; he was, when Rabbi Mortimer Cohen contacted him in 1954, the grand old man of American architecture, well into his eighties, and he had never had much use for the corporate and political establishment in this country. He was admired, but often viewed as an eccentric, and many people thought of him as an architect whose great work was all in the past. His career, after all, had begun more than sixty years before he received the commission to design this building, and some of it even dated back to the previous century. It might be worth keeping in mind that Wright’s first great religious building, Unity Temple in Oak Park, Illinois, was itself fifty years old when Beth Sholom was built.
Wright had little patience for conventional religious dogma. His own roots were Unitarian, but his outlook had more in common with nineteenth century Emersonian transcendentalists—he believed in nature, and in the connections between man and nature and creativity and spirituality, and in the idea that American democracy demanded a new kind of architecture. He wasn’t particularly radical in terms of either politics or social mores—in fact, he had been something of an isolationist in the years leading up to World War II. He believed profoundly in American individualism. Unlike the European modernist architects, who saw modern design as the route to a new, heavily socialist society, Wright came more from the American agrarian tradition. He saw the radicalism of his architecture not as a way of remaking society, but as a way of protecting it. American democracy needed its own form of expression, he insisted, different from the architecture of the past in the same way that America was different from countries of the past. It wouldn’t do to copy Greek temples all over the place, or Gothic cathedrals, or Renaissance palaces.
Wright had no connections to speak of to the Jewish community. He had a few Jewish clients, most famously Edgar Kaufmann, the Pittsburgh department store owner who commissioned the great house Fallingwater, but this was incidental. In fact, given Wright’s isolationist tendencies, he may even have had some ties to groups that were quite decidedly un-Jewish, though I know of no evidence of anti-Semitism on his part. When Rabbi Cohen approached him—the contact was made through the sculptor Boris Blai, who was then dean of Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia, and who knew both men—the rabbi, whether because of a clever knowledge of Wright, or just because of his own instincts, wrote to the architect that “There is a dream and hope in my heart of erecting a Synagogue…that will be an inspiration for generations to come, so that people will come from all over the country to see it and find here a ‘new thing’—the American spirit wedded to the ancient spirit of Israel.”
The Rabbi would prove to be an extraordinary client, a true collaborator of Wright, and a strong supporter who throughout the process did what a client should do, which is to make his aspirations continually clear to the architect as the design process unfolds. At this early stage, before Wright had agreed to take on the job, Rabbi Cohen cast those aspirations in terms tailor made for Wright. The rabbi definitely knew who he was talking to. He wrote to the architect that “Judaism has been and is a democratic religion whose leaders are not set apart from the congregations, but lead and guide from the very midst…In spirit, Judaism is so close to the American democratic spirit that we need a new type of Synagogue to express this remarkable spiritual fact.”
This was exactly what Wright wanted to hear. After he agreed to design the building, he spoke at a fund-raising dinner and said that he had “been asked to design a Jewish synagogue once or twice before…and I have always declined. I said I would design an American Synagogue for Jews in America, but I would not design a Jewish Synagogue.”
“I would not design a Jewish synagogue”—what does that mean? To some extent it was just Wright’s way of saying that he would not design a traditional building—his way of making it absolutely clear that he wouldn’t design whatever the Jewish equivalent of a Gothic church would be. It’s not an anti-Semitic remark, which I suppose it could be mistaken for, though it is certainly an impolitic one, and something you could never imagine an architect saying today.
But let’s accept the notion that this was simply Wright’s way of agreeing with what Rabbi Cohen had said to him about designing a synagogue that would express the American spirit as well as be fully appropriate for Jewish liturgy, and of confirming that he would interpret this as giving him license not to design a traditional synagogue—as if anyone would have expected for a minute that Wright would design a traditional synagogue. But at this point it might be worth asking what a traditional synagogue would actually have been, had Rabbi Cohen and the congregation not wanted to create something dramatically different.
This is not to place and time to put forth a history of the synagogue, and I suspect that many of you in this audience know a great deal about how synagogues developed, but the most important thing to say is that there has never been a standard way to design them, and that their common heritage, the Tabernacle and the sequence of Temples in Jerusalem, does not set a design direction.
What seems to mark synagogues most is a general tendency to follow the vernacular of a time and place, to build in the local style. Thus we have classical synagogues and Romanesque synagogues and even a few Gothic synagogues, although this kind of architecture has become so closely associated with Christianity that synagogue designers generally shy away from it, as they do from Georgian or American colonial styles, which tend to be associated so closely with Protestant New England churches that it is difficult for any synagogue to overcome the connection. There are a few Colonial synagogues, but not many. Paradoxically, Moorish architecture, the Near Eastern style that is rich in Islamic connections, has become much more established as a stylistic direction for synagogues. That style isn’t really much freer of underlying religious associations than Gothic or Georgian buildings, although I suspect that since in both Eastern and Western Europe in the nineteenth century and in the United States at the same time there were so few people of Islamic descent that this style of architecture did not have the powerful associations of another religion, as Gothic architecture does with Christianity.
What gave us many of our greatest synagogues in the nineteenth century, however, was not the Moorish style in itself but the fact of nineteenth century eclecticism – the tendency of the architects of this time to mix and match and use all kinds of historical details, often combining them according to decorative and compositional instincts, not any architectural theory or dogma. So this aspect, too, is less specific to anything Jewish than it is specific to time and place. In wealthy cities like Vienna and Berlin and Hamburg and New York, Jewish communities built lavish synagogues that were vaguely Moorish or Byzantine, but could more appropriately be described as having the grandeur and the splendor of public buildings, combining a range of architectural details from several cultures. I have heard it said from time to time that the preference for local styles in synagogues was a way of blending in, a way of making synagogues less conspicuous, but the history of synagogue building does not bear this out. Where there was money to spend, elaborate synagogues were built. The limit was usually the budget more than any desire to keep a low profile.
You also hear from time to time the suggestion that because it is the word, the book – the Torah – that is paramount in Jewish tradition, the making of elaborate space was sometimes avoided so as not to compete with this: the word as more important than the object. For all the veneration that Jews have always given to the Torah, and to the idea of the written word, I don’t think that this is quite so literally true, either. When their resources and political situation permitted it, Jews were more than willing to invest in physical objects. They would always make sure that the Torah remained central to both ritual and the physical arrangement of the synagogue, but that did not mean that the synagogue itself had to be plain.
I do think it’s fair to say, however, that the Jewish tradition is not, in general, as dependent on visual elements as many others. It is not inclined to elaborate spectacle, for example. Marching the Torah around the sanctuary so that everyone can have the privilege of touching it for an instant is no competition for the elaborate and grandiose processions that occur in many Christian observances, for example, and even this small gesture is designed to invite our participation, not to awe us. And while synagogues are not the anonymous and bland structures that some would have us believe, generally they do try to express, in some way or another, the primacy of the word – whether by placement of the Torah, by design of the Ark, and also by stopping short of the most ornate excesses, on the view that extreme ornament, utter over-decoration, in some inexplicable way really does seem not quite Jewish.
So while synagogues are not necessarily plain, they are rarely built to dazzle us, to give us the sense that the presence of God is to be expressed through the greatest luxury imaginable. Some of our greatest architects – I think of Louis Kahn in particular – have created synagogue designs that are abstract, plain and understated, that feel brooding far more than glittering, and which are dependent on the subtleties of light and the texture of stone and wood for their effect. In this sense Kahn’s synagogue designs, only one of which was actually built, were not all that dissimilar from his non-religious buildings, which reaffirms the notion that in modern times it is the architect himself more than Jewish ritual and history that sets the design direction of a so-called “Jewish” building.
So, given that history, where does Beth Sholom fit in? While it’s true that it does dazzle us more than almost any other modern synagogue, it’s not with overwhelming luxury or lushness, but with the awe of spectacular structure and magnificent light. The design of this building certainly connects closely to Frank Lloyd Wright’s broader architectural inclinations, and to his interpretation of Judaism to some extent, but also to his views of religion in a more general way. For all that Wright and Rabbi Cohen liked to talk about this building as “a traveling Mount Sinai, a mountain of light”—the Mount Sinai metaphor has been used so often that the references are impossible to count—the reality is that Beth Sholom has its origins not in this idea, but in a scheme Wright had come up with thirty years before, in the nineteen twenties, for a cathedral of steel and glass to be built in New York City. The cathedral would have been vastly larger—the height of a huge skyscraper, in fact—and it was envisioned as a kind of ecumenical place, somewhat as Riverside Church would become, but perhaps even embracing religions beyond Christianity. It never happened, for all kinds of reasons, but Wright never forgot an idea. It remained in the back of his head, and when Rabbi Cohen came calling, he realized that it could easily be translated into a smaller, more practical building—well, a somewhat more practical building—and could be given Jewish identification, after the fact.
So the origins of this design are less in Jewish liturgy than in Wright’s own past, primarily the Steel Cathedral project. But there is also visible here some of his Unity Temple, an incomparably great building in which the subtle manipulation of light also plays an essential role. So, too, does approach: at Unity Temple, you ascend to the worship space, entering under a relatively low ceiling and experiencing the space expand magnificently as you move into the sanctuary. Wright picked up on this aspect of Unity Temple here at Beth Sholom, but of course in a very different way, with the spectacular effects of this brilliant tent of glass, which bursts on you with a resounding power.
Does it matter that the roots of this building are not directly in Jewish liturgy, for all that Wright and Rabbi Cohen talked about Mount Sinai? I don’t think it really does. The idea of a tent of glass as symbolizing Mount Sinai, as well as the Tabernacles, isn’t wrong, and it has helped people feel comfortable about an unusual building, because it makes it feel connected to a tradition and a liturgy that they understand, even if they don’t understand the architecture. It makes the abstract feel less abstract, in other words, to think of it as Mount Sinai rendered in glass. But at the end of the day we admire this building and are awed by being inside it not because of this metaphor, not because it might loosely suggest a modern interpretation of something out of Jewish history, but rather because of the sheer power of its presence as an object: the way this space is exultant; the way natural light brings a constant awareness of nature in balance with the most abstract, man-made structure; the way it feels forever new, even as you repeat the most ancient rituals within it.
I digressed a moment ago to talk about the history of the synagogue to make the point that there is no defined architectural prescription for the synagogue. There are some architectural constraints, mainly along the lines of the placement of elements within the worship space, but that is not the same as the overall architecture, which Jewish tradition does not prescribe. So far as the design of the building itself is concerned, history shows us that synagogues have been all kinds of things, built in all kinds of styles, and have often connected to the vernacular architectural language of the time and place in which they were built—or, in the case of Beth Sholom, to the preoccupations and predilections of their architect.
Obviously Beth Sholom is not a typical building of its time or its place, but in the sense that it connects to the broader culture of which it is a part, it is still consistent with synagogue history, in that it is part of a larger architectural story. That’s the key point—that the synagogue as a building type is part of the larger architectural story, not a story separate unto itself. I think this underscores the point Rabbi Cohen was trying to make in his initial letter to Frank Lloyd Wright, implying that there is something in Jewish attitude as well as Jewish ritual, particularly when you set it within an American cultural context, that seems to be a natural fit with the openness and directness and clarity of modernist architecture. Rabbi Cohen may have meant to flatter Frank Lloyd Wright into taking the commission, but he was onto something anyway in his attempt to connect Jewish tradition to the broader American culture.
Now, by saying that this synagogue, or synagogues in general, are a part of a larger architectural story, as opposed to a specifically Jewish architectural story, is not to say that they must therefore be conventional. Plenty of them are, of course, but obviously this one is as far from conventional as you can get. I think it’s fair to say that this tent of glass, for most people, is one of the most remarkable buildings they will ever experience.
When you first encounter this synagogue, you see instantly how visually spectacular it is, and the temptation, given all of this glass, is to think of this room as direct and clear—as an extravaganza, but a pretty straightforward one. The reality of this sanctuary is more complicated than that, I think. While we can see it rationally and understand it rationally, there is something more going on. I can begin to talk about it by invoking that wonderful word that Le Corbusier famously used in describing his great chapel at Ronchamp, in Eastern France – “ineffable,” the un-understandable. Le Corbusier described this building, which has remarkable, sensuous curves to it, as containing “ineffable space.”
Now, few buildings could be more different than Beth Sholom and Ronchamp, though they surely both rank among the great religious structures of the twentieth century. But both of them bring us to an important paradox that it’s hard not to think about when we talk about sacred space in modern architecture, or indeed in any architecture, which is the fact that in the realm of the sacred, architecture, the discipline most dependent on materiality, indeed the ultimate expression of materiality, must try to express what is not material, what cannot ever be material. In the quest to create sacred space, architecture is in a way working against itself, struggling to use the material to express what transcends the material, using the physical to express the transcendent.
It should be no surprise, then, that when we talk about what makes a place feel sacred, we tend to go first to the idea of space, not structure. Space is intuitively less rational, and it is obviously less material. No one ever talks of sacred structure. We may study Gothic cathedrals as works of structure, but when we talk of them in sacred terms, we talk about things far less tangible—we talk of space, and light. Even though the word “space” was not part of the standard architectural parlance until the 19th century, what we now use that term to connote, of course, has been there throughout the history of architecture. The creation of sacred architecture was very much the creation of sacred space.
The second part of the paradox is that architecture, as well as being material, is also by nature and expectation rational – structure must have logic or it cannot stand. But the sacred is otherwise. It not only does not demand logic, it defies it. Logic, the thing that is utterly essential in the creation of structure, is quite beside the point when it comes to the sacred. But we need it to get there. If the goal is to make sacred architecture, there is a contradiction between the means and the end: the means must be rational, even as the end cannot be.
Another way to get at this might be to say that you can contemplate the idea of God, but you cannot engineer the physical reality of God. The architects of the Gothic cathedrals, of course, were engineers who used structural systems to create otherworldly, far-from-rational effects. The physical structure of any Gothic cathedral is measurable, describable, and we can analyze it down to the last stone. Yet as every one of us knows, it evokes feelings beyond the measurable, beyond the rational. The genius of the Gothic is the way its structure exists to bring us to a place that, for all intents and purposes, defies the very essence of structure. The great cathedrals celebrate God by becoming ephemeral, light, rising toward heaven in a way that makes us feel awe.
I would be tempted to say that this is in fact a good definition of sacred space – the use of material forms to evoke feelings that go beyond the material, and which cannot be measured. That, of course, is what we experience here. Material, tangible, measurable things—glass, steel, stone, and other materials—have been put together to create something utterly intangible, completely beyond our ability to measure.
[I’m going to digress again for a moment to ask another question about sacred architecture. If you accept the idea that the special qualities of this space at Beth Sholom come from the fact that it is constructed by reason—in other words, that the engineering had to work—then what actually is the connection between architecture and sacred space? Does architecture alone then even create the sacred? Maybe we should ask whether the users of a building and their activities do—in other words, do we confer the quality of sanctity upon spaces, or do certain spaces confer sanctity upon us? Sometimes, what is sacred is simply what we choose to sanctify, and this is simply a rational space, just an unusually elaborate and unusual one. I think of small Protestant and Jewish congregations in many cities whose synagogues are essentially storefronts or leftover urban spaces, or of similarly improvised Islamic places of worship in Western cities, or of rural churches that are roadside boxes, or even of those new mega-churches that plenty of people, myself included, have derided as looking like shopping centers, but that obviously perform a sacred function for many people, and inspire in them feelings of transcendence even while looking more like big box warehouses.
There is a wonderful line inscribed in the Ethical Culture Society in New York, atop the pulpit: the words “The Place Where People Meet to Seek the Highest is Holy Ground”—and that, for many people, is so. I thought of it not too long ago when I was in Prague, where I visited Josef Plecnik’s Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, which I must say is one of the most amazing buildings I have ever seen in my life—now first time I wish we could show slides here, because this is an unusual building that most of you probably don’t know—but in any event this building, wonderful as it is, could not be described as containing ineffable space. The interior of this church, though hardly simple, has little mystery about it. It was intended by Plecnik to be flexible; it is based on a grid, and his concept was to have multiple altars and not have the space be exclusively frontal in its orientation and use. But the people confer something sacred upon it.
I mention this church, however, to make another point, which is that I felt a certain disconnect there between those who worshiped in it – and by chance, I visited during Mass – and those who came to see its architecture. I sensed that these two groups of people experienced the building in quite different ways, and were moved by different things. I would almost be tempted to say that the worshipers were moved in spite of the architecture, and the architectural pilgrims because of it. To the former group, this staggering and stunning work was largely a container, made potent not by its form so much as by the rituals that go on within it as well as by certain iconic objects contained inside it, statues and paintings that were not designed by the architect and in some cases were even put there over his objection, rather like the way apparently a traditional cross was installed in a church Richard Meier designed for Rome after the building had been finished and the users of the building decided that the architect was safely back home in New York. Now to the other group, not the worshipers but the seekers of architectural experience, the religious rituals may have mattered even less than the architecture mattered to the worshipers. It is Plecnik’s astonishing form, his slab of a bell tower, his merger of classicism and modernism into something at once rich and bombastic, that give this church its magnetic allure to architectural pilgrims. So what makes a space sacred can differ hugely depending on who is doing the experiencing.
This is true in plenty of cases—those of you who have gone to Rome to see the great Baroque churches may feel in Sant’Ivo or San Carlino a similar disconnect between those who come to worship Borromini and those who come to worship God, even though most of the time the former group seems clearly to outnumber the latter. At Ronchamp or at Louis Kahn’s Unitarian Church in Rochester, New York—or right here at Beth Sholom—I’m sure it is sometimes also the case that architectural pilgrims can seem to dominate. I’m sure you’re well familiar with them here. There is nothing wrong with this, and obviously there are plenty of people who belong to both groups and have both deep architectural and deep religious experiences when they visit great sacred space. Not all who are attracted by architecture do so solely because they – or the architect – have substituted aesthetic appeal for the aura of the sacred. It is not wholly a zero-sum game.
My point, though, is only to note that even when these experiences, the aesthetic and the sacred, co-exist, architects tend to assume that the power of the experience come wholly or largely from the architecture. I think this is architectural hubris. While great architecture surely can and often does enhance religious experience—and this building is as good an example of the ability of architecture to do that as you will find—architecture is not particularly likely, entirely on its own, to create it. It is important to keep in mind that this space is experienced as transcendent for many people at least as much because of what religious feeling they bring to it, not because of what Frank Lloyd Wright has made of it. ]
[Now, it is not architecture alone that creates the aura of the sacred, at least not for most people. It is important to remember that this space is experience as transcendent for many people at least as much because of what religious feeling they bring to it, not because of what Frank Lloyd Wright has made of it. ] This is not to minimize the potential of architecture, even in our time, to create a sense of awe, and the aura of the sacred. Again, we see it right here. And that we continue to aspire to the sacred is significant in itself—since, as the German architect Rudolf Schwartz has written, the quest for the sacred is itself sacred. And often, as we see here, the quest is successful.
The ability of architecture to create the sacred, and not merely to enclose it, so to speak – that is to say, the ability of architecture to create a sense of awe, regardless of whether one comes to it with the rituals of religious practice in mind, is borne out, paradoxically, by non-religious buildings, since they are places to whom no one brings an expectation of ritual or a predisposition to religious experience. Where in the realm of sacred space are we to place, say, Jefferson’s Lawn at the University of Virginia, or Sir John Soane’s breakfast room, or, to move to the twentieth century, Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House outside of Chicago? I can think of few more sublime places than the Farnsworth House, even though it is not by any normal measure a sacred space. But there, architecture is transcendent, as surely as in this sanctuary. And what are we to make of the fact that while Beth Sholom’s extraordinary space surely possesses a sacred aura, so, too, does Fallingwater, perhaps just as much of it. So do so many of Wright’s other houses, and so does the Guggenheim Museum. And we might say the same of Louis Kahn—is there a difference between the sacred space of his Unitarian Church and the space of his Kimbell Art Museum, or his British Art Center, or his courtyard overlooking the Pacific at the Salk Institute? In these cases, and they stand for many others, you might say that the aesthetic has reached such intensity and risen to such heights that it becomes indistinguishable from the sacred.
We have in our culture conflated the aesthetic and the sacred, particularly in the half century since this building was finished, which is why, I suppose, that the art museum seems to have replaced the cathedral in our culture. We have no sense of commonality of faith as motivated the cultures that built the great sacred space of earlier eras, and it is no accident that we have made the art museum the most intense arena of architectural expression today. It is more common to have an extraordinary art museum built today than an extraordinary religious building. I’m not entirely sure that means that we have simply substituted the aesthetic for the sacred, that we have chosen to be attracted to the beautiful rather than to the divine. I am not sure it is so simple, in part because the connections between art and religion, between art and the soul, are far deeper and more interdependent, not to say ambiguous, than these formulations would suggest. I would hope that our failings are not quite so clear-cut as merely the elevation of the aesthetic over the sacred.
We also need to keep in mind that our time is altogether different from any other in terms of what architecture can do to create the aura of the sacred. This building, Beth Sholom, was in its time a radical building, an extraordinary work of sculpted space and directed light. So was Ronchamp, and so were many other twentieth century attempts to create sacred space. The very strangeness of Ronchamp’s shape seemed appropriate as a way to pull away from the rational and to suggest an unseen, spiritual power. Though the space within Ronchamp is as beautiful and as moving as ever, as is this space right here, to the visitor today neither of these is any longer quite as strange. Technology has now brings within the reach of every architect shapes and forms that could barely be imagined before. If you have a computer, you can, it seems, make any kind of space, like Frederick Keisler, the architect who was famous long ago for creating what he called the “endless house,” with space that seemed to twist and turn in on itself. Technology has made the ineffable migrate from the spiritual to the secular sphere. Fifty years ago, when Beth Sholom was new, unusual space, complex space—what we have called mysterious space—was in and of itself a signifier of the sacred. Today, that is much less so, and not only because of our culture’s secular and aesthetic leanings. It is also because technology has debased the currency of ineffable space.
This has been happening gradually for a while – some time after Kiesler did his most interesting work there was Eero Saarinen, who was a shaper of space that had many of the qualities we associate with the ineffable, even though his most potent spaces were not his religious ones but places like the TWA Terminal, striking in its time and now looking rather tame. But today, thanks to technology, we can and often do make spaces like TWA and many of them are far richer and more complex. It would seem inevitable, given the technology that is available to us, that what constitutes our sense of truly ineffable space would have to change in an age in which every airport aspires to being Ronchamp, when swooping roofs and curving walls are commonplace, when the Los Angeles Philharmonic plays at Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Hall and Chicagoans listen to concerts at Gehry’s Pritzker pavilion in Millennium Park, both of which are far more complex forms than Ronchamp.
So it is not easy to maintain a sense of mystery in an age in which technology enables all, or seems to enable all. Is mystery the most important thing, then, the thing that connotes the sacred? Do we need mysterious space—ineffable space—in a rational age, and if we do, can we any longer create it? Do we know how? Does it matter?
It is an aura of mystery, as I said earlier, that characterizes Gothic cathedrals, and so much other great ecclesiastical architecture. Mystery is what distinguishes, say, the great English churches of Sir Christopher Wren from the, to my mind, even greater churches of the English Baroque architect Nicholas Hawksmoor—one represents the height of the rational, but the other carries it beyond the rational. Brilliant and magnificent as Wren is, we can analyze and understand it – Wren’s wonderful St. Stephen Walbrook in the City of London is logic raised to its highest, most glorious potential. But go next door to Hawksmoor’s St. Mary Woolnoth, or a short distance away to Christ Church Spitalfields, and you experience much more unusual space, startling, perhaps a bit terrifying, and compelling in a whole different way. One is the earth, perfected, and it holds forth the promise of enlightenment. The other is also ordered, but its order calls up in us a sense that there is something we will never fully understand, that we will never entirely grasp – that we can never truly know. That is the ineffable; that is the sacred. It is the moment where architecture reaches its highest, where material form takes us to a non-material realm. In the profound joining of the rational and the unexplainable, Hawksmoor – or Borromini or Kahn or Ando – unite the aesthetic and the sacred, and make of them not distinct realms but one inseparable thing.
And so, I think, does Wright, although he does not quite admit it, and he wants us to think that this building is more rational than it really is. Or maybe a better way to say that is he wants us to think that the experience we have in this building is more rational than it really is. Everything Wright has tried to do here you can understand; you can see how all the parts work, there is nothing hidden from the eye. This is a building of reason, a beautiful and serene abstract composition that is one of the most profound essays on balance that you can ever experience.
And yet it is more than that. Beth Sholom moves us, surely, in ways that go beyond the rational. In many ways it is the most remarkable kind of sacred space of all, because it does not take refuge in the idea that the spiritual is all about strange and hard-to-describe spaces and unfamiliar shapes, about being transported to a new and different world. Instead, Beth Sholom seeks to show us that the spiritual is right here, in the world we know, in the world we can see. The highest things are among us, right in our daily life, Wright is telling us—the lesson of this building is that we need only look about us, and feel the space and light and solid and void and, most of all, the serene balance, and look into ourselves, and we will find the transcendent.