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Is There a Jewish Architecture?

Jewish Center of the Hamptons
August 21st, 2011

Thank you. It is always a pleasure to be here, in this extraordinary space that says a lot about this entire community, not to mention about the relationship of the Jewish community to this town. You know, I remember when I was young hearing my grandfather ask, a propos of almost anything – “So, is it good or bad for the Jews?” The short answer is that this building has for twenty years now been very good for the Jews, and I mean that not as a joke but to make a more serious point, which is the extent to which this building suggests that the Jewish community is open, inviting, and of the moment, not trapped in some rigid notion of the past, but not in denial of the past, either. It suggests that inventiveness and imagination can be part of the route to spiritual comfort—that neither spiritual comfort nor physical comfort come entirely from older things, but that when we do new and different things, we will have greater spiritual comfort if we connect these things to the world we already know, and build upon that world to move in new directions.

The qualities this building represents – the sense of connection and, most important, the sense of openness – are qualities we do not see often enough in architecture built by Jewish institutions. Too often today, security dominates, or economics. Now, no one, least of all a non-profit institution, can or should ignore these things—you have to be safe, and you have to build within a budget—but it is a sad moment when they drive the entire design process. And that is precisely what has happened more times than I can count. Fear leads to barricades and enclosures and buildings that resemble bunkers more than inviting, welcoming centers of community. Many of you surely know the relatively new Jewish community center on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, a wonderful institution, full of great things going on, but it sits within a brick box, and the limited attempts that were made to create an open and inviting ground floor with glass walls were compromised when concrete highway barriers were put at curbside in front of these walls, as if to say that even that much glass was a big mistake, that the whole building should have been solid brick, a fortress within which Jews would sit, feeling safe.

I don’t entirely blame the community center, since the highway barriers may have been added by the New York city police, which put similar ones in front of many synagogues as well, and I suspect that the administration of this center would have liked to have had the building seem a bit more inviting than it is. But the result, whether intended or not, is to give the building something of the air of a bunker.

Now, it’s not fair to contrast the building we’re in right now to the Jewish Community Center, since we are, after all, in what is still a relatively small town, and this is not an urban site. Still, it is hard not to take note of how well this building sends the message that this institution does not believe in barricading itself behind concrete, that it seeks connection to everything around it because it believes that Jewish life should be neither insular nor governed wholly by fear. That is what I mean when I say this building is good for the Jews – it sends a message to everyone throughout East Hampton that Jewish life stands for the values of community and for the importance of connection and engagement. At its best, this building is a billboard advertising the virtues of Jewish enlightenment. Indeed, even more basic, it is a billboard advertising the fact of Jewish enlightenment. This is a critically important thing, especially in this age in which the values of fundamentalism, which challenge enlightenment and reason, are all around us. And I suspect that what I am calling the billboard, which is to say the sense of imagination in this building, the critical role that light plays in our experience of it, has a valuable internal function, too, for it reminds everyone who occupies this building the same things it tells the public. Not the least of the reasons this building is good for the Jews is because it reminds us, every day, about what we should be valuing.

This synagogue embodies another value, too, one that I could say represents another form of enlightenment, and that is the value of respect for contemporary culture. The architect Norman Jaffe produced a building that, if not all the way at the cutting edge, is close enough to it, and as such it stands as a reminder that Judaism looks forward as much as backward, and that an institution devoted to the study and conservation of culture also wants to have a stake in the creation of culture.  For me this is an especially important aspect of this building, since I have never thought of Judaism as withdrawing from the affairs of the larger world, but of seeking to influence them for the better.

It is a wonderful piece of symbolism for the age of the Diaspora, and for an age of assimilation. I know that there are plenty of people around the world who would like to see the period we live in replaced with more isolation and more of an inward focus, and for its architecture to do the same. I hope very much that this will not happen, and that this building will continue to be such a powerful and convincing advertisement for the virtues of enlightenment. I am not a great believer in fundamentalism, in religion or in architecture.

Now, you’ve probably noticed that for all I’ve made reference to the implications of this building for Jewish identity and Jewish culture, I haven’t spoken about it as Jewish architecture per se. I haven’t used that phrase because—to get to the question that is the title of this talk—I’ve never been convinced that there actually ever was, or is, such a thing. Indeed, since there is so little consistency among Jews in so many areas, why should architecture be any different? There is plenty of architecture produced by Jewish architects, and much of it is very good, some of it even great. But the things that make it good are not necessarily Jewish things, and I do not see that there are common themes running through buildings by Jewish architects. Richard Meier is not like Frank Gehry who is not like Robert Stern who is not like Peter Eisenman, to name four architects of Jewish origin. They each produce architecture of great quality and seriousness, but their work is quite different, and there is no common thread I could point to that defines any of them as a Jewish architect per se. Now, I suppose if you were an eager student desperate to establish some sort of theory you could find something allegedly “Jewish” in the work of each of them – you could talk about Richard Meier’s glass buildings as symbolizing openness, of Frank Gehry’s complex, sculptural forms as symbolizing the richness but also the irrationality and unknow-ability of much of Jewish spirituality; of Robert Stern’s homages to historical architectural styles as representing the respect for history that Jewish tradition encourages; and Peter Eisenman’s highly complex, often frustrating forms based on difficult-to-read underlying systems as symbolizing the mystical complexities of, say, the Kabbalah. And to mention perhaps the most revered architect of Jewish heritage, Louis Kahn, who died some years ago but who remains in the forefront of our architectural consciousness today, Kahn’s intense, brooding spirituality, just by itself, seems inherently Jewish. In fact, the other day, when I went to see an extraordinary new work of Kahn’s that is rising now, thirty seven years after his death, the memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt on Roosevelt Island in New York City, where Kahn has produced what he has called a “room” of huge, solid granite blocks, arranged to be enclosed on three sides with a fourth side open to the water and to the view of the United Nations and the New York City skyline. It is an amazing thing that this project is finally happening, since it was given up for dead many years ago, when the combination of Kahn’s death and the financial crisis of the nineteen seventies seemed to undo any possibility that it would be built. But it is going up right now, and will be finished next year. It is not a religious building per se, let alone a Jewish one, but it does suggest, in its beautiful, soulful abstraction, something that is profoundly reflective—and this, in a sense, Jewish.

So you could make something of a case for every one of these architects I’ve just mentioned, from Richard Meier to Louis Kahn, producing what we might call Jewish architecture. But I think it would be a pretty glib, and pretty weak, case in the end. The truth is that both the good and bad qualities of each of these architects – and those I mentioned can stand for many more – are not things that relate in any exclusive way to Jewish tradition. There is no real and established way to build in the Jewish tradition, or at least no way to design and construct buildings that has been handed down through the ages and which embodies the essence of Jewish ritual and culture. Just as there are plenty of great Jewish artists but not really any particularly meaningful school of Jewish art, there are plenty of great Jewish architects but not anything truly meaningful that we can say about what constitutes Jewish architecture.

Or maybe a better way to put this would be to say that there is nothing meaningful that we can say about what common themes there are in architecture by Jews. I want to separate out the question of architecture by Jewish architects, which I emphatically believe has no meaningful common themes, and architecture for Jewish purposes, which is to say architecture built for synagogues, Jewish museums, Jewish schools, and so forth. That is a different thing, in part since, obviously enough, architecture for Jewish rituals and Jewish events can be built by non-Jewish architects, and often is, but also because there is a profound difference in the meaning of buildings built for secular purpose and buildings built for religious purpose. I think you could make a case that there is such a thing as architecture for Jewish purposes, whoever it is designed by. But even here, it is not easy to say what it is, and I am very wary of drawing any simple conclusions that can lead us to some simple definition.

After all, if you look at the architecture you know that is built for Jewish purposes, no common theme emerges, the way it might for churches. Moshe Safdie, another distinguished architect of Jewish origin, in his thoughtful building for the Skirball Center in Los Angeles, has said that he was motivated by the metaphor of the garden, and that he felt that since “Jews were the first people to imagine paradise on earth,” in his words, the notion of a building intertwined with a garden was particularly appropriate. It is, and Safdie had a wonderful point, but of course gardens mean so many things, and the fact that this was a valid way for him to pursue the challenge of designing the Skirball does not mean that the garden is or even should be the predominant theme of Jewish architecture.

By saying there is no common theme I don’t mean to say that there are not critical elements that are present in all synagogues, as well as elements that trace back in some ways to Biblical precedent. Stanley Tigerman, the Chicago architect who has probably done the most thorough scholarly investigation of this of any contemporary architect, and who has designed the Illinois Holocaust Museum, has argued in his book The Architecture of Exile that after the First Temple’s break with the tradition of avoiding permanent and luxurious houses of worship, much of Jewish ritual architecture has been an attempt to come to terms with loss and exile, and make some connection to the precedents set forth in the Bible.

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 is no 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, for all the connections to these things that Stanley Tigerman has reminded us of. Tigerman has also made the critical point that the Bible sets forth things that have influenced Christian churches as surely as they have influenced synagogues – just as the Jewish service is the basis for the Christian service of worship, so is the synagogue and its biblical antecedents the precedent, at least in part, for the church.

As time goes on, however, 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. If there is one style that was once common enough to be a kind of semi-standard language for synagogues, it is Moorish. 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 nobody paid much attention to this connection. So this style of architecture did not have the kind of powerful associations of another religion, as Gothic architecture does with Christianity. The associations were under the radar, so to speak; you could pretend they weren’t there, and since Moorish architecture has elements of the Near East and some elements of the Mediterranean cultures, it could even be said to have a logical connection to Jewish origins, and with the absence of any stronger association to trump this one, it became a kind of quasi-synagogue style, at least by default.

What gave us many of our greatest synagogues in the nineteenth century, however, was not the fact of the Moorish style 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. And Moorish or Byzantine architecture, while prevalent, was never exclusive. In New York, one of the greatest synagogues is the grandly classical Shearith Israel on Central Park West, which was built in 1897 – Roman architecture for the Spanish and Portuguese congregation. Shearith Israel is a beautiful building, but its architecture could be that of a courthouse or a museum; what it symbolizes is formal, civic, dignified grandeur, which is neither particularly Jewish nor in any way not Jewish. And Shearith Israel was far from the only synagogue in the classical style in those years.

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 the budget, not a desire to keep a low profile. And the great synagogues of Vienna and Berlin and other cities were hardly discreet. The main synagogue of Rome may not have rivaled St. Peter’s, but it was no hole-in-the-wall, either. And the same could be said of so many cities, including New York by the late nineteenth century, when the highly ornate original building of Temple Emanu-el held sway over Fifth Avenue at 43rd Street, and its sibling, perhaps even finer architecturally, Central Synagogue, which happily still stands, at Lexington Avenue and 55th Street, a building that of course our Rabbi knows particularly well, as do many of you in this room. Central is the greatest survivor of many elaborate synagogues that gave the Jewish community a high physical profile. These were buildings put up to tell New York that the Jews – at least the wealthy German Jews – had arrived, and were now a big part of the community. So I don’t buy the theory that the tendency of synagogues to follow the local architectural styles was in any way connected to a desire to be less visible as Jews assimilated.

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. 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. It was not only a matter of the word, however much the Torah may always have been central to both ritual and the physical arrangement of the synagogue.

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 that we associate with, say, the Rococo. There are not a lot of Rococo synagogues – not only because the Jews had neither the wealth nor the freedom to build much during that period, and were certainly not much of a presence in those European cultures where Rococo architecture predominated, but also because its level of extreme ornament, of utter over-decoration, really does seem not quite Jewish. Over-the-top excess, total bedazzlement, doesn’t feel to me as connected to our tradition.

But as I have been saying all along, I am wary of drawing too simple a conclusion from all of this, or of stating even this as an absolute, since I can find plenty of exceptions to what I have just said. I don’t know that the Beth Shalom synagogue in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, could be described as indifferent to spectacle, for example – it’s quite spectacular. And conversely, there is something awesome, but in a cool, church-like way, about a synagogue like Temple Emanu-el in New York, the vast, Romanesque edifice that I remember once describing as the second WASPiest building in New York, after St. Thomas’s Episcopal Church.  Or maybe it was the first.

Still, synagogues 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 dazzling, and which are dependent on the subtleties of light and the texture of stone and wood for their effect. Kahn’s synagogue designs, only one of which was actually built, were not all that dissimilar from his other religious buildings, which reaffirms my earlier point – 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.

Let me move away from the synagogue to talk about other kinds of buildings that we associate with other aspects of Jewish life: community centers, libraries, museums, and so forth. Here there’s even less of a standard style. In Chicago, the Spertus Institute was recently completed on Michigan Avenue, a first-rate glass building, one of the better recent pieces of contemporary architecture in New York—a wonderful place but nothing you would consider particularly Jewish about the architecture, though you could say that its openness, light, and connection to street and community are certainly consistent with the values that I would hope a Jewish institution would want to express.  Spertus uses contemporary architecture to express values and ideas that are consistent with Jewish culture – but that’s not the same as saying it is building a piece of Jewish architecture.  It’s better, in my view, than pretending that you have built a piece of Jewish architecture, which would probably have pushed you in the direction of the trite. And there is nothing trite about this building.

The Jewish Museum in New York is very different. An old mansion – curiously enough, Gothic in style – it seems to be the ultimate expression of a kind of architectural assimilation, perhaps too much so. When the museum decided to expand several years ago, the architect, Kevin Roche, who is known for his strong, highly expressive forms, produced a design that was no more than a literal copy of the original building, adding a carbon copy extension that pulls the building up Fifth Avenue and turns it, in effect, into an architectural version of a stretch limousine. I’ve never understood particularly what Roche thought he was doing here, and I’ve always wondered if this was a bit of a joke – if he was so tired of the protests of neighborhood activists and historic preservationists that he said “okay, you want a building that fits in? I’ll give you a building that fits in, so well that you will never know where the old building ends and my new building begins.”  We’ve now had that building for more than a decade, and in fact most people have forgotten that half of it is almost new.

Whatever else you can say about the Jewish museum, it does not contradict the tendency to use buildings for Jewish institutions that are more or less like the kind of buildings used for other purposes. The architect Daniel Libeskind has tried to do something else in his Jewish Museum in Berlin, a building that I suspect many of you know, and in his Contemporary Jewish Museum nearing completion in San Francisco. Libeskind has claimed that there are things uniquely Jewish about the Berlin building in particular. Its floor plan is a kind of distorted version of a Star of David. There is a central section that Libeskind describes as the “void,” which is not an exhibit area or a function area but a conscious expression of emptiness, bleakness, and loss. And there are sloping floors in certain areas, a deliberate attempt to be disquieting.

What this museum is, of course, is a Holocaust memorial, even though it pretends to be something else, a more wide-ranging Jewish museum. It has the artifacts of Jewish culture in Berlin, and in this sense does serve as a general Jewish museum, but that is not what makes the building notable. What makes Libeskind’s building special are things he was not, technically, asked to do. He made the building a de facto Holocaust memorial in part because he felt compelled to express his emotions, particularly in this of all cities, about the horrific events that had befallen the Jewish community. But I suspect that Libeskind did this also because that was the only way he felt he could make the architecture more truly Jewish. The Holocaust transcends conventional experience, and portraying it or honoring its victims does, as well. So here the architect felt he could design something that did not look like anything else, because the museum’s mission, or its mission as he interpreted it, was unique.

Well, yes. But even here, the Jewish Museum bears a great resemblance to many of Libeskind’s other buildings – his new art museums in Denver and Toronto, for example, or his Felix Nussbaum museum elsewhere in Germany. The fact is that Libeskind has a set of forms and shapes that he favors, that he is viscerally drawn to, and he uses them frequently, especially in situations in which their inherent qualities, their pure realities as form, can invoke the powerful emotions he seeks. But are they truly Jewish and is this actually a Jewish architecture?  I have great respect for Libeskind, but I have heard him describe his sharp angles in Berlin as evoking loss and pain, and I have heard him describe the sharp angles in Denver as evoking the majesty and power of the Rocky Mountains, which are not, so far as I know, a Jewish symbol. Even the architect who in our time has been most identified with the Jewish museum will pretty much do what he wants, and if it needs to be justified as in some way being Jewish architecture, he will come up with the rationale after the fact.

There is nothing totally wrong about saying that the forms dominate; in some ways that is not so different from the point I made earlier, about how institutions, including synagogues, often build within the normal architectural vernacular, within the standard architectural language, of their time and place. For Libeskind, his personal vernacular is what he used in Berlin, varying it slightly to respond to certain particular functional requirements. And in the particular case of the Jewish Museum in Berlin, Libeskind was more interested, as I said, in building a Holocaust memorial than a conventional museum, and he managed to persuade his client that it made sense because, in Germany at least, the function of a Holocaust memorial and the function of a museum of Jewish culture were impossible to fully separate. I think we would all have to agree with that premise, though I would also say that Libeskind still probably wouldn’t have gotten away with it if he had a real client. Because the museum was not yet an established institution when Libeskind was designing it, and because it was being built by the Berlin city government, there was no museum administration yet in place to argue with him, but only a city government that wanted to make a particular statement.

Whatever its virtues, and there are many, the building is more successful as a Holocaust memorial than it is as a museum, in my view, and as I said earlier, I don’t know that anything about it makes a case for a particularly “Jewish” architecture, even Libeskind’s distorted Star of David as a floor plan. You don’t perceive that when you are in the building. You perceive the abstract power of the spaces, the enormity of the central void, the interplay between darkness and light, all of which are great elements of architecture that Libeskind has used skillfully. But they are not particularly Jewish ones in any way.

While I do not want to dwell too much on Libeskind, since if I were lecturing on a single architect I would have brought images, it is hard not to talk a little bit about Libeskind’s other Jewish museum, in San Francisco. Here, too, there is something a bit gimmicky that strikes me as a superficial attempt to inject Jewish imagery into the building, in this case the letters “yud” and “chai” to suggest that the form of the building in effect says “L’chaim.”

Well, far be if from me to complain about anyone invoking the greatest toast of all, but as with the distorted Star of David in Berlin, it is a gimmick, and an unnecessary one at that, since the real power and identity of this building come from other things. The shapes and forms of this building, the angular, quartz-like objects covered in bright blue metal panels, are very much in line with other things Libeskind has done. But for the color, they bare a particular resemblance to his new museum in Toronto, an addition to the Royal Ontario Museum. I am not sure that you need these somewhat superficial Jewish references, and they even come off, in a way, as a bit condescending, although I don’t think Libeskind intended them to be. As in Berlin, the strengths come from the underlying architecture, which is not Jewish; it is Libeskindian. It sends the same welcome message of Jewish engagement in contemporary life, in contemporary culture, and in the contemporary city. It doesn’t need the crutch of claiming that these Hebrew letters generated its unusual shape.

Can there be a specifically Jewish museum?  Should there be? In terms of programming, of course there can and must be such a thing as a specifically Jewish museum. But in terms of architecture, I am less sure, and as the Libeskind buildings show us, attempts to make the architecture into some kind of physical expression of Jewish symbol or liturgy don’t come off well, and contribute little if anything to the overall quality of these buildings.

If we are going to talk about incorporating Jewish identity literally into a piece of architecture, we invite trouble, I think. Now, that is not to say that Jewish values aren’t a part of the architectural expression. I would hope that a Jewish museum, to be appropriately Jewish, would be comfortable and inviting, not to mention clear and easily understandable. But I would hope that its architect would avoid any temptation to try and reflect the ambiguities and complexities of Jewish liturgy in architectural form. Just as architecture doesn’t benefit from the gimmicks Libeskind adds to it, architecture should also should not in itself be a metaphor for endless Talmudic debate, though I must say that it is tempting to imagine what would happen if an architect sought to do this, and decided to try to make a building seem like a Talmudic argument. Now, that is the way to make a building Jewish. He could give us places in which you could turn right or turn left, go up or down, corridors that lead to nowhere and others that bring you to light and comfort, but no clear indication as to which is which and no indication as to where you are going, leaving all of us to gather in the lobby, debating forever what he actually meant by this. That, in its way, would certainly be a Jewish museum.

Now I am puzzled, if I may say this parenthetically, by the extent to which people seem quite willing to postulate about a Jewish architecture when they are so properly wary of Jewish stereotypes in other areas. From a stylistic viewpoint at least, I would be as unhappy to see all architecture built for Jewish purposes being the same as I would be to see all Jews be the same. And we know there is little possibility of that happening.

But of course we can surely say there is a certain Jewish attitude toward the world, and the question naturally arises as to whether this attitude can translate into architecture: a certain skepticism; a constant willingness to ask questions; a belief in justice, fairness, decency and human possibility; a belief in community; and, most of all, a belief that we are not just here to suffer while we await a better world, but to make this world better, right now and right here. What I have just said, of course, is theology more than architecture, and whether or not it lines up with your sense of what Judaism represents, I suspect you would have to agree that these notions do not translate in any simple way into built form. We can more easily imagine certain things that are not Jewish architecture – buildings that are cold, forbidding, unwelcoming, dark and depressing; buildings that isolate people rather than bring them together, buildings that invoke despair rather than hope. But there is no single thing that represents Jewish architecture, or that should. The very fact that Judaism is open to possibility, that at its best it strives to be a religion of enlightenment, is what defines it, and what therefore makes it open to many kinds of architecture, as it is open to many kinds of thinking. What Judaism is, we might say, is not a religion of architecture – but it is surely a religion of architectural possibility.

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