Architects see shul design as work of the spirit

Architects see shul design as work of the spirit

When designing a synagogue, an architect must consider not only its style and the physical needs of the congregation, but also its members’ ideas of how they envision their spiritual home.

The structure must above all have a design that “elevates it to the spiritual,” according to architect Joshua Zinder, who with fellow architect Michael Landau, both of Princeton, recently formed a partnership to design Jewish institutions.

On Oct. 17 the pair appeared at The Jewish Center in Princeton for the Jess Epstein Lunch and Learn and Jewish Scholars Program. Using a slide show they discussed synagogues of past eras — including the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, the wooden shuls of pre-Holocaust European shtetls, and modern buildings, some of their own design, others by other architects.

Zinder described how as a youngster he attended a congregation in Port Washington, NY, designed by renowned synagogue architect Percival Goodman. It instilled in him a love of architecture, and in particular synagogue design, “when I probably should have been paying attention to shul.”

Synagogue designs are a reflection of the Jewish historical moment in which they are built, Zinder said. After Christianity took hold in Europe and anti-Semitic pogroms became common, synagogues were designed to not stand out from the surrounding environment as a means of self-defense. Some synagogues had masonry that made them fortress-like; others were almost indistinguishable from churches.

“We had the ability to exist anywhere and blend into the background,” said Zinder, who said he thought it was one of the reasons the Jewish people and some of these buildings survive to this day.

In other more tolerant areas and eras, synagogues took on the appearance of the surrounding culture, such as the Great Synagogue of Toledo in Spain, with its Moorish influences.

The look of synagogues in the United States has also changed with the times, said Landau, who designed his first shul, Beth Meyer Synagogue in Raleigh, NC, in 1983.

Like the simple wooden synagogues of the shtetls of Eastern Europe, that building’s exterior was kept simple, but the inside is “very ornate.”

It used biblical themes, including Jerusalem stone from the Western Wall excavation and the seven-branched menora, as “elements that become the architecture.”

Touro Synagogue in Newport, RI, built 250 years ago, is the nation’s oldest shul and has hosted several U.S. presidents (George Washington’s letter to the congregation, with its eloquent avowal of the new nation’s embrace of religious liberty, is on display). But when Bill Clinton came to visit, Landau said, the Secret Service refused to allow him to speak inside because there was only one means of egress from the classic historical building.

“So he spoke to the congregation on the front steps,” said Landau, who has worked on more than 50 synagogues.

Synagogue styles sometimes vary by denomination, said Landau, with some Orthodox shuls using a house with a single room designated as a sanctuary. The Orthodox are also more likely to rely on biblical guidance when designing a house of worship.

Some modern synagogues are constructed to reference time, such as designing the sanctuary so that the shifting sunlight clearly denotes the closing hours of Shabbat. They also must take into account modern building codes, rules on handicap accessibility, and the latest in environmentally friendly design.

For Hevreh of Southern Berkshires in Great Barrington, Mass., Landau said, he combined influences from both Eastern Europe and New England. While the light-filled, airy, yet intimate sanctuary can seat 125 — and can be expanded to 275 for special occasions — the Reform congregation draws an additional 600 for the High Holy Days.

To keep that feeling of intimacy while embracing a “big tent” concept of being open and welcoming to all, Landau designed the building so that large windows along two walls of the sanctuary can be removed and a heated or cooled custom tent extension can be set up on the terrace, providing extra seating.

To design a synagogue, he explained: “You have to be a good listener as well as a good politician.”

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