Reviving Historic Temples

The most common reasons for renovating a synagogue are to reconfigure the space so that it encourages social interaction and to add more natural light. A third reason is to update an iconic building.

In celebration of its 50th anniversary in 2009, the congregation of Frank Lloyd Wright’s striking Beth Sholom synagogue outside Philadelphia opened a new visitors’ center, designed by Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates. It’s squeezed into an existing space of about 1,400 square feet within the building, a National Historic Landmark. “The center choreographs the visit and adds a whole new layer of interpretive material,” explains project architect James Kolker, AIA.

Receiving a more extensive facelift is Temple Beth El in Chappaqua, N.Y., Louis Kahn’s only surviving synagogue, completed in 1972. The building, originally designed for 450 families, is overcrowded today, with some 625. Rather than expand Kahn’s existing structure, Beth El commissioned a new building—currently under construction—to house overflow activities.

Alexander Gorlin, FAIA, of Alexander Gorlin Architects in New York, designed the project in close collaboration with members. Gorlin is an expert on Kahn, having taught his architecture at Yale University for many years. “The Kahn building never really worked properly,” Gorlin says. “Kahn normally had an ambulatory circulation around a central space. Here, you actually walk through the sanctuary to get to classrooms. In some ways, it’s a throwback to an old typology of the synagogue as a social space, but it doesn’t work today in terms of sound.”

By adding a new structure, Gorlin could take the activities that overtaxed Kahn’s original design and place them in close proximity to the sanctuary. He was inspired by the spatial relationships in the earliest temples, where the sanctuary and other social spaces were organized around a central courtyard. “The addition defers to the existing building; at the same time, it has its own presence,” Gorlin says. “By breaking down the scale of the new building and creating a courtyard, it gives the impression of a village in which the original building is the most important building of the town.”

Sustainable Synagogues

While many of today’s congregations employ progressive architecture, synagogues may be less progressive when it comes to sustainability. Both Gruber and Brown believe it’s a cost issue. “In the last four years, every congregation has been interested in the LEED movement, but few have felt they have the funds to pursue it,” Brown says.

A notable exception is the new home of the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation (JRC) in Evanston, Ill. Completed in 2008 by Ross Barney Architects, it is the only LEED Platinum synagogue. “JRC decided that the primary driver for the building was going to be tikkun olam, Hebrew for ‘repairing the world,’ ” says Carol Ross Barney, FAIA. “It’s been a popular term in Jewish congregations, but it’s mostly been used to talk about social responsibility. JRC was being radical by talking about repairing the actual Earth.”

For just $230 per square foot, Ross Barney and her team created a striking box-shaped building clad in 18,000 feet of reclaimed cypress (“We identified a dealer in New York who was selling used mushroom huts made from cypress,” Ross Barney says.) The highly visible structure resulted in a large number of requests for tours, so the congregation trained volunteer docents.

And public interest isn’t the only thing on the rise at JRC. “Their membership is through the roof,” Ross Barney says. “I know the building plays a part in that.”