BETH SHOLOM SYNAGOGUE

 

 

Beth Sholom exemplifies a model for sacred space that architecturally manifests the religious tenets and ideals of its congregation. This research investigates these themes while contextualizing Beth Sholom in the historical synagogue's development and the intentions of its Unitarian designer, Frank Lloyd Wright.


Religious architecture is not a matter of architecture but a matter of religion” - Gio Ponti
 

Radically new approaches to religious architecture were seen in the 20th century after centuries of slow change. Though many religious buildings adhered to old formulas, emergent building technology and modernist designers facilitated the construction of churches, temples, and places of worship that expressed the transcendental in ways never seen before. However, with this reinvention of traditional sacred space, critical issues surface in many modern and contemporary churches. Liturgical dysfunction, architectural concepts misaligned with the subject’s theology or religious framework, and estranged geometries and ornament all contribute to create disconnection between a sacred space’s design and the faith tradition it stands for. [1]

A foil to these divorced approaches is seen in the Beth Sholom synagogue by Frank Lloyd Wright. Constructed five years after Corbusier’s groundbreaking chapel at Ronchamp, Beth Sholom represents an approach to sacred space that celebrates the theology and history of Judaism as well as the communal aspirations of its congregation. Countering self-referential or ambiguous treatments of sacred space, Wright primarily aimed to express the specific religious identity of the Jewish worshipers. Crucially, he collaborated intensely with the congregation’s Rabbi—even listing him as a co-creator of the synagogue. Because of this partnership and the goal of integrating aspects of Jewish tradition and symbolism, a range of themes relating to Judaism overlay the building’s exterior, section, landscape, sanctuaries, details, and ornament. [2]

However, this narrative—that Wright’s design originated entirely from the history and theology of Judaism—is partially compromised through a critical look at the correspondence between Rabbi Mortimer Cohen and Frank Lloyd Wright. [3] These letters reveal that the metaphor of Beth Sholom as a “traveling Mt. Sinai” were the Rabbi’s post-rationalizations of Wright’s completed designs. Most convincing are simple comparisons of Beth Sholom’s iconic ‘mountain’ form and transparency to Wright’s early conceptual work for the unbuilt ‘Steel Cathedral’—a church for a million worshipers in New York City. As we will discuss later in this text; the relevance of Beth Sholom’s design to Jewish religious narratives was not materially altered, despite Frank Lloyd Wright’s decision to resurrect earlier conceptual ideas of his through the project. [4]

The strategies through which the Jewish faith was architecturalized (and post-rationalized) in Beth Sholom exemplify a model for sacred space that expresses the unique identity and ideologies of the congregation and faith it hosts. This is corroborated through evaluating the consistency of Beth Sholom's architectural design with the historical synagogue and situating it within the typology's architectural development.

Photograph: Balthazar Korab.   Beth Sholom Synagogue

Photograph: Balthazar Korab. Beth Sholom Synagogue


Beth Sholom represents an approach to sacred space that celebrates the theology and history of Judaism as well as the aspirations of its congregation.



Historical Context

Judaism's architectural roots could be said to reach far back to Mt. Sinai, a desert mountain where God met
Moses and revealed His commandments. However, the religion's first constructed sacred space was the tabernacle, a tent-structure around which God was worshiped, the tablets of the Law were held, and rituals and sacrifices were made. Both of these natural and man-made structures play a central role in the architectural readings of Beth Sholom Synagogue.

Later, when the Jewish people were established in Jerusalem, they constructed a series of Temples; which were their most sacred religious spaces until their eventual destruction by foreign powers. Synagogues existed concurrently with the Temples, but did not originally emulate them, although now many of the elements within modern synagogues reference traditional sacred elements that were inside the temple. The synagogue since its birth in this early time served as a venue for prayer and supplication; for learning and education; as well as communal activity and even some forms of politics.
 

“The Jew went to the Temple to seek forgiveness for his sins; he went to the synagogue to offer his personal
supplications and to listen to expositions of sacred literature.” [5]


“Many Scholars date the first synagogues to the days of the first Temple. After the destruction of the last
Temple, the synagogue, in whatever local guise, was already in existence. It was a familiar institution which took the place of the Jerusalem sanctuary whose restoration remained the object of messianic longing.” [6]


In the age of Greco-Roman rule, there was little architectural difference between the synagogue and secular community buildings. The synagogues were essentially large assembly halls in which a congregation could hear the Torah read and join in prayers. “The word synagogue comes from the Greek words for ‘place of gathering’,” Wigoder writes, “indicating that from the outset the synagogue was a multi-purpose institution, serving as a communal center as well as a place of worship.” Fittingly, the earliest synagogues actually took over Roman Basilicas, which had these exact functions. Moreover, they were radical in the sense that they were the “first religious centers catering to a congregation rather to a priestly elite.” [7]


“The word synagogue comes from the Greek words for ‘place of gathering’, indicating that from the outset the synagogue was a multi-purpose institution, serving as a communal center as well as a place of worship.”


(Story of the Synagogue, pg 52) A medieval synagogue and communal hub; womens' galleries on left

(Story of the Synagogue, pg 52) A medieval synagogue and communal hub; womens' galleries on left

Because of the Diaspora and dispersal of Jews throughout the world, synagogues increasingly took on a diverse range of styles and scales, in Europe, in Africa, and in Asia. In different locales, cultures, and time periods, the exterior of the synagogue adapted to fit the context of the place. Moreover, there was a direct relationship between the urban prominence of the synagogue and the acceptance of Jewish communities in each region. Oftentimes, persecution of Jews suppressed more lasting and substantial architectural expressions of the synagogue. Yet, the basic programmatic DNA of the synagogue—‘gathering’—never changed. It was only in the 19th and 20th century when Jewish communities became more established and socially integrated that the form of the synagogue (and, along with it, Jewish liturgy) was influenced by Christian architecture and liturgy.
 

“Unlike the modest synagogues of previous ages, secluded in the narrow confines of the Jewish quarter, the new synagogues were monumental. The Jews discovered that their neighbor’s churches were endowed with great appeal through the beauty of their form, the effect of subdued lighting, and the aesthetic use of music (which required proper acoustics), and they employed these principles in their synagogues. The Jews were now moving into the large cities and wanted to make their presence known through a combination of harmonious integration into the environment and an expression of Jewish uniqueness.” [8]


Beyond external similarities, key interior changes began to restructure Jewish liturgy and the experience of community in the synagogue. The centrally located reader’s desk—which was traditionally surrounded by open space and seating—was moved to the end of the auditorium; now being more of a pulpit or altar. This alteration coincided with the introduction of pews, also leading to greater emphasis on the sermon in imitation of Christian churches. The differences between the synagogue and the church became so blurry that cross-adaptation and conversion between each type became more common and less problematic. [9] Interestingly, these Christian influences on the synagogue’s interior architecture instigated the egalitarian shift towards congregational gender de-segregation within Judaism, helping to launch the 20th century Reform movement. [10] Prior to the 19th and 20th century trends of co-opting of Christian churches as new synagogues, female worshipers were typically segregated from the male community by partition walls or their relegation to upper balconies.

Beth Sholom's founding synagogue in Philadelphia (1919), prior to their suburban relocation to Wright's synagogue. The format of the sanctuary follows typical pew-based Christian configurations un-segregated by gender.

Beth Sholom's founding synagogue in Philadelphia (1919), prior to their suburban relocation to Wright's synagogue. The format of the sanctuary follows typical pew-based Christian configurations un-segregated by gender.

This trend of assimilation into the church architectural typology meets its reversal in the post-war American suburbs. As a way of establishing centers of Jewish community in new locales outside of urban Jewish quarters, and in suburban towns that have few amenities to begin with; Jewish congregations relocated and began to plant schools, gymnasia, libraries, and social halls alongside or integrated with the synagogue. [11] This pattern effectively restored the role of the synagogue as the center of community; a position which it originally had held since antiquity. Moreover, this movement was paired with the widely held ambition to claim a unique architectural identity in the design of the synagogue; in juxtaposition to the imitative design strategies of the former century. Thus, opportunities arose for seminal modern architects such as Erich Mendelsohn, Minoru Yamasaki, and Frank Lloyd Wright to re-imagine the Jewish-American synagogue.


This trend of assimilation into the church architectural typology meets its reversal in the post-war American suburbs. Jewish congregations relocated and began to plant schools, gymnasia, libraries, and social halls alongside or integrated with the synagogue. This pattern effectively restored the role of the synagogue as the center of community; a position which it originally had held since antiquity. 


 

Design and Symbolism

Beth Sholom, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, in Elkins Park, Philadelphia, is remarkably unique—strange, even—in its form. The elevation of the building is essentially a reflective mountain with a solid base, or alternatively a tent-like form. Sharp protuberances jut out from the sides of the buildings—‘bastions’—as they were referred to by Wright in his drawings. [12] A tripod of ornamented steel beams are expressed on the exterior—evidently holding up the roof-scape of skylights. The synagogue’s peculiar shape calls attention to itself from the suburban road it overlooks, and because of its profile, truly does evoke a mountainous quality.

The building’s entrance, aligned with a fountain ‘laver’, is oriented perpendicular towards the road and opens into a main lobby from which one can travel down or up sloped passageways to access a minor and major auditorium as well as meeting spaces. The unique shape of the entrance canopy is an anthropormorphization, representing the Jewish gesture of priestly blessing. The building’s sectional declivity is another; being an original conceptual idea of Wright’s – that one should feel like you’re “resting in the hands of God.” [13] This slope interplays with the sanctuary’s seating plan, which changed somewhat to become more circular than was conventional at the time. The congregation’s Rabbi, Mortimer J. Cohen, had actually desired an entirely circular seating plan to express an ideological commitment to democracy and community; but in the end Wright and Cohen had to compromise between a more directional arrangement and the circular for efficiency reasons. [14] The synagogue is replete with numerous details and ornamental motifs that Wright designed as religious expressions. These details include everything from typical light fixtures to the sanctuaries’ Arks; which are sacred cabinetry elements in the synagogue that hold the Torah and Talmud.

Photograph: Balthazar Korab.   Beth Sholom Synagogue Interior

Photograph: Balthazar Korab. Beth Sholom Synagogue Interior

Although Wright sincerely intended to express the essence of Judaism in many of the synagogue’s features, the narrative that the peculiar form of the synagogue was iconographically derived from Mt. Sinai is doubtful from the standpoint of Wright’s intentions. Although the architecture bears a convincing resemblance, the similarities between Beth Sholom’s form and Wright’s earlier conceptual designs for the Steel Cathedral and Rhododendron Chapel are all too clear. [15] Beth Sholom’s primary architectural strategy—what is essentially a grand, translucent tent structure creating a large gathering and worship space— cannot be claimed as having been inspired by a Jewish religious narrative; even if it is inherently a very apt metaphor for both Mt. Sinai and the Tabernacle. More likely, the designs are more inspired by the spirit of ‘a modern America’, which both the Steel Cathedral (1926) and Beth Sholom (1954) were intending to express through the cathedral and synagogue typology, respectively. [16]

Frank Lloyd Wright's Steel Cathedral un-built proposal (1926)

Frank Lloyd Wright's Steel Cathedral un-built proposal (1926)


The narrative that the peculiar form of the synagogue was iconographically derived from Mt. Sinai is doubtful from the standpoint of Wright’s intentions. More likely, the design was initially inspired by the spirit of "a modern America", which to Wright, both his Steel Cathedral (1926) and Beth Sholom (1954) were intended to express


Notwithstanding, the power of the synagogue’s glowing interior space must be acknowledged. The experience of the sanctuary’s luminous, expansive spatial quality is very memorable, being given further color through sunrise, sunset, passing clouds and falling shadows. Wright took care to orchestrate a sequence of entry to this space that would leverage a sense of surprise and awe. A relatively small passageway and stair carries the visitor along the side of the sanctuary, revealing through a gap overhead the brilliance of the space above. One emerges into a towering space that is saturated with diffused light.

Ascending into the sanctuary; looking up

Ascending into the sanctuary; looking up

 

The Sanctuary

Described as a ‘mountain of light’—the synagogue’s design creates strong associations with Mt. Sinai; the holy mountain where God revealed Himself in full glory to Moses; giving him laws for the Jewish people to abide by.
 

“Sinai traditionally denotes revelation; revelation is synonymous with light; light is the essence of this edifice.” [17]
 

In scripture, God created light; and is often metaphorically described as light. The Torah, God's true word and law, was revealed on top of Sinai to His people. The intertwining of these themes: mountain, light, Torah, are re-told by the complete permeation of light within the Beth Sholom sanctuary, where these scriptures are corporately read. The sanctuary’s ceiling is covered through two layers of translucent corrugated glass, panelized and separated with insulation. The light that shines through these layers is diffused, and during sunset and sunrise takes on subtle shades of gold, blue, and pink in line with the sky’s color outside. Fittingly, the lighting affords a perfect quality of reading light; an essential liturgical function in the congregation’s worship. But ironically, the most profane material imaginable is used for these skylights: industrial-grade corrugated glass reinforced with chicken-wire.


Fittingly, the synagogue's awe-inspiring skylights afford a perfect quality of reading light; an essential liturgical function in the congregation’s worship. Ironically, however, the most profane material imaginable is used to make them—industrial-grade glass reinforced with chicken-wire.


This translucent ceiling acts as a massive projector of light. Consequently, a sense of immateriality and airiness is attained above the sanctuary. Although the sanctuary dims during the evening, heightening the contrast between artificial and natural light, during the day shadows disappear entirely from the sanctuary as diffused light pours down from above. A very even lighting quality is typically generated, which, when first perceived in the context of the interior architecture, is impressive. Yet, as one inhabits the space and grows accustomed to it, the evenness and normative quality of the diffused lighting quickly mitigates the feeling of sacredness. Shockingly, the space can somehow seem banal and conventional.

However, Wright’s original design concept for Beth Sholom entailed a far different scheme from the neutral color of the synagogue’s current skylights. The image below depicts what he initially envisioned—an array of vibrant aquamarine plexi-glass panels to surround the sanctuary, divided by enormous segments of traditional stained glass. Ultimately, after exhaustive material testing, the specification of these plexi-glass skylights had to be abandoned due to technological and structural limitations—their color was found to fade over time, and they were not rigid enough. [19]

Visualization of existing interior showing translucent skylights

Visualization of existing interior showing translucent skylights

The saturation of this scheme is starkly different from the existing design. However, it’s no wonder that Wright employed colored glass. Archival drawings from Wright show that his plans for the Steel Cathedral (1926) also made use of a spectrum of colors. To Wright, a Unitarian Universalist, the multi-faceted color spectrum may have represented the idea of unity through diversity; not unlike the Jewish Kabbalah which teaches that through the combination of all colors of light the divine light is experienced and seen. After all, it was Wright who designed the floating plexi-glass chandelier you see here—he called it a ‘light basket’—which was based upon this specific tenet of the Kabbala. [20]


However, Wright’s original design concept for Beth Sholom entailed a far different scheme from the neutral color of the synagogue’s current skylights. [Image 2] depicts what he initially envisioned—an array of vibrant aquamarine plexi-glass panels to surround the sanctuary, divided by enormous segments of traditional stained glass.


It is worthwhile to speculate on a transformation of the existing skylight design and how this might alter a subject’s experience of the sanctuary and its affect of sacredness. Returning to the embattled metaphor of Beth Sholom as Mt. Sinai—we often overlook that the narrative in Jewish scripture of this event was not exactly a bright occasion—it was an episode of sublime terror.
 

v16 It came to pass on the third day when it was morning, that there were thunder claps and lightning flashes, and a thick cloud was upon the mountain, and a very powerful blast of a shofar, and the entire nation that was in the camp shuddered. v17 Moses brought the people out toward God from the camp, and they stood at the bottom of the mountain. v18 And the entire Mount Sinai smoked because the Lord had descended upon it in fire, and its smoke ascended like the smoke of the kiln, and the entire mountain quaked violently. v19 The sound of the shofar grew increasingly stronger; ...v20 The Lord descended upon Mount Sinai, to the peak of the mountain,… (Shemot / Exodus 19:16 – 20)


If we were to take this metaphor of sacred space as Sinai seriously; would a more authentic interpretation of this place involve darkness alongside light? 

Regions of solidity in Beth Sholom's ceiling-scape could produce a sense of tension and weight within the sanctuary. Whereas in the existing design there is a uniformity to the ceiling-scape, a duality between solid and transparent could imbue the sanctuary with a numinous quality—shifting communal awareness inwards towards contemplation. Would this fragmentation reflect a truer picture of human experience in the world, which is conflicted, and imperfect? This raises the question: should sacred space resonate with our actual human condition? Or, the ideals and attributes of the Divine; what we worship, or aspire for our reality to be?


If we were to take this metaphor of sacred space as Mt. Sinai seriously; would a more authentic interpretation of this place involve darkness alongside light?


 

 

 

Citations
 

1. I reference as two examples, the chapel at Ronchamp by Le Corbusier, and 100 Walls church by CAZA. Ronchamp, though deeply significant in the trajectory of modern sacred space, was designed with little reference to traditional Christian images or architectural forms. Arguably, its greatest resemblance to traditional church themes was its careful admission of light through small apertures and stained glass.

Likewise, CAZA’s contemporary Catholic Church in the Phillipines is arguably problematic as its labyrinthine design is based on an unharmonious (or at least unorthodox) understanding of Roman Catholic canon and theology, in which it alleges Christ’s confusion and the possibility of many paths to truth. Liturgically, its complex design frustrates wayfinding and the potential for larger gatherings outside the main sanctuary.

Frampton, Kenneth, Le Corbusier: The Sacred and the Profane, (New York: Thames & Hudson 2001), pg. 167 - 183.
"100 Walls Church / CAZA." ArchDaily. 26 Feb. 2014. Web. 09 May 2016.


2. Cohen, Mortimer J, Beth Sholom Synagogue: A Description and Interpretation, (Elkins Park, PA: Congregation Beth Sholom 1959).

3. Siry, Joseph, Beth Sholom Synagogue: Frank Lloyd Wright and Modern Religious Architecture, (Chicago: U of Chicago, 2012) pg 395, 403

4. Gill, Brendan, Many Masks: A Life of Frank Lloyd Wright, (New York: Putnam, 1987) pg 466.

5. Wigoder, Geoffery, Story of the Synagogue, (Harper & Row, 1986) pg 10-12.

6. Meek, Harold Alan, The Synagogue, (Phaidon Press, 1995) pg 64.

7. Wigoder, Story of the Synagogue, pg 10-12.

8. [1] ^  pg 169 - 170.

9. ^  pg 169 - 170.

10. Wertheimer, Jack, The American Synagogue: A Sanctuary Transformed, (Cambridge UP, 1987) pg 363 - 386.

11. Wigoder, Story of the Synagogue, pg 190.

12. Siry, Beth Sholom Synagogue, pg 423.

14. Cohen, Mortimer J, Beth Sholom Synagogue: A Description and Interpretation, (Elkins Park, PA: Congregation Beth
       Sholom 1959) pg 10-11.

15. Siry, Beth Sholom Synagogue, pg 388-391.

16. ^  pg 80-87; 305-307.

17. Geva, Anat, Frank Lloyd Wright's Sacred Architecture: Faith, Form and Building Technology, (London: Routledge,
       2012) pg 103.

18. 
Pfeiffer, Bruce Brooks, Global Architecture: The Ann Pfeiffer Chapel and The Beth Sholom Synagogue, (Elkins Park,
       Pennsylvania, 1954, GA 40).


19. It was my intention to avoid the Bimah and Ark in the point of view, in order to focus entirely on spatial and
       architectural elements and not bias the rendering with elements we automatically associate with the sacred.

20. Documentary: “An American Synagogue: Frank Lloyd Wright, Mortimer Cohen and The Making of Beth Sholom.”
       Prod. Picture Projects. Dir. James Sanders and Alison Cornyn. 2009.

21. Klein, Julia. "The Rabbi and Frank Lloyd Wright." The Wall Street Journal, New York, 22 Dec. 2009. Print.

 

 

 

Bibliography
 

1. Cohen, Mortimer J. Beth Sholom Synagogue; a Description and Interpretation. Elkins Park, PA: Congregation Beth
    Sholom, 1959.

2. Geva, Anat. Frank Lloyd Wright's Sacred Architecture: Faith, Form and Building Technology. London: Routledge,
    2012.

3. Gill, Brendan. Many Masks: A Life of Frank Lloyd Wright. New York: Putnam, 1987.

4. Klein, Julia. "The Rabbi and Frank Lloyd Wright." The Wall Street Journal, New York, 22 Dec. 2009, Print.

5. Pfeiffer, Bruce Brooks. Global Architecture: The Ann Pfeiffer Chapel and The Beth Sholom Synagogue, Elkins Park,
    Pennsylvania. 1954 (GA 40). 1976

6. Siry, Joseph. Beth Sholom Synagogue: Frank Lloyd Wright and Modern Religious Architecture. Chicago: U of
    Chicago, 2012.

7. Wright, Frank Lloyd, Bruce Brooks. Pfeiffer, and Frank Lloyd Wright. Frank Lloyd Wright Collected Writings. New
     York: Rizzoli, 1992.

8. Documentary: “An American Synagogue: Frank Lloyd Wright, Mortimer Cohen and The Making of Beth Sholom”.
    Prod. Picture Projects. Dir. James Sanders and Alison Cornyn. 2009.

9. "Jewish American Historical Places: Beth Sholom Synagogue." Beth Sholom Synagogue. American-Israel
    Cooperative Enterprise, n.d. Web. 13 Mar. 2016.

10. Hachlili, Rachel. Ancient Synagogues - Archaeology and Art: New Discoveries and Current Research. Leiden: Brill,
      2013.

11. Meek, Harold Alan, The Synagogue, (Phaidon Press, 1995) pg 64.

12. Wertheimer, Jack. The American Synagogue: A Sanctuary Transformed. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987.

13. Wigoder, Geoffrey. The Story of the Synagogue: A Diaspora Museum Book. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1986.

14. Wilkinson, John. From Synagogue to Church: The Traditional Design: Its Beginning, Its Definition, Its End. London:
      RoutledgeCurzon, 2002.

15. Frampton, Kenneth. Le Corbusier. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2001.