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Midwest Jewish Studies Association - Shofar Book Reviews

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Shofar - Book Reviews

Louis I. Kahn’s Jewish Architecture: Mikveh Israel and the Midcentury American Synagogue, by Susan G. Solomon. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England/Brandeis University Press, 2009. 215 pp. $45.00.

Architects know Louis I. Kahn as a transformative figure in postwar architecture, but to the general public he is best known as the subject of his son’s film, My Architect. That film includes, in an early scene, an awkward conversation between Nathaniel Kahn and a pair of distant relatives, rabbis who make it clear that Kahn’s connections to his family and their religious traditions was tenuous at best.

Susan G. Solomon has, therefore, set herself a difficult task with Louis I. Kahn’s Jewish Architecture, for her subject pointedly embraced a broad, pantheistic spirituality instead of any specific set of beliefs. Furthermore, Kahn’s two great synagogue projects, for Philadelphia’s Mikveh Israel and the Huerva Synagogue in Jerusalem, remain unbuilt. Kahn’s Jewish architecture is thus frustratingly elusive, but through drawings, writings, and recollections Solomon is able to conjure a convincing argument that this unbuilt work was a thoughtful extension to an era of modern synagogue design.

Like much other religious architecture of the post-WWII era, American synagogue design struggled with traditional forms and symbols in a context of suburbanization, abstraction, and cultural shift. The first half of Solomon’s book is taken up with responses to these cultural and social forces, from the fluent integration of modern art and design in William Wurster’s Temple Emanu-El in Dallas to more ham-fisted attempts to re-interpret forms and elements that highlight how rare such synthetic approaches were in the era. Solomon takes particular interest in the role of decoration and symbolism in making these buildings “look Jewish,” which was no small problem as many forms simply echoed those of other structures—religious and otherwise.

Kahn’s ambivalent relationship to his religious heritage expressed itself in an almost generic approach to synagogue design that echoed and occasionally merged with his work for Protestant and Islamic clients. Throughout, an emphasis on compelling lighting effects, expressed materials, and an almost complete lack of ornament made Kahn’s case that spirituality was experiential, individual, and irreducible, no matter what its symbolism or particular tenets. Such an approach put him at odds with clients and mainstream religious architects, but in his few built sanctuaries—particularly the Unitarian Church in Rochester, NY and the mosque of the Bangladeshi Parliament in Dacca—the effect is profound and immediate.

Solomon traces the Mikveh Israel project in detail, showing how Kahn struggled to understand the nuances of elements such as the ark and the bimah while responding to a program that constantly changed, a budget that never materialized, and a site on the planned Independence Mall that was fraught with multiple meanings. In the end, Kahn’s design featured an oval sanctuary tuned to liturgical concerns and anchored by massive cylindrical light towers designed to gently illuminate the space in an atmosphere that, one suspects, was intended to both bolster and transcend the rituals within.

Mikveh, like many of Kahn’s visionary projects, fell victim to shortfalls in donations and was abandoned in 1972 after nine years of work. Solomon sees this as an important turning point in synagogue design, and in an epilogue focuses on several examples that have continued Kahn’s attempt to creatively engage old traditions and contemporary demographics and aesthetics.  These, she implies, are exceptions to a more formulaic approach that seeks easy community instead of intensified experience, and her call for designers to follow Kahn in finding “creative ways to be Jewish” is well taken.

In her thorough archival research, it is slightly surprising to find only a passing mention of Kahn’s plans for Hurva synagogue in Jerusalem, an almost simultaneous unbuilt project that extended the Mikveh Israel design’s reliance on light and mass for its atmosphere. Both projects are digitally reconstructed in Kent Larson’s ambitious Louis I. Kahn: Unbuilt Masterworks, a source that is unaccountably ignored by Solomon’s study but that gives tantalizing glimpses of the ineffable spiritual experiences that these projects would have inspired. That neither sanctuary was built is a loss to synagogue design in particular and to architecture in general.

Thomas Leslie

Professor of Architecture

Iowa State University