No such thing as ‘Jewish architecture’

Lacking a body of historical precedents, creating a ‘Jewish’ architecture simply isn’t possible. Yet any true Israeli architecture would have to give expression to our Jewish identity and values.

The Israel Museum  (photo credit: PR)
The Israel Museum
(photo credit: PR)
 There’s no such thing as “Jewish” architecture.
Most synagogues in the Diaspora weren’t designed by Jews and mainly resembled the architecture of their host countries. Until modern times, the synagogues of Europe were built by Christian architects. Fear of idolatry and transgressing the second commandment limited Jewish artistic activity for generations to the adornment of ritual objects.
Judaism has always been mainly a literary culture in which the height of achievement was to be a scholar of the Torah. Moreover, in Judaism, the emphasis is placed not on the physical but on the spiritual. Lacking a body of historical precedents, a Jewish architecture could not possibly have flowered.
Centuries passed before Jews in the Diaspora were formally permitted to enter the architectural profession.
Walter Gropius did allow Jewish students to study at the famous Bauhaus (1919-1933) in Germany, but there was just a single Jew among the 14 instructors – Hannes Meyer, a rationalist architect and a communist.
With the decrease of anti-Semitism following World War II, greater numbers of Jews began to enter the profession. By 1960, three Jewish architects – Oscar Niemeyer of Brazil, Eric Mendelsohn (born in Poland) and Richard Neutra (born in Austria), were already counted among the masters of 20th century architecture, but Judaism was never their point of departure. While today we have quite a number of Jewish architects of international stature, their works are irrelevant to Jewish life.
In Judaism, the Torah, the Nation and Land of Israel are inextricably bound, so that if a contemporary “Jewish” architecture were to exist, it would have to be here. But Israeli architecture was based from its outset on all manner of cultural importations.
With the founding of the state, most architects were immigrants. Three leaders of modern Israeli architecture, Arieh Sharon, Dov Karmi and Ze’ev Rechter, all studied in Europe, returning home with their cultural baggage. From the 1920s onward, it was the Bauhaus and International Style that held center stage here.
Naturally, there were many attempts to assimilate Mediterranean regional influences. The early “Oriental Style,” for example, was little more than an assemblage of architectural elements taken from Arab architecture.
The Israel Museum in Jerusalem designed by Al Mansfeld (1965), reminiscent of a hillside Mediterranean village, is perhaps the best example we have of this approach. It is easy to see that these essentially pragmatic and often cosmetic ideas were lacking in depth. To this we must add today’s global cross-cultural currents that make it ever more difficult to create an Israeli architecture of our own. Jewish beliefs and values, denied by the secular leadership and architectural community, have never played a role.
This having been said, there was one Jewish architect of global stature who came closest to demonstrating how Jewish belief and philosophy could be incorporated into architecture having a universal appeal.
Louis. I. Kahn (1901-1974), the visionary American architect and educator, became known to many Israelis through his monumental proposal for the Hurva synagogue in Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter (1968-1973), widely considered to be his greatest unbuilt masterwork.
Kahn’s design for “Four Freedoms Park” on Roosevelt Island, Manhattan, completed in 2012, 38 years after his death, offers a clear indication of his continuing relevance.
Deeply concerned with the ethical function of architecture to engage the social condition and reflect its users, he strove to express fundamental human values and aspirations rather than merely solve design and technical problems. His relentless rabbinical questioning attitude led him to redefine all of the essential elements of architecture: “Structure – the giver of light,” “light – the giver of all presence,” “the plan – a society of rooms” – this, while addressing questions that really matter: community, tradition.
Kahn utilized the basic tools of architecture – space, proportion, light and texture, most sparingly, with a religious reverence, lending his works a primal, ethical power. Drawing on diverse historical sources, his desire was to transcend material, to create a timeless architecture, his thought corresponding most accurately to the deepest strains in Judaism. Kahn’s architecture, albeit monumental, is always modest and humble.
Lacking historical precedents, creating a Jewish architecture simply isn’t possible. And as we have seen, an Israeli architecture responsive only to the specifics of region, climate and available materials, while obviously necessary, is hardly sufficient. To be able to reach the highest levels, Israeli architecture must finally look beyond pragmatic concerns. Any true Israeli architecture would have to give expression to our Jewish identity and values. Louis Kahn’s thought and works, intuitively informed as they were by Jewish belief and philosophy, merit the most careful study here today.
The author is an architect and town planner in Jerusalem.