Complementing a Master

Volume 47, Issue 2 :: By Alexander Gorlin, FAIA; Photographs by Durston Saylor

Addition to and renovation of Louis Kahn’s Temple Beth-el

Northeast elevation

Northeast elevation of Kahn’s original building (at left in the photo) and its new addition.

When I was asked a few years ago to design an addition to, and renovate Louis Kahn’s only built synagogue, Temple Beth-el of northern Westchester in Chappaqua, New York, I approached the project with some trepidation. It was a task fraught with risk and psychological tension. How does one touch, with respect and deference, the work of a great modern master while still fulfilling the programmatic goals of the client? In this case the congregation had grown from the original 425 families in 1972 to 660, a community of more than 2,000 people, and the building was bursting at its seams. There was an urgent need to expand and yet to preserve, perhaps even complement and enhance, the experience of the original architecture.

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Although Kahn designed a number of synagogues, such as Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia and the Hurva in Jerusalem, only Temple Beth-el was built. Mikveh Israel, designed and redesigned between 1961 and 1970, was organized around a series of cylindrical “light chambers” at the corners of the sanctuary, giving from the outside the impression of a fortress. The interior was to be lit by a mysterious, veiled light from the ten round rooms. The plan recalls the Kabbalistic diagram of the “Sefirot,” the mystical plan of the emanations of God.

The other synagogue was the Hurva (meaning in Hebrew burnt ruin), 1968 to 1974, after the Six Day War in Israel, to be built in the Old City of Jerusalem on the site of the historic synagogue destroyed by the Jordanians in 1948. It is close to the Western Wall, the last remnant of Solomon’s and Herod’s Temple, the holiest site in Judaism. The Hurva was designed as a monumental series of light chapels enclosing a square plan that recalled aspects of the original temple. Mikveh Israel dragged on for nine years and was hopelessly above the budget, and the Hurva was a political football. In the end, a version of the original domed structure was rebuilt, but not by Kahn.

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Synagogues are notoriously difficult projects, often with a building committee of volunteers who are well intentioned but opinionated, often at odds with each other, and rarely with the budget to fulfill their dream project. Temple Beth-el was no exception. In fact, one of the members of the original building committee, now more than 90 years old, was still involved. He said to me with great pride that he had “…told Louis Kahn which structural system to use.” My job was not going to be easy!

I was no stranger to the architect and his work. As a student at Cooper Union I had attended his second-to-last public lecture at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn on November 27, 1973. At Cooper one of my teachers was Ann Tyng, a proponent of an active, organic geometry as the basis of architecture, who was instrumental in the development of Kahn’s ideas. She also informed the class that she was the mother of one of Kahn’s children. So, even before his son Nathaniel Kahn’s film, My Architect, I was familiar with Kahn’s personal drama with his three families and three children, only one of whom was with his wife, Esther.

I mention this because during the process of the design, Nathaniel Kahn called me to plead the case that his father’s design not be touched at all; at least the addition should be separate from the existing building. Unfortunately there was no way to achieve that, as the site was very restricted, and one of the urgent requirements was that there be one entry for security purposes. But more of that later.

I also taught a seminar on Louis Kahn at the Yale School of Architecture from 1980 to 1992, which included a yearly pilgrimage to his great Exeter Library in New Hampshire, although never to Chappaqua, as it was never clear if the synagogue had been built or not. Strangely enough, neither Kahn nor anyone else ever published the Chappaqua synagogue, and almost nothing was written about it over the years. Kahn was working on Dacca and other, much larger commissions at the time, and somehow it slipped through the cracks and remained unpublished, even in Heinz Ronner’s: Louis I. Kahn Complete Work 1935-74, where only drawings are presented as if it had not been built!

Temple Beth-el was completed and dedicated May 5, 1972, and Kahn not only attended the ceremony, but delivered fairly extensive yet cryptic remarks about the project. Starting off by saying that he “almost wanted to wring his neck,” referring to Jay Bleier, President of Temple Beth-el, he went on to say “…we would have built exactly as we wanted … the determination to bring it within budget has actually made it a greater building. And I really believe that thoroughly. So I am deeply pleased.” He continued, “… I think it is good. And that’s about the best you can say of anything, that it is good.”’ Of course in this context, he is citing the work of God himself in Genesis, which states, after the Creation of the universe: “And behold it was very good.” So Kahn in his biblical prophet mode was pleased, or so he said.

Although Kahn never said as much, it was assumed and the idea grew to become the conventional wisdom, that the design was based upon wooden synagogues of Poland as a memorial to those destroyed by the Nazis during the Holocaust. Kahn did not mention this even during the dedication, which would have made sense if it had been a source of inspiration. However, he almost never revealed his sources, developing his architectural language by abstracting ideas from history, such as from the Roman baths and Hadrian’s Villa. In each case he subsumed the plans and forms within his own modernist vocabulary of legible geometry and distinct materials, letting a brick be an arch after asking the brick what it wanted to be.

Kahn’s sectional study of the sanctuary.

Kahn’s sectional study of the sanctuary.

Temple Beth-el, a symmetrical, octagonal structure with a cubic cupola, sits on a forested site between two hills, much like the Renaissance church Santa Maria della Consolazione in Todi, Italy, from 1508. Beth-el, which means House of God, is basically symmetrical, with an attached concrete entry pavilion on the upper level. There are two entrances to the building. The lower one off the parking lot is through the social hall, with its exposed, waffle-slab ceiling. The upper entrance is through a fairly low, dark, concrete pavilion that opens up to the sanctuary. The sanctuary is a wood structure set between exposed concrete beams in the manner that Kahn used often to clarify the role of each material. Within the octagonal plan, a central square area for the congregation is defined by four squat concrete columns, with a capital atop that extends a few inches, a primitive interpretation of a Tuscan column. Atop the columns sits a “cubic balducchino,” a cupola that rises 50 feet, illuminated by 24 square windows. The light changes as the sun slowly crosses the sky, the square beams of light creating angled patterns on the walls and the seats of the congregants. One experiences light and the passage of time, an important aspect of the Jewish service that takes place in the morning and evenings, and is correlated in holidays at different periods of the year.

The dual entries eventually became a problem after the security demands of 9/11 demanded a single point of control. The other even more severe problem was that classrooms were entered directly off the sanctuary, restricting the use of each space when the other was in use. For some reason Kahn did not use his usual device of a circumambulatory to allow for multiple use of these spaces as he did in the Unitarian Church at Rochester, or at a much larger scale in the capital at Dacca, where the central place of assembly also had a sacred resonance for Kahn. This arrangement also recalled Islamic mosques with an adjoining school (medrese) and classrooms entered through the main space of prayer.

The extensive addition, which almost doubled the size of the building, includes a major social hall, a kitchen, additional classrooms, a nursery school, a library/chapel, and bathrooms. Our solution was based on ideas that Kahn used when different pavilions were adjacent, such as his plan for the Mother’s House for Dominican Sisters. We created a courtyard on axis with the sanctuary around which the different functions are organized. There is now a single entry into a glass cube from which one proceeds left to the sanctuary and classrooms below, or right to the library and courtyard above to the social hall and nursery school. This replaces the original concrete stair hall of Kahn’s design. A ceremonial stair lifts one up to the main level of prayer and education. The original façade of Kahn’s is preserved in this hall. Within this plan concept, the original entry pavilion, which would now be superfluous and unnecessary, was removed. One might see this as a ritual element of sacrifice, recalling a “bris” or circumcision of the building that recalls the traditional Jewish ritual for infant boys of eight days old.

Kahn’s drawing of the sanctuary.

Kahn’s drawing of the sanctuary.

Restoring the sanctuary required the installation of a sprinkler system, as the entire interior was clad in wood. This installation was designed with great care to follow the beams on the interior. We also replaced the hanging aluminum lighting armature that weighed heavily on the space with an elevated ring of up lights that was more in keeping with sketches of modern chandeliers that Kahn had proposed.

The courtyard is the complement to the sculptural volume of the octagonal mass of the sanctuary, with Kahn’s cupola rising above the walls. It also recalls the courtyard of the temple. In plan, as in the hierarchy of the Sefirot of the Kabbalah, the sanctuary stands at the head of the treelike diagram and the mother, “Shekinah,” is at the opposite end, appropriately at the play area of the nursery school.

During the construction a discovery was made above the ark in a secret door behind the storage room above the library, like the proverbial genizah, where ancient prayer books were stored in a synagogue. Eight original drawings by Kahn that had not been seen for almost 40 years were found. They were presentation drawings, some on yellow trace by the master’s hand, while others were blue-line prints with freehand sketches by Kahn. They show a more elaborate idea of the sanctuary, with more layered space and multiple floors. But Kahn, as he said in the dedication and as he often did in other projects, simplified, refined, and clarified. A building committee today might say “value engineered,” but for Kahn, “It was good.”

The author is principal of Alexander Gorlin Architects in New York. His practice includes the design of synagogues, houses, affordable and homeless housing, urban planning, and interior design. He is the author of five books, including Kabbalah in Art and Architecture, published by Thames & Hudson.

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