Just read for class Susan G. Solomon’s Louis I. Kahn’s Jewish Architecture: Mikkveh Israel and the Midcentury American Synagogue. As the title and subtitle indicate, the book pivots around the designs for Kahn’s unrealized Mikveh Israel project for Independence Mall in downtown Philadelphia in order to touch upon a set of larger themes relating to architecture, the form and function of the modern synagogue, the relation between modern architecture and Jewish meaning.
Against the old historicist model of synagogue design, by which architects built according to a Greek or Gothic or Moorish design style, the premise and promise of modernism was to bring the value of clarity into religious life and thought (p.15). Turing to Kahn’s vision in particular, Solomon quotes the architect’s self-understanding of architecture as “the thoughtful making of spaces,” “a realm of spaces” (pp.109, 116). Kahn’s design style builds upon the incorporation of natural light, the quiet molding of natural light as a shifting and fluid design element, the promotion of human contact and interactions. The values and scale here are more quiet and intimate than grandiose and dramatic (pp.7, 99, 111).
There’s a theory of modern religion buried here. In combination with cultural, historical, and social trends, what undermined the postwar synagogue and postwar Judaism is the unresolved tension between social and religious-spiritual function (pp.22, 25). Like any kind of architecture, the synagogue, like religion writ large, has as its most abiding challenge the attention to basic human needs and desire of a congregation (160-1). In the case at hand, at issue is not how to “look” Jewish according to some pre-scripted decorative scheme, heavy on overly familiar religious symbols, but how to become Jewish in a genuine and natural way, integrated into the larger cultural environment, at home in the world (p.1).
Combining architecture and Jewish thought, there is a beautiful and compelling nod to Abraham Joshua Heschel that Solomon connects to Kahn’s use of light as a primary decorative element. Drawing on the distinction made by Heschel in The Sabbath between the temporal values of space versus the spiritual values of time, the very notion, a synesthetic one, that Shabbat constitutes an architecture of time, “as distinct from the rigidity of space.” “Kahn’s light, given by the light towers, would have been always changing; it would have been different from moment to moment, and on each given day of the year. Kahn’s building would have retained the solidity of ‘space’ while his ‘decoration’ achieved the immateriality of ‘time’ (p.113, cf. 158-9). What I like about this brief allusion to Heschel is the way Solomon gives concrete material form to what one might otherwise read as an airy philosophical-theological abstraction.