Silence is Golden
Fred A. Bernstein -- Interior Design, 12/1/2004 12:00:00 AM
The current synagogue's Richard Morris Hunt facade sports new railings, doors, and lighting.
The "eternal light" uses Hebrew and English letters as a decorative motif.
In the hallway leading to the sanctuary, a strip of bronze signage wraps the bronze-on-bronze "donor wall" built into the quarter-sawn oak paneling.
The sanctuary's walls of Jerusalem stone, a honed limestone, bracket the ark; the custom pendant fixtures are handblown glass.
Sanctuary pews for 180 face the ark on a diagonal.
In the library, new bookshelves match restored 1880's woodwork; the glass-fronted alcove contains a Holocaust shrine.
"The idea was to make it quiet," George Schieferdecker says of New York's East End Temple. And he isn't talking about muffling traffic noise. The kind of quiet that the BKSK Architects partner had in mind is symbolic, fulfilling the congregation's hopes for a contemplative space. "What we got," says Rabbi David Adelson, "has exceeded our expectations."
Having sold its previous quarters nearby, the synagogue now occupies a French Renaissance–style Richard Morris Hunt town house from 1883. Its 30-foot-wide facade presents a powerful assemblage of brick and brownstone, culminating in a slate-covered mansard roof. But most of the interior, abused during decades of use as a psychiatric clinic, couldn't be salvaged.
The need for a gut job gave Schieferdecker the freedom to organize his 12,000-square-foot design around a double-height sanctuary at the rear. Created with steel beams, the new 30-foot cubic volume recalls an earlier cube, the small sanctuary carried through the desert in Exodus. "It's embracing yet grand at the same time," Adelson observes of the new room, which can accommodate 180. Schieferdecker was asked to avoid the standard "hierarchical" rabbi-in-front, worshippers-in- back arrangement—with the ark containing Torah scrolls set against the far wall—so he located the ark in a corner and placed the seating diagonally. His choice achieves spatial complexity as well as the hoped-for intimacy between pews and pulpit. Above the ark is a large skylight—inspired by religious imagery of clouds opening up to let heavenly rays descend. In front of the ark hangs the "eternal light." This bronze lantern is held aloft by a cable and a bronze bar cantilevered from the center of the ceiling as if, Schieferdecker says, "drawing strength from the congregation." Additional illumination is supplied by 10 smaller hand- blown glass pendant fixtures, each subtly different. One challenge in designing a house of worship is anticipating future needs—otherwise, mismatched furniture, fixtures, and signage can quickly obscure the architect's intent. To avoid that scenario, Schieferdecker built in as many of those elements as possible—many in cast bronze. Wall-mounted "prayer strips," for example, include one that greets visitors when they enter and pulls them round the corner, toward the sanctuary. For the doors of the ark, architect Dan Menitoff made a mold by assembling leaves and fabric scraps into a tapestry; then, before the molten bronze was poured, slips of paper bearing the congregants' prayers were dropped into the crucible. The result, Adelson says, is an ark that literally embodies hopes and dreams.
What's not bronze is mostly wood—including the lectern of Hawaiian koa wood, believed to be the closest match to the acacia of the poles supporting the sanctuary in Exodus. In the sanctuary at East End Temple, flooring of quarter-sawn oak warms up the white walls.
Today's synagogue includes one prominent remnant of the 1883 town house: a library with an oak mantel and panels. Pendant globes keep this space from becoming a period piece, however—while the new interior as a whole is already writing its own history. "It takes time for people to decipher every prayer strip or to realize that the glass lights in the sanctuary are all different," Schieferdecker says. "A place of worship should never reveal itself too quickly."