Defining Jewish identity

Defining Jewish identity

Layla Dawson

Is there a definable Jewish identity in contemporary architecture? If so, is it as authentic when the architect is neither an Israeli, nor Jewish by faith? The German and Dutch art historians, publisher and rabbi, Angeli Sachs and Edward van Voolen, have assembled 26 projects by 12 architects in their exhibition ‘Jewish Identity in Contemporary Architecture’, originally showing at the Jewish Museum in Berlin and now travelling around Europe. Projects by Mario Botta, Ralph Appelbaum, Will Bruder, Frank Gehry, Claus en Kaan, Zvi Hecker, Adolf Krischanitz, Daniel Libeskind, Al Mansfeld, Moshe Safdie, Wandel Hoefer Lorch and Hirsch, and Mehrdad Yazdani, help visitors come to their own conclusions. On reviewing the assemblage, you might also wonder if all Jewish buildings, schools, museums, or community centres, have to camouflage themselves and fortify themselves with masonry and electronic surveillance. Sixty years after the capitulation of Nazi Germany the answer is, unfortunately, yes. A short walk away from Daniel Libeskind’s Berlin Jewish Museum, which is itself featured in the exhibition. Peter Eisenman’s recently completed Memorial for the Jewish Holocaust victims underlines this modern day reality.


Whatever their faiths or nationalities, all the architects have made use of one, or more, historical Jewish architectural elements. The tent of the Tabernacle, symbol for a nomadic culture, appears as a chain mail curtain around an inner sacred place in Dresden’s synagogue. A token gesture to the massive walls of the Temple in Jerusalem, of which the Western Wall is the last vestige, appears on the entrance steps of Akiba Academy kindergarten, Los Angeles. When honey coloured Jerusalem stone is not available it is replaced by the equally substantial fair-faced concrete of Zvi Hecker’s ‘snakes and ladders’ elementary school in Berlin (AR June 1996), or to construct the minimalist boxes of Adolf Krischanitz’s Lauder Chabad and New World schools in Vienna. The wish to assimilate, in order not to attract unwelcome attention, is also evident in the use of Krischanitz’s earth-coloured facades which disappear into the landscape. For the ‘people of the Book’ buildings unfold and tell stories, like the five pages of Hecker’s Duisburg community centre (AR March 2000) which can also be read as the five books of the Torah, or five fingers of an open hand. Mario Botta shaped the ceiling of the Cymbalista synagogue like a wedding canopy and conjures up Solomon’s Temple in two red Dolomite stone drum towers. Catacombs and labyrinths are journeys through a dangerous history with light at the end of a tunnel, most dramatically staged in Moshe Safdie’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum, where the visitor is led to the brink of a cliff to view the Promised Land.

The unique wooden synagogues of Belarus, destroyed by arsonists during pogroms, inspired Frank Lloyd Wright, while the Prague and Krakow synagogues, of 1270 and 1407, used the camouflage of Christian churches in a vain attempt to disappear into the European mainstream. Even today, Will Bruder’s Kol Ami worship and learning centre in Scottsdale, Arizona (AR November 1997) is a walled installation, a habitation in the desert’ equally suitable for Israel today or the biblical Jews fleeing Egypt. The besieged mentality haunts many of these projects but attack can also come from within. Frank Gehry’s Museum of Tolerance, for the Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem, has become a source of conflict and intolerance in Israel because of its price ($150 million), its design, which is considered by some to have too much ‘Bilbao effect’, and its site in the 3000 year old city. In the exhibition guest book a visitor anonymously wrote, ‘Don’t let Frank Gehry build his intolerable museum in Jerusalem’. Another visitor demanded in German, ‘Less symbolism, more architecture’. Given the history, is that possible?

Jewish Identity in Contemporary Architecture

22 June-4 September 2005, Jewish Museum, Vienna

4 November 2005-5 February 2006, City Museum, Munich

16 April-18 June 2006, Ben Uri Gallery, Jewish Museum, London

COPYRIGHT 2005 EMAP Architecture

COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group