Louis I. Kahn’s Jewish Architecture: Mikveh Israel and the Midcentury American Synagogue

Susan G. Solomon: Louis I. Kahn’s Jewish Architecture: Mikveh Israel and the Midcentury American Synagogue

(Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2009) Published by New England University Press. 215 pages, numerous black and white illustrations, notes, bibliography and index.

The postwar period saw a renewed interest in the design of religious buildings. It was no longer a matter of just copying or interpreting traditional forms and iconography but it was about finding new interpretations and forms that captured the spirit of postwar religion. This desire and the search for new expressions attracted well known architects. While the modern designs for churches whether protestant or roman catholic are today probably better known or more frequently published, the same is true for synagogue design. The projects by Erich Mendelsohn, Walter Gropius, Frank Lloyd Wright, Philip Johnson, Minoru Yamasaki, Pietro Belluschi or Percival Goodman are examples of that search. In this context it is not surprising that Louis Kahn received a commission to design a synagogue in Philadelphia.

The first two chapters of Solomon’s book address the design of synagogues in postwar America. She places these buildings in the context of modern design of religious buildings in general but also in the context of the Jewish community. Examples discussed and shown include Temple Emanu-El in Dallas designed by William Wurster in collaboration with Max Sandfeld and Howard Meyer. What makes this a particularly interesting is the integration of art by important artists in the interior, which was typical for many synagogues and churches at the time. Gyorgy Kepes, Anni Albers and Richard Filipowski collaborated there. In her second chapter titled “Does It Look Jewish?” Solomon raises an interesting question that becomes particularly pertinent when discussing Kahn’s work.

Chapters 3 titled “Context: Client, Architect, Philadelphia (and Rochester)” presents the background for the project including the client. The chapter titled “Plans: Kahn’s Vision” reviews and analyzes his design proposals for the eleven years, 1961-1972, of his involvement and includes his interactions with the client. At the end the project was never realized. The last chapter, 5, with the title “Epilogue: Preservation and Legacy” returns a more general topic. It addresses the challenges that synagogues in a modern design face and are actually faced by many modern religious buildings regardless of denomination.

By presenting Louis Kahn’s work in the larger context of synagogue design in the postwar era, the book has become not just an important insight into Louis Kahn’s work but also an interesting and more general discussion about a building typology about which little has been written. The author is right there is a need for greater advocacy and more preservation.

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