Designing a Stage for a Book

October 2, 2012
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Susie Coliver

For those who encountered their first glimmer of the divine under a redwood tree or by the side of a lake at Jewish summer camp, synagogues built within the first 70 years of the 20th century often lacked a spiritual component. Urban structures with straight rows of seats facing forward and a hierarchical arrangement of spaces often appeared fortress-like, with few if any windows, forbidding to those who didn’t belong. With the move to the suburbs following World War II, many Reform and Conservative shuls were built practical and efficient, reflecting the modernist spirit of the era. The bima was construed as a stage for a performance, rather than as a communal podium for the centuries-old rereading of an ever-reconsidered text. The pendulum had swung quite far toward rational coolness, leaving a void where the soul might reside. Though these spaces were often appropriate for the congregants of their time, they no longer resonate with their communities today.

In The Sabbath, Abraham Joshua Heschel describes how time is holier than place. He writes that the word kadosh (holy) is first used in Genesis: “And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy.” The “it” refers to a point in time, something ephemeral, marked primarily by the movement of the sun across the sky and the waxing and waning of the moon. The holiness is entirely basic, an essence that cannot be distilled further.

As designers of Jewish sacred spaces, we most often hear a yearning for the brightness and shadow of natural light and some connection to nature, if only a glimpse of the sky. Congregants do not want to be manipulated to emote in a particular way, or to be distracted from their thoughts by stage sets, ornaments, or overt historical references.

Today, building committees tend to be composed not of major donors who dictate how a prospective synagogue should be designed, but of members most vested in the experience of reciting the annual cycle of readings and their interpretations — congregants who consider the Sabbath as their cathedral, as Heschel taught, rather than congregants who consider the High Holidays to be their primary religious experience.

As architects, we needn’t attempt to prescribe an emotional response. Congregants do not want to be made to feel small in the presence of the divine; they find the divine within themselves and everywhere else. Therefore, our charge becomes one of designing a stage for a book and permitting the passage of time through the day and year to be rendered evident.

To strike the right note, we pose specific questions about the ark, the aron hakodesh: Is it a treasure chest for a precious jewel, secure, crafted of inherently valuable materials like fine woods, bronze, and semi-precious stones? Or, might it be as ephemeral as an idea, transparent, accessible, with the scrolls always on display in full view? Or would something in between reflect the congregation’s culture more fully, with the Torah scrolls apparent behind a scrim, peeking out, as it were, beckoning seductively to be discovered and explored? The answer we hear sets the course for the design approach. All the rest, always the subject of endless debate, is commentary: The rabbi faces the congregation or the aron; the chazan leads the service; the service is to be projected on screens so that everyone faces up and forward rather than down at a book; the service is lay-led; the service is traditional and egalitarian. Oftentimes, the seating is flexible — people do not want to be told how to sit, or required to sit in the same place or even in the same configuration of seats each time. The needs of children must be acknowledged so that they will grow up feeling comfortable in the sanctuary while recognizing that it’s not really a play space.

We almost always hear that the design of the space should support a sense of community; sometimes the word “awe” is used, as in a personal sense of awe. Never in recent years have we heard that a congregation desires a space that exudes opulence, ostentation, power, and glory.

We seem to be living in a time when the prevailing attitude is that the synagogue should be available to the community at large, comfortable to all, and transparent and accessible to any who are curious to approach it, and cross its threshold. We are urged to remove barriers to entry as well as to participation: a bima on the floor or only slightly raised, a focus on the experience of the weekly Shabbat with the High Holiday experience as secondary.  The room should support raising one’s voice in harmony with others, moving one’s body according to the inner impulse of the heart, and experiencing light and sound along with friends and strangers.

As noted by architect David Stoleru in this journal: “The reality of a place is the sum of the different moments and histories that occurred in it.” How literal does memory need to be? In the design of Jewish sacred space, we attempt to refer to a shared past that in fact took place through time and narrative, rather than through walking the same paving stones and davening in the same rooms.

Visit to view blueprints and drawings of several synagogues under construction.

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Susie Coliver, along with her partners Bob Herman and Steve Rajninger at the Herman Coliver Locus Architecture in San Francisco, designs places for Jewish communal gatherings, including prayer spaces.

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