Designing the 21st Century Synagogue
Dec 06

Designing the 21st Century Synagogue

Breuer, and Joshua Zinder, 44, who worked for Michael Graves, among others, before starting his own firm five years ago. Th e men, who still have individual practices, met about 10 years at the Princeton Jewish Center, where both are members. They spoke to a reporter about designing the 21st-century synagogue, which like many contemporary homes, involves concerns of technology, green strategies and aging occupants. 

How did you become interested in synagogues?
Michael Landau: I chose a synagogue as my thesis project at the University of Virginia back in the ’60s. One of my advisers there was Percival Goodman. He probably did all the major synagogues from the ’50s and ’60s, and it turned out that Josh grew up in Long Island going to a synagogue that Percival Goodman designed, which inspired him to be an architect.

Do you need to be Jewish to design a synagogue?
Mr. Landau: You need to be a good designer. If you’re good, you can design any type of building. I worked on a Greek Orthodox church. 

You recently gave a talk on trends in synagoguedesign. What are some examples?
Joshua Zinder: For me, the most interesting is the notion of how demographics are affecting Jewish communities.

You have a lot of synagogues consolidating as people continue to move around. Even
across the subgroups — Reform, Conservative, some Orthodox groups — they’re getting together and forming congregations where they might still have individual services within their sort of larger big tent. So they’re coming together to pool resources.

Mr. Landau: All religious institutions are generally shrinking, especially in smaller communities. In Judaism it’s much more prevalent. If you look at the history of how Jews spread across the country, they were merchants that became rooted in local communities and grew up there, and then their children and children’s children moved away.

Mr. Zinder: One of the biggest trends is the issue of accessibility. With aging communities it has become critical.

Mr. Landau: A lot of congregants are called to the bimah during services and, for older ones who can’t navigate steps, this has become a real problem.

The bimah?

Mr. Landau: The raised area at the front of the sanctuary where the service is conducted. 

Mr. Zinder: And there’s the issue of how to use technology.

Mr. Landau: The more Orthodox you get, the more stringent the rules are about what the technology can be. For example, automatic flush valves in toilets are not allowed in Orthodox congregations. 

Why not?

Mr. Zinder: You’re creating a spark, which creates fire, which you are not allowed to do on Sabbath.

Is environmentalism a trend?

Mr. Landau: Synagogues, like a lot of other religious institutions, are very environmentally conscious. Most clients we talk to think it’s a moral obligation. That’s generating some technological and natural phenomena we hadn’t seen even 10
years ago.

Like what?

Mr. Landau: Th e use of natural lighting has become much more important. Synagogues used to be hermetically sealed; they were inward-focused and protective.

Mr. Zinder: Even the notion of putting signs out or putting, say, a Jewish star on the outside of the building ends up creating issues. People feel that they are not as safe sometimes. So I think historically a lot of synagogues have been made to blend in or be very insular. That’s really starting to change. There’s new window technology so
you can bring in natural light without opening the congregation up at the same time.
Has your experience with religious spaces altered how you design homes?

Mr. Landau: The similarities that carry over into residential design tend to be to interpret the character and personality of the owner in a creative and meaningful way.

What are your favorite synagogues from a design view?

Mr. Zinder: One that I find fascinating that was never built: the Hurva in Jerusalem by Louis Kahn. They recently rebuilt the original, but they didn’t use Kahn’s design, so it doesn’t have the quality of light and space that Kahn’s would have had. But I understand why they built it the way they did: a recreation is a known quantity, and in many people’s view more respectful to the past.

Mr. Landau: Gates of the Grove, the synagogue Norman Jaffe designed in East Hampton. He and I were friends. When he drowned, they had a memorial service for him in that building. It’s a cedar-shingled structure with natural light used in a controlled way. But it’s a really spiritually uplifting space.