Synagogue Architecture of Howard Meyer
Finessing Modernism in Religious Architecture
Completed in 1957, the Temple Emanu-El became the largest, most expensive, and most detailed synagogue of Meyer’s religious architecture repertoire.
Having worked on two other synagogues, Teferet Israel Synagogue (1938) and Temple Beth El (1938-48), Howard Meyer’s efforts in religious architecture reached their pinnacle through the creation of Temple Emanu-El. Completed in 1957, the Temple Emanu-El became the largest, most expensive, and most detailed synagogue of Meyer's religious architecture repertoire.
Temple Emanu-El reveals a sense of maturity in Meyer’s architecturally aesthetic through a culmination of his bourgeoning architectural experience and emphasized effort of collaboration on the project. Combing the efforts of structural engineers, landscape architects, lighting consultants, artists, and additional architects developed an architectural masterpiece that alone each could seemingly not have conceived. Consequently, Howard Meyer’s Temple Emanu-El achieves a resolutely cohesive international building within variety that lacks a “signature” appeal.
Comprised of discrete units, the massing of Temple Emanu-El exalts the series of interior programs. Through the chapel, sanctuary, the hall, offices, entertainment, meeting spaces, and a school, the forms clearly express the interior functionality of the building. Contrasting the seemingly sterometric forms of Temple Emanu-El, the encapsulated green spaces and arcaded garden create areas of retreat and reflection similar to what Meyer implements in the interior program. These enclosed courtyards provide an organic connection and a feeling of sanctity due to their positioning throughout the built environment. Providing division between the exterior inhabitable space and the interior of the temple is a glass-partitioning device. The playful nature of the varying textures of the glass panes allows for dappling and diffusion of light into the corridors. This natural lighting technique creates a unique ambiance that emanates the religious nature of the building.
Materially, Meyer maintains an allegiance to indigenous materials, textures, and chromatic elements. Reinforced concrete, Mexican brick, and wood similar to Meyer’s residential project both single and multi-family projects create distinctive forms that resonate with the spiritual nature of the project. Perhaps the most profound moments within Temple Emanu-El occurs within the domed drum of the sanctuary. With Meyer’s architectural style being highly influenced by Le Corbusier, it comes as no surprise that Temple Emanu-El depict elements of the Corbusian Ronchamp Chapel. The contrast of illumination and shadows at Temple Emanu-El seems to emulate the modernist chapel.
Gregory Kepes, a professor of visual design and art theory at MIT, worked in collaboration with the variety of artisans to create an undeniably, awe-filled sanctuary interior. By creating an interwoven surface of the indigenous, earthen Mexican brick woven with colorful mosaic, the main brick wall in the sanctuary that houses the Torahs makes an eloquent statement conveying a sense of visual harmony. Having thoroughly investigated the rich background of the Jewish faith including that of the history of the Ner Tamid, or the Eternal Light, and the menorah, Kepes large-scale piece convey an honest expression to honor the high purpose of the space.
Modernism in Religious Architecture
Additionally, Kepes' commission extended to the instillation of extensive mosaic glass walls to line the walls sanctuary and converging at the ark. A playful arrangement of rectilinear geometries of the panes within their vertical restraints creates natural appeal while marinating a focus of verticality that is predominate within the domed area of the sanctuary. While the verticality emphasized by Kepes’ glass mosaic piece appeals to geometric tendencies, the hue and chromatic patterning of the glass wall derives its origins from the organic and the spiritual nature of the sanctuary. The prevalence of greens, blues, golds, and reds are arranged in a nature that creates a dappled effect reminiscent of the light diffusion technique employed by the surrounding shady grove. With tonal range varying greatly from dark to light in differing colors, Kepes continues along with subtle motif of the connecting nature with the religious experience. In sentiment to the religious context of the piece, Kepes’ implementation of the increasing intensity of hue as well as vibrancy evokes of the glass panes conveys a sense of growth and journey with a focus on eventual enlightenment. Consequently, the symbolic nature of the instillation by Kepes intensifies not only by conveying a sense of religious journey and enlightenment, but also an essential element to heighten the exquisite architecture detail of the interior.
As illumination plays a distinctive role with creating the profoundly religious nature of the sanctuary, Kepes implemented, in accordance to the punctured and direct use of daylighting by Howard Meyer through his diffused “chandler”, illustrated that the use of central lighting needed not to be in a concentrated form, but instead created forty-four pendent lighting fixtures to create an intimate glow throughout the sanctuary. Whereas Meyer’s punctured, small window implements are organic luminary tactic, Kepes’ inventive use of different length tubes of light and at different heights allows for a dynamic lighting feature that takes on a sculptural nature.
Contributing to the collaborative nature of Temple Emanu-El through experts in a variety of artistic and technical fields, Kepes brought in Anni Albers, a foremost weaver of the United States, to aid in the development of the distinctive aesthetic of Temple Emanu-El. Heightening the dichotomous relationship of the organic and religious within the sanctuary of Temple Emanu-El, Albers created an intricate woven set of doors to house the ark. The chromatic scheme and arrangement of the geometric patterning devices by Albers evokes the essence attained by Kepes’ exquisite mosaic windowed planes.