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Kahn Do?

December 31, 2009 By:
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The master himself, and one of his drawings for the unrealized Mikveh Israel synagogue

 A lovely confluence of elements occurred recently in the world of architecture, and both of them, in a sense, have benefited Philadelphia.

First, Susan G. Solomon published her important and insightful book Louis I. Kahn's Jewish Architecture: Mikveh Israel and the Midcentury American Synagogue, out from Brandeis University Press. Then, Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park, one of the last great structures designed by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright, opened a visitor center for the first time so that many more tourists to the area, along with those native Philadelphians so inclined, can see this challenging and inspiring building without having to make reservations far in advance. (The establishment of the center in mid-November was, I believe, a direct outgrowth of the building's being recognized as a National Historic Landmark in 2007.)

The Mikveh Israel mentioned in the subtitle to Solomon's book is our Mikveh Israel, meaning the Philadelphia shul, one of the city's oldest; and Wright's mid-century architectural bombshell in the form of a Jewish house of worship -- the only synagogue he ever designed -- also plays a considerable part in Solomon's unfolding narrative.

In addition, the Louis Kahn mentioned in the title was, during the 1950s and '60s, Philadelphia's greatest homegrown architect, who was forever being abused by the city he so loved and which he struggled to reshape through his spectacular vision. Kahn was every inch Wright's equal, architecturally speaking, and was perhaps the predominant talent of the latter half of the 20th century (as Wright was of the first). The major difference between them was that far too many of Kahn's projects were never built, and those done in Philadelphia are unfortunately not among his best.

For those who don't know much about Kahn, his great buildings include the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif.; the Yale University Art Gallery and the Yale Center for British Art, both in New Haven, Conn.; the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas; the Phillips Exeter Academy Library in Exeter, N.H.; the First Unitarian Church in Rochester, N.Y.; and the National Assembly Building in Bangladesh.

His design for Mikveh Israel was, alas, one that never saw the light of day, and that is at the crux of the story Solomon has to tells. This fairly brief work (as scholarly studies go) packs a mass of information into its small space, providing readers with a complete sense of what Kahn faced during his crucible with the powers that be at Mikveh Israel, as well as a broad understanding of what Jewish architecture was at the midpoint of the 20th century.

With World War II behind them, young American Jews, according to Solomon, realized that they had become "the hub of global Jewish culture," and had come to feel secure, a part of the greater fabric of American life. The citizenry at large, notes the author, also experienced a renewed interest in things religious.

These developments had profound implications for Judaism. The Jews were "propelled" into the suburbs, states Solomon, as part of the postwar optimism; and the suburban synagogue "was dynamic, a symbol of thriving contemporary Jewish life. ... Synagogues were built to be original presences that reflected well on Judaism; their designers replicated Protestant values and building models in order to make them a cultural force, at once unique and recognizably American." Yet, where churches chose from a variety of styles, Solomon tells us that "postwar synagogues were exclusively modern and became 'showpieces of the modern movement.' "

Modernism was the style of choice in American Judaism of the time, says the author, because certain Jewish leaders, especially those in the Reform movement, "proclaimed that it meshed with what they saw as the forward-thinking nature of American Judaism. Modernism offered congregations a chance for physical representation of their own progressive ideals, and Jews, who had reason to be ambivalent about architecture, embraced it and its modern vocabulary. ... The Reform movement, unlike the other main branches of American Judaism, adopted a single message about architecture. It relied on a definition of modernism that was inclusive, accepting any building not laden with historical decoration or one that did not display a historical style."

It may be startling for people today to imagine, but back in the 1950s, synagogue architecture was a subject discussed in architectural magazines and even by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the central agency of Reform Judaism.

For example, an issue of Architectural Record in 1944 examined the coming needs for schools and religious buildings as society looked forward to postwar peace. The Jewish perspective on the issue was provided by Ben Bloch, of the firm of Bloch and Hesse, who wrongly predicted that modern architectural vocabulary would have little impact on synagogue design, and that Reform and Conservative congregations "would return to earlier historical models that valued the comfort of architectural details of prior centuries."

But after the war, Solomon writes, the Reform movement decided that it was necessary "to affect the design of synagogues that were still in planning or even preplanning stages." Enlisting the aid of an art historian, UAHC set up a Synagogue Architects Consultant Panel. Members reviewed congregational building plans and offered advice "against pitfalls."

Even Commentary magazine, then in its youth, got into the act; beginning in March 1947, the monthly publication ran a series of articles specifically dealing with synagogues, "hoping to provide useful guidelines for people making decisions about new construction."

The first of these articles was titled "The Problem of Synagogue Architecture: Creating a Style Expressive of America." The author was Rachel Wischnitzer, an art historian and architect. Her article was then responded to in a later issue by several significant Jewish architects -- among them, Percival Goodman and Eric Mendelsohn -- who would go on to create some of the most distinctive synagogue designs in postwar America. Solomon analyzes these buildings' successes and failures in advance of discussing Kahn's haunting, unrealized Mikveh Israel project.

Still, for all the talk of modernism in Reform movement circles, the great coup at this time of ferment and suburbanization came via a non-Jew -- Frank Lloyd Wright -- who was tapped by Rabbi Mortimer J. Cohen, the rabbi of Congregation Beth Sholom, an "upstart" Conservative shul looking to build a new home in Elkins Park. Wright's distinctive design -- no matter its many critics, then and now -- put the synagogue on the map. And its very presence and abundance of ideas about religious space appear to have affected the decisions of both Mikveh Israel and the nearby Congregation Adath Jeshurun about how to proceed with their moves to new locations in the suburbs, and especially whether Kahn should continue to be involved in either project.

At heart, this is a story of short-lived triumph and high spirits among American Jews, since the "synagogue fever" Solomon analyzes came to an abrupt halt by the early 1960s. And as far as Kahn is concerned, it's simply another sad recounting of how shabbily he was treated by his fellow Philadelphians, Jewish and otherwise. Solomon takes heart in the beauty of Kahn's plans for Mikveh Israel (a point that's undeniable) and how highly they are regarded these days.

But are unbuilt brilliant buildings any sort of triumph for an architect, even one as influential as Kahn has been since his death? Perhaps, as they say, it's all a matter of perspective. 

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