Monday, May 4, 2009

Slovakia: Imagining a Better Future for the Peter Behrens-designed (former) Synagogue of Žilina

Slovakia: Imagining a Better Future for the Peter Behrens-designed (former) Synagogue of Žilina
by Samuel D. Gruber 
At the Bratislava seminar on historic Jewish properties held in March I got to know Palo Frankl, head of the small Jewish community of Žilina, Slovakia (Hungarian: Zsolna, German: Sillein). Naturally, we got to talking about the synagogues of Žilina. There are two – a modest synagogue still in use that also houses a small museum - and the better known former Neolog Synagogue designed by famed German modernist Peter Behrens (1868-1940), which is owned by the community, but has housed a cinema for many years. The Behrens synagogue is one of the best known in Slovakia – it is featured in Carol Herselle Krinsky’s Synagogues of Europe, and has been mentioned in many articles (including a few of my own).
Ironically and tragically, it only served as a synagogue for a decade. Built in 1928-31 to replace a synagogue built c. 1880, the new structure followed a design by Peter Behren‘s and its construction was supervised by Zigo Wertheimer. Its religious function, however, ended with the deportation of Žilina’s Jews beginning in 1942 (Žilina was also a transit point for Jews deported form other areas). 
According to architectural historian Maros Borsky, director of the Slovak Jewish Heritage Center, ”the community conducted an international competition which attracted important architects of the time, including Josef Hoffmann from Vienna and Lipót Baumhorn from Budapest,” before settling on Behrens. 
Palo Frankl knows the history of the building and its architectural significance. He’d like to return the building to its original form, and to find some appropriate function for it. Finding a use is not easy nor is finding the funding to restore the building. Mr. Frankl would like to see the building continue to be rented for income for the next several years in the hope that rental income could help fund a design process leading to restoration and some appropriate reuse.  To my mind, keeping it as an income-producing cinema for the time being is probably as good a use as any. I have seen too many instances of Jewish communities rushing to oust a tenant in the hopes of new use, but resulting in a long abandonment of a building, leading to deterioration. Frankl was adamant that any new use of the building should not negatively affect its historic features - and this immediate has ruled out several suggested uses for the prominent site. 

I visited the synagogue two years ago. The exterior is essentially intact. The ground floor is faced in rough rectangular stones, laid almost like field stone. The rest of the structure is of reinforced concrete, and a series of narrow vertical windows pierce the upper level. Despite the use of concrete, the building looks traditional due to its massing, and the monumental stairway that leads to the main entrance. Nothing about the building’s architecture identifies it as a synagogue. Applied Stars of David set on each exterior corner originally served this purpose. Parts of the exterior have been covered with new unsightly painted cement, and all the stonework needs to be pointed and cleaned. But its original form remains clear. The building was, in many ways, a stripped down version of the Byzantine domed synagogue popular in Hungary and the Balkans. Behrens’ design set a half dome on a rectangular block, but it is a low dome visible more from a distance than close up. Within, the dome rose on slender concrete piers from a square, set within the rectangular mass. Today, most of the interior has been covered over with new walls, partitions and materials. Still, in the main hall – now used for films – one can see some of the original structure, though the dome is entirely obscured. It is hard to know what original elements are still hidden.
I suggested to Palo that we investigate putting together some sort of international committee to consider the future of the building. As an icon of modern synagogue design, the building deserves a better fate. This can be a slow process, since as long as it is occupied the building is reasonably well maintained. According to Borsky, there are several other urgent and ongoing Jewish heritage projects in Slovakia that are competing for limited support. To me, the best hope for the Behren's synagogue is to reach outside the normal (Jewish) funding circles and to involve groups dedicated to protecting and preserving the legacy of modernism.
Readers interested in participating in this project should contact me directly.

1 comment:

Hels said...

I know of a lot of buildings in which Hoffmann, Behrens and other architects were involved, but not this synagogue in Slovakia. So we have to ask what their interest was.

a] The architects weren't Jewish.
b] Zilina was certainly not Vienna, Budapest, Prague, Berlin or Munich.
c] Their famous students (Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, Adolf Meyer and Walter Gropius) were now well established in their own splendid careers.

So what do you think the attraction was, at least in the 1928-31 period?

I love this stuff :)