Saturday, June 7, 2014

USA: Sidney Eisenshtat Centennial

 El Paso, Texas. Temple Sinai.  Sidney Eisenshtat, arch., 1961.  Photo: Paul Rocheleau (2002)
 El Paso, Texas. Temple Sinai.  Sidney Eisenshtat, arch., 1961.  Photo: Paul Rocheleau (2002)
 El Paso, Texas. Temple Sinai.  Sidney Eisenshtat, arch., 1961.  Photo: Paul Rocheleau (2002)

USA: Sidney Eisenshtat Centennial
By Samuel D. Gruber

Yesterday was the birthday of Sidney Eisenshtat, one of America’s leading synagogue architects, who died in March 2005.  He would have been 100 years old this year. Over the years I've had the chance to visit many of Eisenshtat's synagogues and I include photos here, but they hardly do the works justice.  Since these places are defined by expressive and dynamic forms, and by ever-changing light, one needs to visit them to fully appreciate their strengths.
 
Here is a link to the obituary I for The Forward wrote at the time. 

Eisenshtat was one of the few practicing Jewish architects who was also an observant Jew.  He brought his knowledge and feeling of Judaism and Jewish practice to his religious architecture - but never let it get in the way of his fervent expressive modernism.  A prolific architect in Southern California, he  maintained an architectural practice in Los Angeles for much of the 20th century, but he may be best remembered for his synagogues, especially Temple Sinai in El Paso, one of the benchmarks of modern synagogue design.  The popularity of architects as diverse as Frank Gehry and Santiago Calatrava make much of Eisenshtat’s best work surprisingly fresh and relevant again.  And remember, Eisenshtat's buildings predate computer generated design!

 Los Angeles, CA. Sinai Temple. Sidney Eisenshtat, arch., 1960.  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2012.

Los Angeles, CA. Sinai Temple. Sidney Eisenshtat, arch., 1960.  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2012
Los Angeles, CA. Sinai Temple. Sidney Eisenshtat, arch., 1960.  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2012 

Eisenshtat was past president of Congregation Beth Jacob in Beverly Hills, which he attended daily.  He and his wife Alice,  were active participants in Jewish communal affairs.  Though Orthodox, Eisenshtat designed several noteworthy Reform  and Conservative synagogues (as in El Paso), as well as Southfield's (Detroit) Orthodox B’nai David. 

 
Southfield, Michigan. Former B'nai David Synagogue. Sidney Eisenshtat, arch. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber (2007)

Southfield, Michigan. Former B'nai David Synagogue. Sidney Eisenshtat, arch. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber (2007)

 Simi Valley, California. House of the Book.  Sidney Eisenshtat, arch., early 1970s.  Photo: Samuel D.Gruber (2002)
Simi Valley, California. House of the Book.  Sidney Eisenshtat, arch., early 1970s.  Photo: Samuel D.Gruber (2002)

Simi Valley, California. House of the Book.  Sidney Eisenshtat, architect, early 1970s.  Photo: Samuel D.Gruber (2002)
I'm looking at Eisenshtat's architecture again because I'm working on an essay about the iconography of the tent in synagogue decoration and design.   Eisenshtat's mastery of thin shell concrete construction allowed him to use the tent-form in El Paso, where the synagogue sits at the foot of its own "Mt. Sinai."  Certainly El Paso, Texas, was and is a far outpost in Jewish wanderings, what I have called in the past the "continuing exodus."

From the obituary:
Eisenshtat established an international reputation based on the expressive design of several synagogues built between the 1950s and 1970s. He designed his first major religious structure, Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, in 1951, in the first flush of a national reinvention of traditional synagogue design. Eight years later, he designed Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. In the early 1960s he designed the Reform Temple Mount Sinai in El Paso, Texas, where he was commissioned to create a space that was both functional and expressive. He achieved this by integrating simple dramatic forms into a harsh but beautiful desert landscape. The El Paso synagogue and later the House of the Book, a chapel and conference hall at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute, located in Simi Valley, were integrated into striking arid landscapes, in which they are set like large sculptural works.

Influenced by the work of Eric Mendelsohn, Eisenshtat became an expert in the use of the thin shell concrete for shaping space into expressive, often soaring forms. Like Mendelsohn, he created synagogues with white walls almost devoid of decoration, but that were highly expressive through the use of simple materials and abundant natural light. He did lavish some attention on the synagogue’s focal points — especially the Ark and windows. In El Paso, he designed the Ark as a giant open-frame tripod, set within the lofty concrete-shell tent-like sanctuary. Inside is an abstract bronze cabinet for the Torah scrolls; a bronze Eternal Light hangs above it. In other synagogues he included stained glass, mosaic, and sculpture, but these were always subservient to the overall architectural design. He favored large, airy rooms, though he could create moody interiors by carefully channeling light for dramatic effect. He has been described as an expressionist and as a minimalist.

In addition to synagogues, Eisenshtat designed several centers for the study of Jewish life, including the Hillel House at his alma mater, University of Southern California. He also designed the master plan for the University of Judaism in Bel-Air (1977). Perhaps in a nod to the more secular world of Hollywood Jews, Eisenshtat designed the Friars Club in Beverly Hills (1961, demolished), frequented by many of the great Jewish comedians of the era.
Los Angeles, CA. Sinai Temple. Sidney Eisenshtat, architect, 1960.  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2012
 
 Beverly Hills, CA. Temple Emanuel. Sidney Eisenshtat, arch., 1960.  Int. post-renovation. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2012
 
Beverly Hills, CA. Sinai Temple. Sidney Eisenshtat, arch., 1960.  Interior post-renovation. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2012

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