Saturday, September 13, 2014

USA: Remembering Artist Ben Shahn and Architect Max Abramovitz at Buffalo's Temple Beth Zion

 
Buffalo, NY. Temple Beth Zion.  Max Abramovitz, arch, and Ben Shahn, artist.  Photo: Paul Rocheleau

 Buffalo, NY. Temple Beth Zion.  Max Abramovitz, arch, and Ben Shahn, artist.  Photo: Paul Rocheleau 

 Buffalo, NY. Temple Beth Zion.  Max Abramovitz, arch, and Ben Shahn, artist.  Photo: Paul Rocheleau

 
Buffalo, NY. Temple Beth Zion.  Ben Shahn, artist.  Photo: Paul Rocheleau

USA: Remembering Artist Ben Shahn and Architect Max Abramovitz at Buffalo's Temple Beth Zion
by Samuel D. Gruber

Yesterday was a day shared by two Jewish titans of 20th century American art and architecture.  The artist Ben Shahn was born on September 12, in Kovno (Kaunas), Lithuania, and architect Max Abamovitz who was born in 1908, died on this day in 2004 in Pound Ridge, New York.

Both men had long and productive careers shaping their fields in the last century.  But they share something else; in the 1960s, shortly before Shahn's death in 1969, the two worked together to create Temple Beth Zion in Buffalo, New York.  The building is one of the era's most dramatically expressive synagogues.  I wrote about Beth Zion in my 2003 book American Synagogues: A Century of Architecture and Jewish Community, illustrated with fine photos by Paul Rocheleau.  In remembrance of Shahn and Abramovitz, and to make this masterpiece more widely known, I've included some of my book text here with many of Paul's photos.

Evanston, Il. Bnai Brith Hillel Fdtn, Northwestern University (demolished).  Max Abramovitz, architect, 1948-52.  Photo: Faith and Form (1976), p71

Abramovitz spent most of his career in professional partnership with Wallace Harrison (1895-1981) and the two were highly successful advocates of an elegant modernism in the post-war years, and they soon became favorite architects of the Rockefellers and many other institutional patrons.  Mostly, as designers, they worked independently and over time Abramovitz favored a most robust, expressive language with generous use of formed concrete.  As the Jewish partner, he was more drawn to Jewish communal and synagogue projects. The firm’s first buildings in this area were two Hillel Centers on university campuses in Evanston and Champaign, Illinois, designed as early as 1947 but not completed until 1951 and 1952.  When an undergraduate at Illinois in 1928, Abramovitz wrote a paper on synagogue architecture. (I have a copy - it is probably one of the first  synagogue projects to come out of an American university).

The Champaign Hillel design was published in Architectural Record in 1948, and the Hillels were very similar. They featured round-ended chapels surrounded by an arcade of reverse tapering columns, and a central open court around which meeting rooms and offices were placed. The chapels were small, though the Champaign building allowed for an expansion of the space for holiday seating.  These designs owe much to the overall configuration of parts laid out by Erich Mendelsohn at B’nai Amoona in St. Louis, but the style of the buildings is a cool clear modernism composed of simple shapes, clean lines and minimal decoration with any of the drama or emotionalism that Mendelsohn imparted to his sanctuary designs. The buildings were scaled to human use. Unfortunately, they were not built to withstand local weather conditions. The Center of Evanston was replaced by a new sturdier structure in the late 1990s.

Temple Beth Zion, Buffalo.  William Kent, architect, 1890. 

 Temple Beth Zion, Buffalo.  Max Abramovitz, architect.  Photo: Paul Rocheleau

  Temple Beth Zion, Buffalo.  Max Abramovitz, architect.  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber (2002)

Later, when Max Abramovitz came to synagogue design in the 1960s, he created something quite different from his earlier work. Temple Beth Zion in Buffalo, though founded as an Orthodox congregation in 1850,  had allied itself with the Reform movement by 1863, and was a leading congregation in the Reform movement.  In Edward A. Kent had designed an imposing new synagogue for the congregation dedicated in September 1890. It was one of the first domed synagogues in North America and was in use until gutted by fire on October 4, 1961. 

Abramovitz designed a new synagogue center, built just a short distance up Delaware Avenue which was dedicated in 1967. Over the decades, the 1891 synagogue had been enlarged with classrooms and other facilities so that at the time of its destruction, it formed a substantial complex. The rebuilding attempted to recreate this mix if uses through a unified integrated design.  The unusually shaped exterior of the sanctuary is fortress like and somewhat off-putting, but inside Abramovitz created an expressive masterpiece, one of the few fully uplifting emotional responses to architectural modernism in America, and his best work in concrete.

Temple Beth Zion, Buffalo, interior.  William Kent, architect, 1890.

Buffalo, NY. Temple Beth Zion, view from bimah to main entrance.  Max Abramovitz, arch, and Ben Shahn, artist.  Photo: Paul Rocheleau 
 
The building, which in the words of a contemporary critic appeared “at once ascetic and Baroque.” In its underlying humanism the building stands in stark contrast to many contemporary Brutalist-style buildings of the period that use similar materials.  While the brush hammered concrete of the synagogue is closer to the rough surfaces of Paul Rudolph’s buildings than to the smooth, grainy concrete forms of Louis Kahn, overall, the expressive use of the material has its closest sources in contemporary European religious structures such as Le Corbusier’s Chapel Notre-Dame-du-Haut at Ronchamp (1951-55) and Giovanni Michelucci’s church of Church of S. Giovanni off the Autostrada del Sole (1962), near Florence, Italy.

From the outside, the building appears bowl-shaped. The impenetrable Alabama limestone walls flare outward as they rise, and are shaped with ten scallops per side. The main entrance is from Delaware Avenue, though today, it is more common to enter the sanctuary from behind the Ark, through a lobby that joins the space to the larger synagogue-center. Above both of these entrances are large stained glass windows, each an inverted wedge that creates a break in the sanctuary’s solid shell.

Buffalo, NY. Temple Beth Zion. Entrance stained glass of 150th Psalm.  Ben Shahn, artist.  Photo: Paul Rocheleau.

The Delaware Avenue entrance is through a low doorway under one of the large windows and a projecting flat concrete slab canopy supported by two concrete columns, which taper from top to bottom (a device Abramovitz used earlier in the Northwestern University Hillel in Evanston). The austere entrance and severe solid exterior walls do not bode well for the worshipers’ experience. The stained glass -- the closest thing to a façade on the building -- was designed by Ben Shahn and depicts, through colored calligraphy, the 150th Psalm, which was sung at the dedication of the first Temple on Delaware Avenue in 1890, and was a favorite theme for Ben Shahn.

Hallelujah.
Praise God in His sanctuary;
praise Him in the sky , His stronghold.
Praise Him for His mighty acts;
praise Him for His exceeding greatness.
Praise Him with blasts of the horn;
praise Him with harp and lyre.
Praise Him with timbrel and dance;
praise Him with lute and pipe.
Praise Him with resounding cymbals;
praise Him with loud-clashing cymbals.
Let all that breathes praise the Lord.
Hallelujah.

The colorful composition is remarkable in many ways, but unfortunately, when not lit from within, it is hard to read from the outside – and appears more as a black void than as an instructive and celebratory artwork. Inside, the window is divided by the landing of the stairway to the balcony, thus it cannot be seen in its entirety.

Buffalo, NY. Temple Beth Zion.  Max Abramovitz, arch, and Ben Shahn, artist.  Photo: Paul Rocheleau

 Buffalo, NY. Temple Beth Zion.  Max Abramovitz, arch, and Ben Shahn, artist.  Photo: Paul Rocheleau

Moving from the cramped vestibule through low doors, one enters the sanctuary where the ceiling rises to a height of 62 feet. It appears to hover, suspended as a taut canopy stretched across the bowl of the worship space. The edges of the ceiling are not flush with the walls. Light from hidden skylights filters through the open spaces, falling along the sloping walls to reveal a range of soft earthy colors in the rough concrete. A big balcony sweeps from the back of the sanctuary all the way to the ark, where it meets two 30-foot tall concrete pylons flanking the ark, holding them in a pincer-like embrace. These massive towers, which in fact are enormous upright concrete slabs, splay out across the bimah to stand as sentinels guarding the ark. Upon them are inlaid with mosaic tile huge Hebrew letters designed by Ben Shahn, representing the Ten Commandments, the essential words of Jewish law.  

The towers serve to frame the synagogue’s second huge stained glass window, set behind the ark. Like the front façade widow, this I also designed by Ben Shahn as a large inverted wedge. It represents in symbolic form, and with his famous calligraphic technique, the story of Creation. Looking closely, one can discern a huge upturned hand that molds primordial chaos, and the passage from Job 38: 4-7, which gives architectural expression to the creation of the universe to the building captions the scene.  
 
Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations?
Speak if you have understanding.
Do you know who fixed its dimensions
Or who measured it with a line?
Onto what were its bases sunk?
Who set it cornerstone
When the morning stars stand together
And all the divine beings shouted for joy? 

 As if illuminated by the colored light from the Creation window, a large glass and brass menorah shines on the bimah, and a simple multi-faced eternal light is suspended from above. As already mentioned, many people enter the sanctuary from behind the ark, utilizing parking facilities and the synagogue center complex which includes a museum, social hall, classrooms, offices, and other public spaces and encounter Abramovitz’s design somewhat in reverse. However, this process was understood from the start, and the walk behind the ark and to the prayer hall is made much more dramatic than from the formal entrance. One passes through a narrow defile, squeezed between massive concrete walls. Looking up, the shapes of walls, window and ark towers veer away. Light filters through the stained glass, from an ocular skylight above the ark, and from above the ceiling. The effect of this passage from profane to sacred space is magical and almost mystical in its effect.

 
Buffalo, NY. Temple Beth Zion, Menorah.  Ben Shahn, artist.  Photo: Paul Rocheleau

In contrast to the expressive and awe-inspiring qualities of the sanctuary, Abramovitz also designed a smaller chapel.  This appealing room is simpler and subtler, and exercise in modernist right angles and restraint. I think Gordon Bunshaft, the great rationalist of Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill, who grew up attending the older William Kent synagogue, would have preferred this space.

 Buffalo, NY. Temple Beth Zion chapel. Photo: Paul Rocheleau

 See also:

“Temple’s Slanting Walls Create an upwardly Directed Symbolic Form,” Architectural Record (March 1968), 133.


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