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