Happy Birthday Percival Goodman (1904-1989)!
by Samuel D. Gruber
I first wrote about the synagogue architecture of Percival Goodman more than a decade ago, but only recently realized we share a birthday. Here are some observations about Goodman's life and work adapted from a much longer keynote presentation given at Temple Beth El, Springfield, MA , on October 27, 2013 as part of a symposium on Goodman, Beth El and modern synagogue design.
Although I've visited about a dozen of Goodman's synagogues - including some of his best - there are dozens more I know only from drawings and photos. Fortunately, Goodman's synagogues have worn well and most continue in use today - often more than a half century after their design and construction - so I'll probably still get to see them in my travels.
Percival Goodman, who died in 1989, is one of the least-known best American architects of the 20th century. He was a technical master in design and drawing, and a visionary and seeker in his quest for knowledge and understanding of the built world and human condition. Goodman taught a generation of post-World War II architects at Columbia University from 1946 to 1971, and even while he was strong advocate of modern design, he also championed a more humane city and search for architectural and urban form to best serve the most people.
In his lifetime, Goodman became the most prolific synagogue designer in history (though the commissions of more recent architects such as the Levin Brown have surpassed him in number, but not in originality). But there is some irony in the fact that many, perhaps most, of Goodman’s synagogues were erected in the post-war suburbs that were antithetical to much of his thinking about community and society. Goodman himself sounded less than happy with his fate as master synagogue architect (as opposed to master architect) when in 1957 he described – only in part tongue-in-cheek – the “essential” aspects of modern synagogue design – the program that every architect needed to contend with:
“It is an auditorium used for a certain kind of spectacle or pageant. The congregant is spectator more than participant as is indicated by the proscenium theater type of seating and platform. The seating is divided by a center aisle and broad steps lead to the platform, these being primarily required for weddings and funerals. As the congregation is passive, the musical parts of the service depend on paid choristers; a concealed choir is the general rule. ..at the platform the Ark is central, over it an electric fixture of special design. This will be flanked by prominently located chairs for the officiants. There will be sometimes one, sometimes two lecterns for preaching and reading…The hall is well lit for each follows what he can of the service in his prayer book. Good acoustics for the spoken voice are essential as the sermon is generally the main feature of the service. A public address system is always provided to avoid undue strain on the speaker and guarantee an easy presentation…we need air-conditioning and elaborate temperature controls. Similarly, foam rubber cushioning on seats is required. There are other requirements which, though minor, are indicative. These center around the effortless and, so to speak, professional quality of the service…The essence of the mechanical refinements is to create a service which moves with the smoothness of a television program." [Myron Shoen and Eugene Lipman, eds., Proceedings of the Second National Conference and Exhibition on Synagogue Architecture and Art (New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1958)].Goodman strove to overcome the inherent restrictions in the mid-century program, sometimes with more success; sometimes with less. He was not one to create the same design twice.
Goodman’s early independence - he was already paying his rooming house fees from his wages at age thirteen – instilled in him a drive and work ethic, and quest for experience and knowledge, that continued throughout his life. In the trajectory of Goodman's work in the 1920s and 1930s – from the design of functional tenements and offices to more elaborate Beaux-Arts design, to modernism, we can see the rapid developments in American architectural practice and taste. But the Great Depression stalled and then stopped his architectural rise, and during World War II, when he was designing camouflage for factories and trains it seemed his architectural career was over.
Goodman did many things very well, and was an inspirational teacher and mentor. After the war was able to reinvent himself, in part through writing, with his younger brother the New Left philosopher Paul Goodman, with whom he published Communitas in 1947; and through teaching, first at NYU in 1945, and then at Columbia, where he continued to teach three afternoons a week until 1971.
It was in these years – the 1940s - that Goodman also was drawn to Judaism, the religion into which he had been born but had had little training and for which he previously had little use. The trauma of the Holocaust affected him personally, while aesthetic and architectural possibilities within American Judaism attracted him professionally. Goodman already was familiar with Jewish clients – first those of his uncle, Benjamin Levitan, in whose office he had first worked a boy and then his own many Jewish clients when he was engaged in commercial and residential architecture in the 1920s and 30s. In 1948, however, Goodman received his first commission for a synagogue, and in 1949 he was also working on a design for a Holocaust monument for Riverside Park, and engaged to adapt the former Warburg Mansion into New York’s Jewish Museum.
Goodman knew that it takes more than a building to animate Judaism. It really works the other way around. Goodman recalled the dedication of one of his synagogues in Cleveland: “Rabbi Brickner, the rabbi of the congregation, and I were looking at the sanctuary and he said “What’s missing from this place?” And I looked around and I said, Well what’s missing from this place, is the Shekinah – is God’s presence.” The awareness of his only religious doubts, and his simultaneous recognition of the possibilities of religion was what made Goodman the most articulate and visible proponent of a new type and style of synagogue for post-War era.
It was in part his interest in expressing community through architectural language, and his reaction to the Holocaust, that led Goodman to synagogue design. He famously said the he was “an agnostic who was converted by Hitler.” But a series of fortuitous events helped his progress. In June 1947, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations sponsored a two-day symposium in New York City to address the increasingly pressing needs for new synagogue construction in the post-war period. Few synagogues had been built since the onset of the Great Depression, and the pent up demand for new synagogues, especially in new suburban neighborhoods rising to serve returning GIs and their new families, offered a challenge and an opportunity. Changing demographics, coupled with new urban policies (or perhaps I should say anti-urban policies ) were working against reinvestment in older Jewish neighborhoods. Increasingly, congregational leaders as well young families were settling in new areas, and it wasn’t long before the leaders persuaded their congregations to follow suit.
“An American Synagogue for Today and Tomorrow” provided a forum for architects, artists, rabbis, and officials of Reform Judaism to share ideas for what a modern synagogue should look like, how it should function, and what resources were available for its construction. The symposium followed an article in Commentary Magazine by architectural historian Rachel Wischnitzer, “The Problem of Synagogue Architecture.” Goodman, along with art historian Franz Landsberger of Hebrew Union College, and architects Erich Mendelsohn and Eli Jacques Kahn (not to be confused with other leading architects of the same name – Albert Kahn and Louis Kahn) were invited to respond.
Goodman addressed the New York symposium on the topic “The Holiness of Beauty,” and made a great impression. His talk and subsequent interviews led directly to at least three commissions – for Baltimore Hebrew Congregation; Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn, New Jersey; and Beth Israel in Lima, Ohio. Shortly after, he was hired by Rabbi William G. Braude to design a new synagogue for Temple Beth El of Providence, Rhode Island, which settled on Goodman after a lengthy search and consultation process.
Goodman had been recommended by, among others, German émigré Stephen Kayser, curator of New York’s Jewish Museum, over Kayser's fellow émigrés Mendelsohn and Fritz Nathan. Goodman had recently renovated the Warburg Mansion for the Jewish Museum, and this gave him architectural yiches. That project, working with Kayser, allowed him to identify more as a Jew, and also to confront his own ignorance about the basic tenets and history of his religion. Art historian Meyer Schapiro, a medievalist who was a champion of New York modern art, also recommended his Columbia University colleague Goodman. Dynamic American-born, English speaking Goodman was able to best promote modernist ideas in the American Jewish community, and best embodied the new can-do post-War American Zeitgeist.
Though by 1950, Goodman was widely considered one the America’s leading synagogue and Jewish architects, he never presented himself as overtly religious in any sense. He said “I don’t have any notion of what God is all about; I’m very suspicious of the whole notion of God. Therefore I can only deal with men. Well that’s not as high an aspiration as God and therefore the work I do will always be secular.”
Goodman, because of his interest in community planning, was especially interested in finding ways for synagogues built anew to embody community values, and to inspire Jewish community life. Goodman was ready, like so many after World War II, to distance himself with passed – failed – solutions. He said “But you have to ask why? Why was it done in the first place? And then, why do it now?”
Synagogues needed to be noticeable, even striking and monumental. Because of his design experience, including work for retail establishments, Goodman saw that architecture could be a selling point for synagogues, too. Designs were aimed at Jews – those in the congregation, but also unaffiliated Jews. New buildings almost always increased congregational membership – at least for a while. But design was also aimed at Christians – formerly goyim, but now “gentiles”. Congregations wanted to make a good impression, and to live up to their new status – talked about increasing since the war years – as one of America’s three major religions.
Goodman said, “In one sense the synagogue represents for the Jewish community a thing that they can show to their Christian neighbors. In that sense of the public relations gesture, I have been able to convince them that they ought to use a good artist, not any old artist, because in the end the Christian community will learn that this is the good artist…The Christian community ultimately discovered that the artists that were employed to paint or sculpt for the building, in fact, were well-known people…all very hot-stuff for the Christian ladies’ clubs. And in a sense it’s been a very good propaganda device for the conversion of the heathen to modern art.”
Beginning in1949 and for more than two decades Goodman played a leading role in guiding the Architects Advisory Panel of the Union of Hebrew Congregations. The panel offered free services of architects on a consulting basis to congregations that needed help planning their projects. Free consulting could, of course, lead to paid commissions. The effects in synagogue design change were felt across all branches of American Judaism, and Goodman designed many synagogues for Conservative congregations. In the early 1950s simple straight-forward modernism was a form of architectural branding – and was as fresh as congregations hoped that their appeal to Jews would be. Subsequently the simple style became boring, and be the late 1950s more and more congregations and their architects – including Goodman – were adding some dramatic accents to their designs.
Southfield, MI. Congregation Shaarey Zedek.Percival Goodman, architect. Photo:Samuel D. Gruber 2007