Binghamton, NY. Beth David. One of two concrete columns at entrance to front courtyard. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015
USA: Modern Orthodox / Orthodox Modernism I,: Beth David in Binghamton, NY
by Samuel D. Gruber
When I stayed over in the Binghamton, New York, the other week, I had an opportunity to attend early morning services at the Orthodox Congregation Beth David. This small building has long been known by religious architecture cognoscenti as a masterwork of modern design; an example of Orthodox Modernism for the Modern Orthodox. Designed as a light box perched atop a heavy base; the small building is full of big ideas. In its creation of a welcoming unified space Beth David is a forerunner of the many small sanctuaries built since the 1990s that strive for "intimacy" and to create "community." Since it was designed for a small Orthodox congregation the sanctuary dimensions hardly exceed those used for chapels at the some of the large suburban synagogues also built in the 1960s.
The small building, set on an urban corner, was designed by Werner Seligmann and dedicated in February, 1964, at the time when Seligmann was teaching architecture at Cornell University. The budget was less than $200,000 and the building lot is only 80 x 120 feet. Seligmann managed to pack a lot into this space and to accommodate the needs an Orthodox congregation, including two kitchens, mikvah, and places for congregants to store books and tallit, and also a well-designed hand washing station near the social hall.
Seligmann would later design the synagogue in nearby Cortland, New York, where he lived, and go on to be Dean of the School of Architecture at Syracuse University (where I knew him slightly in his later years). The scale of Beth David fits in the neighborhood of late 19th and early 20th-century wood frame houses, but the style is distinct. Constructed mostly of poured concrete and concrete block (polished on the inside) Beth David is a superb example of how urban contextualism does not require stylistic imitation, but rather a sympathy for scale and massing.
As Seligmann's colleague Bruce Coleman has pointed out, Beth David has roots in the work of both Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright. The building was, still unfinished, selected for inclusion in the seminal 1963 Jewish Museum exhibition on new synagogue design curated by Richard Meier. Seligmann and Beth David also won a Progressive Architecture citation for religious architecture that same year. In his remarks about the project included in the exhibition catalog, Seligmann quoted Corbusier on form. The sanctuary design, however, especially recalls Wright's work (Unity Temple and even some early house designs. Susan Solomon, in her book Louis I. Kahn's Jewish Architecture (Walthan, Ma: Brandeis univ Press, 2009), offers an enthusiastic appreciation of Beth David and also links it to Louis Kahn's designs.
"...Hierarchy was quite clearly a problem. There was not enough room on the site to organize the whole axially with the sanctuary as the center, but it was possible to contrast the sanctuary to the other functions. Isolation is a powerful way to create hierarchical significance. This was all possible in the design of the Beth David Synagogue by moving the sanctuary to the roof top. ...By form I do not refer to shape, but to the ideas organizing it, just as we talk of form in poetry or music. Form in this sense is a matter of the mind, it is a way in which knowledge is made manifest. Architecture speaks primarily through its form and, as Le Corbusier says, "it will strike a chord in us, when form has been sparked by poetic emotion. Passion creates drama out of inert stone."Interestingly, Seligmann makes no reference to the Talmudic recommendation that synagogues be located high up, nor does he refer to the tradition of upper story sanctuaries in Germany, his own country of origin (which he may not have know) and Italy (which he probably did). Nonetheless, the experience of reaching the sanctuary is one of "going up" (aliyah).
The morning was overcast when I visited, but still the sanctuary glowed with light which entered form every side. The sanctuary reminds me of the bridge of ship, one can look out all sides. For the separation of men and women Seligmann and the congregation eschewed the use of a gallery (which would have made the building that much higher). Instead the women's seating in included in the broad space of the sanctuary, but set slightly higher and to the side, and they face inward.
Binghamton, NY. Beth David. Bimah. Some new rails have been added for the safety of the congregation's aging members. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015
A more common version of this plan, a favorite of mine for Orthodox shuls, was used very effectively in the early 20th century at Philadelphia's Mikveh Israel designed by Tachau and Pilcher and dedicated in 1909. More contemporary with Seligmann's work is the Sons of Israel Synagogue in Lakewood, New Jersey, designed by Davis, Brody and Wisniewski and also included in the Jewish Museum exhibit. Seligmann would surely have known the early design from Rachel Wischnitzer's 1955 book Synagogue Architecture in the United States, and he was probably aware of the the Lakewood synagogue, too. Both these plans, however, have all the men's seating facing center as in traditional Sephardi and early American synagogue designs. Seligmann and the Beth David Congregation mix things up a bit; they use this plan and have facing seats near the bimah, but behind are seats facing front in a more common Ashkenazi fashion.Significantly, there is no mechitza in front of the women's seating and today it is practice to bring the Torah to the women when it is carried throughout the sanctuary.
Lakewood, NJ. Congregation Sons of Israel. Davis, Brody, Wisniewski, archs. Women's seating is off the edges of the photo behind a mechitza. Photo: Recent American Synagogue Architecture (NY: Jewish Museum, 1963)
The ground floor consists of a central flowing social area, from which other functional space open. There is a hallway to the small daily chapel on the corner of the lot, and to classrooms. A curved stair leads to the second floor.
Probably the most used space at Beth David is the small tall chapel set on the corner of the lot, where as a block-like tower it guards the intersection of the two streets. This space is used for daily prayers. It incorporates the Ark and a stained glass window of lions flanking an open book with the Ten Commandments, which were transferred from the congregation's previous home. The ceiling seems to float on a frame of natural light which filters into the space. The reader's table is a permanent fixture made of a cast column of concrete. Similar but taller columns flank the main entrance to the synagogue courtyard.
Modest changes over the decades accommodate the needs of an aging congregation (shallow front steps changed to ramp, new horizontal rails on the bimah), and a few additions that are less sympathetic (air conditioning fixtures on the roof, and an ornate front door at odds with the modern style). In addition, wood beams have been placed across the front courtyard to allow the seasonal erection of a sukkah.Despite these changes, the building conveys most of the spatial and visual experience as intended and the small congregation appears to maintain much of its original spirit, too.
You can read the history of the congregation here.