Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Werner Seligmann's Modern Synagogues

Werner Seligmann's Modern Synagogues
by Samuel D. Gruber

Architect Bruce Coleman will lecture on Sunday, May 20, about the work of the late Werner Seligmann.

Cortland, NY. Temple Brith Shalom. Approach to entrance. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber

Cortland, NY. Temple Brith Shalom. Entrance with sanctuary block on left. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber

Cortland, NY. Temple Brith Shalom. Entrance. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber

Seligmann (1930-1998) is arguably Central New York’s best known modern architect.  As a practicing architect, influential teacher and a Dean of Syracuse University’s School of Architecture, he put his stamp on New York State design, and shaped the architectural aesthetic of several generations of architectural students and professionals.

Born in Osnabrück, Germany, Seligmann spent the latter part of World War II in a concentration camp; unfortunately his mother and sister did not survive the camps. After the war he was sent to the US to live with relatives in Groton New York, beginning his long association with Central New York.   I wrote about the Cortland synagogue in my book American Synagogues: A Century of Architecture and Jewish Community (New York: Rizzoli, 2003). The following text is adapted from that book:
Seligmann created several synagogue designs in the 1960s that were custom-made for the unique characteristics of the congregations they served. In Binghamton, New York, he built the Orthodox Beth David synagogue, a thoroughly modern structure that combined traditional arrangements, such as the placing the 400-seat sanctuary on a second floor, and the inclusion of a small courtyard, with the use of raw inexpensive materials such as exposed block and concrete for expressive purpose. The plan is remarkable in that it created a substrata of functional spaces which serve as a foundation for the much smaller upper-level prayer hall, as well as an open area for communal gathering. The result, in miniature scale is like the artificial Mount in Jerusalem upon which perched the Temple. The rationale for this arrangement is the same Talmudic passage cited in reference to Congregation Sons of Israel.
Cortland, NY. Temple Brith Shalom. Multi-purpose space. Photo: Paul Rocheleau

Cortland, NY. Temple Brith Shalom. View from multi-purpose space into sanctuary. Samuel D. Gruber

Cortland, NY. Temple Brith Shalom. Sanctuary. Photo: Paul Rocheleau
Cortland, NY. Temple Brith Shalom. Sanctuary. Photo: Paul Rocheleau

Cortland, NY. Temple Brith Shalom. Aron-ha-Kodesh. Photo: Paul Rocheleau

Nearby, in the town of Cortland where he lived, (about a half hour south of Syracuse, and a half hour east of Ithaca), Seligmann received another commission for the even smaller Temple Brith Shalom, a nominally Conservative synagogue dedicated in 1969. Like Beth David, the project is a modest urban building on a small lot that is built to maintain local scale. The building is very private, however, and mostly looks in upon itself, in the manner of many small town European synagogues, especially those from Seligmann’s native Germany. The entrance to the low brick complex is off a parking lot set back from the street. Though the synagogue takes a defensive posture, the publicly presented corner offers a tantalizing mix of shapes and lines. Like the Binghamton synagogue, there is a small courtyard that creates a transitional mood.

The Cortland congregation, which consists of between thirty and forty families, is non-hierarchic and for most of its existence it has not had a permanent rabbi or cantor. The building reflects this – inside, all the spaces are united, though sliding panels can subdivide the space to isolate the small sanctuary. This space has a special purity. At first it appears simply boxlike, but shifts of floor level, lighting and symmetry subtly charge the space with quiet energy. The low ceiling of the central all-purpose hall through which one must pass, creates a pressure that gives way in the sanctuary, where the floor slopes away and the ceiling rises.

The contemporary theatrics of Yamasaki (Glencoe, Bloomfield Hills) or Abramowitz (Buffalo) are nowhere to be seen. Instead, an upward sloping ceiling with a skylight and the nearly square white ark wall that seems to float on a frame of light, are enough. The sanctuary has only six rows of pews, but it can be extended into the social area from which one looks out through a glass wall to a sheltered garden .

This project was one that Werner Seligmann remained attached throughout his life. His wife’s family had been among the founders of the original Cortland community, and he lived in Cortland for over thirty years. At Brith Shalom, Seligmann created a little known, but emblematic, statement of the balance between religion and community, modernism and tradition. Significantly, it is this same symbiosis that would dominate synagogue design at the end of the century, when many of the grand architectural statement of the post-war generation will seem obsolete.
On the Binghamton synagogue see also: “Synagogue Design: Forging an Aesthetic unbound by tradition,” in Progressive Architecture (March 1966), 146-150.