Addition to Louis Kahn's Synagogue Draws Criticism

Louis
Kahn's Temple Beth El, Chappaqua, N.Y., in August 2010

Credit: Scott Benedict

 

This summer, an Italian couple interested in Louis Kahn, the late Philadelphia architect celebrated for a poetic style of modernism inspired by ancient ruins, traveled to the United States to see some of his acclaimed buildings. The couple toured the Salk Institute in La Jolla, Calif., and the Phillips Exeter Academy library in New Hampshire. But it was a visit to one of Kahn's most obscure designs, Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester, in Chappaqua, N.Y., that led to a surprising discovery.

The couple learned that construction was about to begin on an addition to the temple and wondered how sympathetic the project would be to Kahn’s original design. Later, upon visiting the University of Pennsylvania's architectural archives, home to Kahn's papers, the two travelers told William Whitaker, the archives manager, about their trip. "There's something strange happening at Beth El," Whitaker remembers the couple saying.

Which is how a pair of Italian tourists sparked an inquiry into the fate of Beth El, the only surviving synagogue of Kahn's, leading some influential scholars and architects to conclude that the integrity of its design has already been irreparably damaged.

Kahn was commissioned to design Beth El in 1966, and six years later he produced a 20,000-square-foot octagonal structure sheathed in spruce for $1.25 million. "Modest it may be, but it is also quite beautiful," Rabbi Chaim Stern wrote in a letter to the editor of The New York Times in 1996. "The sanctuary is a masterpiece of simplicity, where space and light create a serene environment, a place where the spirit may rest and soar."

Kahn designed Beth El to accommodate about 400 families, but that number has grown to about 700 today, which is why the temple's leaders decided to build a 23,000-square-foot addition to house classroom and event space. They commissioned New York-based architect Alexander Gorlin for the project, says Elise Wagner, co-chair of the temple's building committee, because he taught classes about Kahn at Yale University for more than a decade.

Gorlin's renderings of the addition depict a square building with a central, open-air courtyard—the design apparently meant to evoke a European village like the one in Estonia where Kahn was born. In an e-mail, Gorlin writes that eight original Kahn sketches, not yet released to the public, were recently discovered in the temple's attic. The drawings support his concept for the addition, he says: "I believe our design was in the spirit of [Kahn's] original intent, which was a more layered, spatial composition."

Gorlin's plans also show a new glass entry hall that serves both the existing temple and the addition, replacing Kahn's original concrete entry pavilion. Workers have started demolishing that part of the structure, which was simply too small to function effectively, Wagner says. “We concluded it was a necessary change that did not disturb the integrity of the building.”  

Whitaker and other Kahn scholars disagree. “How one enters a Lou Kahn building is one of the most significant acts in understanding his architecture,” Whitaker says. Kahn often designed the entrances to his buildings in subtle fashion, creating an air of mystique for visitors as they approached. The temple's entry hall gave worshippers the chance to prepare themselves to enter sacred space, serving as a kind of gateway between outside world and inner sanctum.

"What's been lost is a vital part of Kahn's concept," says David De Long, emeritus professor of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania and co-author of a book on Kahn's work.

New York architect James Polshek, who restored Kahn's Art Gallery at Yale University, finds the renderings "extraordinarily mediocre," saying that the proposed addition will do "more to destroy the integrity of Kahn's building than the removal of the entryway." Polshek, design counsel to Ennead Architects and founder of Polshek Partnership Architects, cites such projects as Renzo Piano's addition to the Morgan Library & Musuem in New York as examples of how new construction can be elegantly integrated with historic buildings while maintaining the integrity of the original designs.

Polshek and others have urged the temple's leaders to postpone the project and seek further input from Kahn scholars and others who could help revise the renderings. But Elise Wagner says her colleagues disagree with the criticism of Gorlin's plans and have no reason to reconsider them: "We think that Alex's design is the most respectful it could be."

Critics also worry about minor work the temple's leaders have planned for the original sanctuary, including the potential removal of lighting that Whitaker says was part of Kahn's design. Perhaps more important, they resent the implication, suggested by some observers, that preserving the integrity of Temple El's design is less critical because it isn't one of Kahn's major works. "It's sort of like saying a building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright isn't worth saving because it isn't the Guggenheim," says David De Long.

For him, Temple El represents an important example of the architect's later work that helps illustrate his progression as an artist. De Long suggests that an organization be formed to protect Kahn's work, similar to the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, which closely watches over all the structures designed by Wright, educating owners about their historic significance and offering guidance during restoration projects.

In coming years, De Long says, "People will look back at Beth El and ask how [the project] was allowed to go forward."

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