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Location: Flemington, New Jersey
Client: National Endowment for the Arts
Awards: Public Works Competition First Pirze Project
Principal in charge: Robert Levit in partnership with Craig Scott and Lisa Iwamoto as L/IS Levit Iwamoto Scott
Team: Grace Ahn, Al Weisz
In preparing this competition entry for the Flemington Jewish Community Center it struck us that the tradition of architecture for the synagogue, rich as it is, has some rather cautionary qualities. It is the site of prayer that does not want its architecture to become the subject of worship.
The ambivalence of synagogue architecture towards the forms of its own incarnation further complicates the Jewish community center’s mixture of heterogeneous programs. Combined with the explicitly religious aspect of the synagogue sanctuary are programmatic elements of very diverse natures. The community center is secular in its mission, while the school, though certainly a traditional part of religious training, houses activities of a very different nature from the services of the sanctuary.
Our own position regarding the expression and character of the building’s diverse constitution finds virtue in an equivocal representation of the relation of the parts. We have allowed for the synagogue proper to rise up in monumental figure at the same time that it seems to subside back into the continuities of form that wind their way back through the social hall and slope down into the school wing. The simultaneous proposition of a sacred monumentality and its mute descent into a more diffuse body reflects the inherent ambivalence of the institution toward its architecture. The work tries to hold in balance the desire to ‘ennoble’ the synagogue and its congregation through the figure of architecture while recognizing the Jewish suspicion that an importune idolatry is lurking in the shadows of architecture’s beautiful ‘forms in light’.
The geminate split between the secular and religious parts of the building is reflected in underlying twinning of the building’s form. The lobby of the synagogue stretches a surface out and into the school and community center wing of the building and suggests that this lower wing rises to a head that is paired with the tall volume of the synagogue’s sacred space. The latent orders is suggested in diagrams that propose multiple histories for the forms of the synagogue. Formerly monumental figures split, twin, ultimately re-join and wind through each other.
Further to the quandaries that belong directly to the institution of the Jewish community center are more generic ones that characterize the modern motor city. The competition between street address—the site of older symbolic proprieties—and the reality of the automobile bringing people through parking lots to public institutions plays a large role in the issues present in the Flemington Jewish Community Center. The twinned volumes of lobby and synagogue face in the direction of the two competing addresses. While the ‘true’ entrance to both school and synagogue is from the parking lot through an allée of trees that together with southern face of the community center form the institution’s main façade.
With the latent—if tangled–typological order that looms within the figure of the building, there is also a ‘landscape’ of luminous glass courtyards and skylights that drift through the building creating a repetitious pattern that moves with impunity through building’s secular and religious figures. Landscape itself penetrates—through the courtyards—the integrity of the building itself, countering the closed shape of the building with a pattern linked to the illimitable world beyond. Movement through the building requires passage through ‘bridges’ that pass through the exterior courtyards riddling the building.
The inclination against an explicitly iconographic program for the synagogue translated into a strategy that held within a mute envelope of walls the hidden discovery of a glowing interior within the sanctuary space. The discovery of light—sunlight or artificial from within the ceiling of the synagogue draws upon that tradition that brings forth the un-nameable presence of God through light eschewing more explicit evocations of religion.