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Reading, Storing and Parading the Book: Between tradition and modernity in the synagogue

Adler, Gerald (2020) Reading, Storing and Parading the Book: Between tradition and modernity in the synagogue. In: Anderson, Ross and Sternberg, Maximilian, eds. Modern Architecture and the Sacred: Religious legacies and spiritual renewal. Bloomsbury Visual Arts . Bloomsbury, London, UK and New York, USA, pp. 108-124. ISBN 978-1-350-09866-4. E-ISBN 978-1-350-09872-5. (The full text of this publication is not currently available from this repository. You may be able to access a copy if URLs are provided) (KAR id:84396)

The full text of this publication is not currently available from this repository. You may be able to access a copy if URLs are provided. (Contact us about this Publication)


The church, as a building, has had a privileged position amongst places of worship in architectural histories for so long dominated by Western thinking, to the extent that ‘spiritual space’ has come to be associated with Christian tropes of contemplation, religious service and community. The spirit of Modernism touched ecclesiastical architecture most profoundly, going far beyond superficialities of style as has largely been the case with the design of synagogues, mosques and other denominations’ places of worship and prayer.

The history of synagogue design since the Enlightenment offers fascinating parallels between tradition and modernity, and their expression in building. The paradox to be explored in this paper is the tendency towards architectural expression that mimics Christian forms within more reform-minded communities, as opposed to the continuation of traditional layouts that communicate a specific Jewish identity. Two historic moments in Britain are recalled, the late-nineteenth-century heyday of the synagogue mimicking the eclecticism of contemporaneous church buildings, and the mid-twentieth century, when Modernism in the guise of Brutalism produced two completely different synagogues at different ends of the tradition/modernity debate.

This paper will give an account of the contested natures of the bimah (the raised platform where the Torah scrolls are read) and the Ark (where they are stored), and their relationship that largely configures the synagogue. In Davies & Emmanuel’s West London Synagogue (Upper Berkley Street, London: 1869-70), for Nikolaus Pevsner, ‘one of the finest of Victorian synagogues’, the centralised bimah was unceremoniously moved from its central, and traditional, location beneath the ‘Greek Cross’ dome and fused with the raised platform on which the Ark sits. This a mere 27 years after its completion, in a move that coolly assimilates the interior with traditional patterns of church architecture, with the clergy removed to the far end, pre-liturgical reform, C of E style. In mid-twentieth century two synagogues were built close to each other in North London, both owing much in terms of form and materials to the prevailing Brutalism, but expressing quite opposite attitudes to tradition and assimilation. Heinz Reifenberg’s Belsize Square synagogue (1958) for an exiled German Reform community has the bimah upfront, sharing its raised platform with the Ark, whereas South Hampstead, for the orthodox United Synagogue, maintains the tradition of the central bimah, embedded within the congregation (Lyons Israel Ellis, 1962; though incorrectly attributed by Pevsner to one H.J. Georghiou).

This paper considers what the absence of a liturgical reform movement (in the architectural sense as it applied to Western Christian denominations in the twentieth century) has meant for synagogue layout.

Item Type: Book section
Uncontrolled keywords: architectural history; jewish studies; Victorian and Brutalist architecture; synagogue design
Subjects: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion
B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BM Judaism
N Visual Arts > NA Architecture
Divisions: Divisions > Division of Arts and Humanities > Kent School of Architecture and Planning
Depositing User: Gerald Adler
Date Deposited: 24 Nov 2020 07:42 UTC
Last Modified: 16 Feb 2021 14:16 UTC
Resource URI: (The current URI for this page, for reference purposes)

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