Hurva Synagogue

¿Kahn’s project versus Meltzer’s restoration?

"A painted horse is not a zebra," expressed once Louis I. Kahn. Were he alive today and regarding the new Hurva Synagogue, ¿would the celebrated American architect say those words once again if contemplating Nauhm Meltzer's restoration today?

Now that things have been clarified regarding certain misrepresentation y other historical aspects concerning the Hurva Synagogue, we may compare Kahn’s 1968 project with Meltzer’s 2003 restoration.

As it was presented in 1968, Kahn’s initial project had a great impact in Jerusalem, where many admired it and some were astonished because of its magnitude and symbolism.* The project was appreciated, but there were also objections. To build or not to build Kahn's Hurva that was the big question all along the 1970s. More than forty years were going to be necessary to have "the Ruin" restored, only in 2010.

Today the building has been completely restored, and if we considering Jerusalem’s difficult reality, then Meltzer has been responsible and sensitive in doing his job. Moreover, his restoration doesn’t diminish the great evocative character of Kahn’s design (developed 1968-1974). As it happens with Leonardo’s sketches showing temples that remained unbuilt, also Kahn’s Hurva Synagogue Project remains magnetic and powerful as a design.

It is perhaps of little use to make efforts in indicating which proposal is the best. The point is not some 'either this or that.' Besides, Kahn’s project and Meltzer’s restoration need to be contemplated each in its respective historical context. Clearly, each of the architects did the best he could and he did so under difficult conditions. Kahn envisioned what would have been an ideal synagogue; Meltzer was requested to build a real one, responding to communitarian needs.

It is noteworthy that when Kahn’s project was being developed the Hurva was itself literally in ruins and there were neither Great Synagogue of Jerusalem nor Israel Museum.

Unfolding extraordinary compositional creativity and symbolic daring, Kahn concieved in a single design what would have been a Great Synagogue of Jerusalem and Israel Museum at once. Kahn delineated a most important project, but one that if ever built would have needed to be dimensionally adjusted to the living conditions that characterize Jerusalem, otherwise would have entailed a major urban modification in the Old City.

The important principles that Kahn had considered along his career continue inspiring architects up to now. Especially his respectful approach to what he called "Beginnings" and the History of Architecture as such. Memory and poetry are fused in Kahn’s architectural configurations with vision and wisdom. And regarding the magnitude of the Hurva Synagoge Kahn projected, he probably would have adjusted it to the needs of the environment. For no other architect has ever been so interested in "what the building wants to be" as Kahn opportunely was. And, above all, Kahn’s Hurva would have had Monumentality.

The restored synagogue lacks of monumentality, yet it fits the always hypersensitive environment of Jerusalem. As Meltzer aptly notes, the old Hurva, with its neo-Byzantine typology, was a synagogue as there was no other in Jerusalem, not even in the whole Holy Land. That building even served as a model to other synagogues abroad (source).

Kahn’s design fused the achievements of Modern architecture with a poetical dimension that were not oblivious of the very origins of Hebrew architecture, which the Pennsylvania architect believed were in king Solomon’s Temple. It is probably because of all this that his Hurva Synagogue Project had become an architectural paradigm and keeps on being perceived as a prominent configuration. Besides, Kahn’s design is a remarkable example of inclusion (or what Robert Venturi used to call the "both-and" phenomenon).

Jerusalem is a city closely related to Tradition. With its Hurva Synagogue Project, Kahn had envisioned an architectural masterpiece, one somehow comparable to the Dome of the Rock. Jerusalem’s major Teddy Kollek opportunely expressed his satisfaction concerning Kahn’s project, yet he did not really encourage its construction.

The 21st-century followers of the 19th-century rabbis preferred to restore the synagogue, having it as their predecessors had built it in the past. No architecturally innovative temple has thus been built. They have just rebuilt “the Ruin” once again. The local needs, however, do not deprive Meltzer’s building of a certain global symbolism, although this is quite far from the one in Kahn’s proposal.

The building restored by Meltzer has modest dimensions and its decoration is austere. The architect from Jerusalem architect has proven to be sensitive about the history of the building and its environment. He did a subtle job.
Undoubtedly, Melter’s greatest achievement is to have finished with the insipid arch that during almost three decades served as a reminder of a ruined synagogue. And positive in this sense is the fact that the transitory arch erected in 1977 has finally been removed to give subsequently place to a built temple.

Kahn proposed and Meltzer reconstructed. Each in his own way has contributed to build Jerusalem. The History of Architecture is composed by facts, being these both projects and buildings. The history of the Hurva Synagogue is additionally significant in its own, and not only from an architectural viewpoint. Given the contrasting events which have marked its history and existence, the Hurva (as both concept and building) will always constitute a symbol of resonant significance.

* "The Evocative Character of Louis Kahn's Hurva Synagogue Project, 1967-1974," in: The Real and Ideal Jerusalem in Jewish, Christian and Islamic Art, ed. by Bianca Kühnel, 1998, pp. 245-53.

Additional resources
• Kahn, Order Is, 1960
Reinventing [?] Jerusalem, Documenta, 21.7.2011

• También en español: Ricca y su publicada tergiversación (8.7.11) y Sinagoga Hurva: ¿El proyecto de Kahn versus la restauración de Meltzer? (20.7.11).


1 said...

Meltzer's recreation is a facsimile, shortsighted and obfuscating. Granted, the solution from the 1970s is not necessarily applicable today, as there are other theories and other approaches. I would have loved to see what someone like Peter Zumtor or Frank Gehry would have done.

2 said...

I disagree with you #1. I love it. I think it's brilliant.

3 said...

Why to rebuild an 18th-century synagogue coming from a past full of pain and misfortune? Does this longing for the past add anything to one’s faith? I doubt it. The synagogue designed by Kahn is wonderful.