Friday, August 14, 2015

Erich Mendelsohn: synagogue architecture — an expression of purpose

Erich Mendelsohn, architect, (1887–1953).
Temple Emanuel, Grand Rapids, Michigan, (1948–1952).
View from the southeast. The automobile canopy was added sometime later. Photography by versluis unless otherwise indicated, ©2015.

Temple Emanuel in Grand Rapids, Michigan was one of the last buildings designed by one of the great twentieth century architects, Erich Mendelsohn. A distinguishing feature is how the architect situated the building to take advantage of a southern exposure so that generous light fills the interior space. Inundating the sanctuary with light becomes a celebration of life. As stated in Temple Emanuel’s website: “He [Mendelsohn] visualized a different approach when designing our synagogue. The tall clerestory windows high in the sanctuary allow natural light to flow in, and the movable walls permit us to divide the space as needed.”

The site rests on a gentle rise, which is elevated from the street level. The rhythms and proportions of architectural forms result in a building that harmonizes beautifully with the relative horizontal flatness of the site and verticality and energy of the trees.

Writer Arnold Whittick, in his piece about Mendelsohn for the Encyclopedia of Modern Architecture states that: “Mendelsohn’s work was characterized by a sympathetic and original use of materials, steel, concrete and glass, and by an expression of purpose through the forms of his building, .... His designs were always actuated by the principles of organic unity, so that each part by its character denotes it relation to the whole, and each building is closely wedded to its site.” (1)

  1. Whittick, Arnold. “Mendelsohn.” Encyclopedia of Modern Architecture. Ed. Gerd Hatje. 1964. 183-86. Print.

The 1000 sq. ft. sanctuary wall mural that celebrates Light of Creation (recently restored) is the work of Lucienne Bloch Dimitroff (1909–1999), 1953. Casein paint on plywood panels. The mural creates a wonderful golden glow in both daylight and with artificial lighting. Photograph courtesy of The Conservation Center, Chicago. 

View from the southeast and taken through the garden courtyard.

Calvin Albert (1918–2007), “The Burning Bush,” Bronze, 1973.
The sculpture is located between the front entry doors.

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