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The Jewish shul of architecture
By Esther Zandberg

Dozens of architects, historians and theoreticians of architecture from around the world will gather on 14-15 March 04  at Pennsylvania State University for a first discussion of its kind on "Architecture, Urbanism and the Jewish Subject."

In two weeks, the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam will host a first-of-its-kind exhibition on structures for Jewish institutions throughout the world entitled "Yibaneh! Jewish Identity in Contemporary Architecture" (yibaneh is Hebrew for "it shall be built"). These are only two of many examples of the rapidly growing interest in architecture and Judaism, in various combinations. It almost seems as though scientists are trying to crack the architectural genetic code and have now reached the point where they want to find the gene that is responsible for "Jewishness" in architecture.

Architect David Gissen, an assistant professor of architecture at Penn State and the organizer of next week's conference, rejects outright the concept of a Jewish gene. "In contrast to many previous studies," he says, "we will address `Jewishness' in architecture in discursive, not genetic, terms. I organized the conference after I discovered that no complex research approach exists for the "Jewish subject" in architecture, and because for us, Jews who are engaged in architecture, many issues in the field too often touch on our feeling of identity as Jews in problematic ways, which I wanted to consider."

Although the conference will deal with architecture in the Jewish context, Gissen says, "paradoxically, it will be critical toward anyone who claims to have discovered physical Jewish characteristics in the spatial surroundings, whether it's anti-Semitic or philo-Semitic motives that underlie the claim."

At the conference, he adds, "we will not ask what a Jewish space is, or whether such spaces exist, but will discuss why these questions have been asked during the past 500 years in architectural theory - from the Renaissance architect and philosopher Leon Battista Alberti to the contemporary architect and thinker Peter Eisenman."

Other topics to be addressed at the meeting are the connection between space, geography and certain architectural forms and the attainment of ideological and national goals - a subject that recently cropped up on the international architectural agenda in the wake of critical articles by the architect Eyal Weizman about the politics of Israeli architecture. Weizman, who will participate in the conference, believes that "the many events in this sphere show that young Jews who live abroad no longer accept the monopoly of the State of Israel over Judaism and are looking for a common identity that does not include within it Israel's policy in the territories."

Many Israeli architects and scholars who are studying and teaching abroad will attend the conference.

Buildings with identity

The exhibition in Amsterdam, which is scheduled to open on March 26, will be less critical and more visual than the Pennsylvania event. It will examine "new developments in the architecture of Jewish institutions and museums throughout the world and the role of architecture in constructing Jewish identity," according to the curator of the exhibition, Edward van Voolen. In the past, he notes, the purpose of these institutions was rarely manifested in their exterior design, and they were assimilated into the urban landscape. However, in the past decade this situation has changed completely, van Voolen says, and many Jewish institutions are now recognizable by their unusual exteriors and are attracting attention - as well as large numbers of visitors.

A striking trend is the choice of leading figures who are on the cutting edge of contemporary architecture to design Jewish institutions. Their work and their personality alike are generating intense interest and debate in the international arena "and are drawing attention to their existence and to the Jewish subject," van Voolen observes. He believes that the current architectural boldness is "visual testimony of the confidence that Jews feel in their self-identity and in their renewed central place in culture."

He is also aware of the verbal connection in Hebrew between the word "yibaneh," which is part of the title of the exhibition, and the building of the Temple, and views the new institutions as having "something of the Temple" about them.

The new architectural trend is highly visible in Europe and especially in Germany, van Voolen says. In the decade following the fall of the Communist bloc, there was a considerable increase in the number of Jewish communities, because of Jewish immigration from the former Soviet Union. This has led to the construction of dozens of new structures for Jewish institutions, including synagogues, schools, community centers and museums. The new trend had its inception with the Jewish Museum in Berlin, designed by the architect Daniel Libeskind, who set a precedent for the use of unusual architecture in planning public structures that have Jewish content.

The Amsterdam exhibition shows 16 structures that were built since the beginning of the 1990s in Germany, Austria and Holland, as well as in the United States and Israel, most of which feature a sculptural design. They include the Jewish school in Berlin and the Jewish Cultural Center in Duisburg, Germany, designed by Zvi Hecker; Temple Kol Ami in Scottsdale, Arizona, designed by Will Bruder; the planned Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem, designed by Frank Gehry; the new museum at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem designed by Moshe Safdie; the Cymbalista Synagogue at Tel Aviv University, designed by Mario Botta; and the Jewish Museum of Berlin itself.

The exhibition will not show Holocaust memorial monuments, whose number has proliferated in the past decade, though quite a few of the buildings in the exhibition actually resemble monuments. The exhibition, which is accompanied by a catalogue, is being mounted within the framework of the Year of Architecture and Design sponsored by the Dutch Government Tourist Bureau. Following the close of the exhibition, on August 29, it will move to Ossenbruck, in Germany, and then to Warsaw, Berlin, Munich and London.

Source: © Copyright 2004 Haaretz

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