Reinventing a synagogue in suburban New York, Alexander Gorlin worshiped at the altar of Louis Kahn
Plumbing the past and up-dating it intelligently, the erudite Alexander Goriin is a winner of multiple AIA Awards in addition to teaching at the Yale School of Architecture and writing several books. Consider his transformation of Eero Saarinen and Associates’s Bell laboratories in Holmdel, New Jersey, into the mixed-use Bell Works-incorporating a Josef Albers tribute to boot. Those abilities again proved essential when Gorlin, who taught Louis Kahn’s work for years. was asked to expand Kahn’s Temple Beth El in Chappaqua. New York. the suburb now best known as the adopted home of Bill and Hillary Clinton. This was Kahn’s only completed synagogue. an unknown project in comparison to the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in la Jolla. California. Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, and Yale Center for British Art in New Haven.
Louis Kahn's redwood-clad Temple Beth El in Chappaqua, New York, from 1972
Alexander Goriin Architects added a 23,000-square·foot volume for non-worship functions and connected it. with a glass atrium. to the 1972 octagonal building. While preparing to install a sprinkler system and implement a few other basic fixes there, Gorlin discovered some original sketches for the project. That allowed him to replace elements including the sanctuary’s lighting armature. which the congregation found cumbersome. with one of Kahn’s earlier ideas. We asked Gorlin how he threaded the needle so deftly.
So this was under-the-radar Kahn. Even in his book of complete works, there’s just a floor plan. But he gave a speech at the dedication ceremony in which he said he was “deeply pleased” with how the building turned out.
How did the renovation project come to you? The committee approached me because I have written essays on Kahn in addition to a book called Kabbalah in Art and Architecture. I have also designed a number of synagogues.
What was the biggest challenge of this project? It was multilayered. The building had never worked properly, which surprised me. It was too small for the congregation’s needs-they needed a much larger social hall-and you had to walk through public space to get to classrooms
or offices. To my knowledge of Kahn, he usually had an ambulatory around the central space, so as not to interrupt functions. For some reason, not here.
How did you fix it? Kahn is all about geometry. In order to maintain the integrity of the original octagon, with its distinctive cupola. I made the new glass atrium the central entry to both the sanctuary and the addition, which has the social hall, the library, the nursery school, and offices. The atrium is a glowing vessel of light, symbolizing the restoration and reinvigoration of the congregation.
What about materials? The sanctuary has redwood plank cladding in a frame of concrete, perhaps Kahn’s interpretation of the Polish wooden synagogues that were destroyed by the Nazis. For the addition, we did cedar as a complementary wood, compatible but its own vocabulary. All these choices have subtle biblical references, too-the Temple of Solomon had cedar walls.
How did you tread the line between paying homage and doing your own thing? It was a challenge to add to a building by a modern master, but I approached it respectfully, as a modernist with a sense of history. We did make one controversial decision, removing a cubic stair tower attached to the octagon. I called it a circumcision, sacrificing a vestigial part of the building for the greater good.
Did you ever meet Kahn? Once. A few months before he died, he lectured at Pratt when I was a student at Cooper Union. It was a cold and rainy night, but I felt I should go see him. He gave a poetic talk about silence and light. I was inspired and mystified. “What does a brick want to be?” I remember him being my height-not tall. That gave me hope for my future as an architect.