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Hurva Synagogue

Jerusalem, Israel
1 of 6

In 1967, Louis Kahn received a commission to design a synagogue in Jerusalem to replace the old destroyed Temple of Solomon. This was a big opportunity for Kahn to express his ideas on architecture and to incorporate the elements of ruin in his building. It was an opportunity for him to build within the archeological boundaries of the ancient world that had so moved him in his earlier travels. The power and dignity of ancient architecture, in which monumentalism was tempered by a sense of balance and form was intended to elicit feelings of awe that were fitting to a building's function, had a profound effect on him. In its eschewal of ornamentation and its incorporation of squares, circles, and other simple geometric shapes brought to realization in lustrous concrete, the work Kahn created over the next two decades had a power that many have characterized as spiritual or mystical.

The first proposal of the synagogue was designed between 1967 and 1968. The outer building of Hurva consists of sixteen massive pylons, four in each side, recalling some ancient ruins. The plan was a perfect biaxial symmetry, however unpredictably, the entrances were on the narrow corners instead of on axis. Four columns at the corners support the inner sanctuary. The first floor is designed to be a place for a bema, ark and candle service and the second floor is designed for seating. The most outstanding element in the final proposal is the series of four cylindrical openings on the axis piercing the ceiling planes shown in one of Kahn's pencil sketches. Also a square opening at the center of the ceiling brings light to the interior sanctuary, similar to the Pantheon. In the final proposal, Kahn used a very sophisticated way for the modulation of light in the synagogue, including ruin forms as an outer shell to protect the inner sanctuary from heat and sunlight, openings in the ceiling as a skylight to bring natural light and its unpredictable play inside the synagogue.

By the early 1960s, Kahn developed a vocabulary of materials, which he used over and over during his last years. Concrete was the main material he used in most of his designs, which he felt soaked up the light like a sponge. He used concrete for both structure and finish in almost all his buildings after 1959. Kahn's concrete was a fine and beautiful cast material with depth and subtle finish. He and his assistants worked many years to find a perfect mix of formwork, admixtures and sand to achieve a perfect color, depth and texture. Kahn's concrete absorbs light as it reflects and creates chiaroscuro effects. Travertine was the second material Kahn liked to work with. He used travertine for the plaza of the Salk Institute, foyer and stairs at the Exeter Library; floors, walls and details in the Kimbell Art Museum. In the Hurva Synagogue, he would have preferred travertine but, due to financial restrictions, he chose to use Jerusalem stone for the pylons. By using concrete inside and Jerusalem stone for the outside shell, Kahn saw the building in two colors: gold for the outside and silver for the inside. Since glare is the common issue in Kahn's designs, he always preferred to use materials that diffuse the light evenly in the space, so that light inside the building creates the softest possible illumination.


The special control of light in conjunction with the spatial qualities of the material, from the structure make the Hurva Synagogue one of the most stunning and unique design conceived by Kahn. In his all life, Kahn searched endless possibilities of devices to find the perfect solution in light modulation. He started from small devices installed either to the facade or roof to double shell walls, to skylight and hollow columns. In his final design, which was the Hurva Synagogue, we can see a good synthesis of all the possibilities he had searched for, until the time he died. In this very sophisticated building, it is obvious that he combined the idea of layering the outer shell (ruins) with a great skylight solution. Unlike his other projects he used the hollow columns again as a service area rather than a source of light.

Skylight in the Hurva Synagogue

In the final proposal, Kahn decided to use skylights as a main light source in the project. Both in the first and second proposal; light came from the top, but these light sources were narrow slits in the ceiling. However, in the third final design, four cylindrical and one big square skylight openings are designed to be the light source. It was noticeable that he was inspired from the light of the Pantheon. In the Pantheon, it is an oculus to the sky. A precedent for cylindrical openings can be found in an unbuilt version of the central hall of the Exeter Library in 1967. For Kahn, not only the quantity but also the quality of light inside the room was significant. According to him, artificial light is static and does not have variety that depends on the time of the day.

The Hollow Column

The idea of a hollow column was one of Louis Kahn's most sophisticated theories. In the Hurva Synagogue he used hollow columns similar to those designs from his early practice days; a serving space. The first use of the hollow column as a mechanical shaft was in the Trenton Bath House. After that, he developed the idea and made these columns larger until they are a room. In the Hurva Synagogue, he again attempted to use hollow columns in the second floor as a circulation area between balconies. In the sanctuary, the hollow columns are located in each corner between the balconies to create a circulation area between them with door size openings on two axes. Unlike his theory, he did not design any opening to bring natural light inside these hollow columns. Only small openings provide the natural light that makes the interior seem mysterious.

Ruins in the Hurva Synagogue

When Kahn was asked to design a new synagogue on the site of the old structure, he decided to let the ruins remain and build the new temple beside them. Kahn used the concept of ruin in connection with light as early as 1959 in the US Consulate in Luanda surrounding a building with a ruin. These ruins became self-standing panels in the Salk Institute meeting halls. In 1964, after he first used ruins in his buildings, he asked himself what ruin means in the life of a building. It was the freedom from the servitude of performing the practical function for which it was designed, freedom to fully express its spirit or form essence (Tyng, 1984). Kahn's conception of the Hurva Synagogue came out of his new theory about meaning of ruins. The building is a 'ruin' all the way through to its core because its glare-shielding element is part of its fabric.

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lchiselef, September 16th, 2017
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