I know this topic is supposed to be built works. So why am I starting with an unbuilt work? Because I just can't help myself. (I'm acting like an animal. Now here's my scandal.) Louis Kahn's unbuilt Hurva Synagogue has been a mini unexplored obsession of mine. Yes, it's my lock screen on my phone. Yes, I've pinned about a dozen renderings, both interior and exterior. No, I never really stopped to understand why I was so drawn in. UNTIL NOW. (cue rock guitar solo)
(stop rock guitar solo for a brief disclaimer that will basically apply from here on out)
Guys, listen. There's really only one thing I'm interested in: why is this building is so damn moving? I'm not trying to understand the full timeline of the project, what the client's motivations were, how much it cost, what it was an academic response to, etc. I'm trying to analyze the mushy gushy stuff. The purely subjective. The warm fuzzies. I know that probably isn't the most interesting aspect for everyone, but it's the most helpful one for me. (For more academic analysis, please see Unbuilt Masterworks, by Ken Larsen). So let's talk about feelings!
Even as an atheist, I'm completely drawn to sacred buildings. As far as emotional architecture goes, they're that good cry at a sappy movie. They're totally manipulative. Their main objective is to evoke feelings of awe and greatness; to make the visitor feel small and humble in comparison - which is so bad ass. I mean, an office building's main objective may be to house as many workers as possible and increase efficiency, but the main objective of a sacred space is to transcend the human experience. And Kahn is a MASTER at making buildings feel sacred. Let's take a ride.
From the exterior, Kahn's Synagogue is imposing AF. No windows, no clear sense of scale, the building seems to be all sizes and no size at all. It's infinite. And its stark and unyielding symmetry immediately throws the visitor off. Most buildings entrances announce themselves, as if they are making way for the real master of the universe: the human, of course. Not here. The center of each facade, where a typical entrance should be is a solid stone wall, as if humans are not meant to even be here: this space isn't about them. As the visitor finally rounds the corner, a small set of steps leading to nothing more than a narrow opening (not even a door, just a gap in the imposing repetitive structure, "get outta here, human!") is all that stands for an entrance.
Imagine walking through the narrow slit, past the rough hewn stone, and entering the interior chamber of the space, where suddenly everything inverts. Where on the outside there were rough tapered walls so massive and rooted to the earth, inside the smooth concrete seemingly floats and defies gravity. Outside were thick impenetrable barriers; inside, a series of punctured columns, so big and light they are more like open-air rooms than structure.
Even the detailing of the two structures underscore their dichotomy. The exterior shell's rooms are low, almost primal feeling. More cave-like than temple. The interior structure's openings are tall and soaring, each expressed with a pointed arch, as if they would keep ascending towards the heavens if only they could. Even the roofs are upward reaching, as if the sky were drawing them in. These two structures, the sacred and the profane, never touch. They skirt past each other always separated. It is up to the visitor to traverse the two worlds.
In order to reach the elevating interior chamber, the visitor must either descend a narrow and dark stair, unclear what's awaiting at the end, or pass over an elevated gangplank spanning the distance between the rough exterior and the smooth interior. On the gangplank, the visitor is suspended between the two structures, the space expands above and below them in an explosion of light and air. In the stair, space is compressed, which only exaggerates the final result of transcendence. Here Kahn employs a genius spatial manipulation. By making the visitor descend to reach the final central atrium, the structure seems to grow in their perception. The more the visitor descends, the grander the overall space. It is no coincidence that absolute center of the sacred space is also the lowest point, and therefore the tallest.
Similar to the exterior, Kahn employs the use of symmetry and repetition as a stand-in for the infinite. Imagine exploring the Synagogue, where each room is repeated on all four sides. Each stair has 3 other identical brothers. Each hallway, column, puncture repeated and repeated. The visitor feels as if they understand the entire building and simultaneously is never really sure they have covered everything. By making each space so similar to the other, the visitor is disoriented. Yes, they've seen this stair ... or was it that one? Did I enter here, or here? And through that disorientation, the space feels infinitely large, with infinite rooms, stairs, halls. The one place this relentless repetition is broken is at the alter itself. Where the dizzying sameness and symmetry gets a point of orientation. It is a symbolic gesture, implying that the anchor of the world, the point of focus and orientation, is also the place where we commune with god.
Man, I wish this were built.