Location Scarsdale, NY
Size 50,000 ft², 17,000 ft² new construction
Cost $12 million
Program Reform Jewish sanctuary and religious school
Awards Chicago Athenaeum, American Architecture Award; Chicago Athenaeum Green Good Design for Architecture; AIA New York City Project Merit Award
This article is part of gb&d‘s Green Typologies series, Places of Worship: Contemporary Religious Design in America
Jewish author and playwright David Mamet argues in his book The Secret Knowledge that Judaism—as both a cultural and religious tradition—has never been grounded in a place long enough to develop a ‘look.’ Rather than being tied to a particular geography or aesthetic tradition, Jewish religious architecture often responds to the particularities of its environment, suggesting that even as Judaism continually references the past, it does so through the foil of the present. In response to this chameleonic tendency, the Westchester Reform Temple, an award-winning, LEED Silver synagogue in Scarsdale, New York, by Rogers Marvel Architects (RMA), attempts to create its own Jewish sacred space.
The original sanctuary was designed by Marcel Breuer in 1959 and was expanded in 1964 by Percival Goodman. A second building on the nine-acre site, the Center for Jewish Life, was added by Peter Gisolfi in 1998, thus accounting for an extant 50,000 square feet to be reimagined in RMA’s master plan, which was completed in 2009. The plan converted the Goodman sanctuary into a 14,000-square-foot religious school and created a new 17,000-square-foot sanctuary that can hold up to 1,250 people.
Architect Rogers Marvel Architects
Client Westchester Reform Temple
Mechanical Engineer Collado Engineering
Structural Engineer Robert Silman Associates
Civil Engineer Langan Engineering and Environmental Design
Lighting Jim Conti Lighting Design
LEED Consultant Buro Happold Consulting Engineers
Robert Rogers, FAIA, principal at Rogers Marvel, made this sanctuary the central spiritual metaphor for the synagogue. “This was the first synagogue we had designed,” Rogers says. “We’re working with extremely knowledgeable clients, and it allowed us to really focus on what makes a space sacred.”
The sanctuary, situated on an east-west axis to face Jerusalem, is designed around the concept of tikkun olam, which means repairing, healing, or restoring the world. The dynamic sanctuary space is wrapped in seven architectural bands made from sustainably sourced cedar—a reference to Solomon’s temple—and plaster, a contemporary referent. “On the ceiling, the bands are interrupted with skylights, which not only serve to bring light into the sanctuary but reflect metaphorically that the world is broken,” Rogers says. “And it is the imperative of its people to bring about its restoration.”
At the front of the sanctuary is the Bima, a platform that holds the ark and the Torah scrolls. The congregation faces the Bima, which is housed in the seventh band of the sanctuary in front of a low-E glass, louvered wall that introduces diffused daylight into the space. The glass is chrome-mirrored on the underside, and the topsides are coated in blue, reflecting the garden outside. “The glass offers a way to break up the daylight and also provides an obscure, idealized view of the garden,” Rogers says.
Certification LEED Silver
Site Master plan includes existing structures
Materials Sustainably sourced cedar, gypsum, fly ash, low-VOC paints, carpets, and adhesives
Light Daylight introduced through skylights and glass-louvered wall
Energy High-efficiency HVAC, underfloor heating
Solar PV cells power Ner Tamid sanctuary light
An ark made of olive ash is suspended by narrow aluminum fins in front of the eastern wall and appears to be frozen in mid-air behind the Bima. Using olive ash hearkens back to the original ark outlined in the Torah, but the ark at Westchester is also designed to Sephardic scale, showing the importance of music and song in Jewish ceremony. Jaffe Holden, the acoustical consultant for the project, used the seven bands to amplify and preserve sound while masking the electrical and mechanical elements.
A bronze Mobius collar wraps around the ark and is lit by a solar-powered sanctuary lamp called the Ner Tamid, which translates to ‘eternal flame.’ “In Judaism, the study of Torah is never-ending, always revealing something new,” Rogers says. “The idea of surrounding the ark in a Mobius element has a very clear spiritual significance, as does an eternal flame that is powered by the sun.”
Westchester also includes low-VOC finishes, fly-ash concrete, and an efficient heat-distribution system underneath the floor, contributing even more to its LEED Silver certification. “It’s really difficult to get LEED for a sanctuary, but this project had a moral imperative,” Rogers says. “It was important to the congregation that it be an example for the community, and rather than simply building to green standards, the certification, in a way, authenticates that mission.” By incorporating both functional and symbolic realizations of repairing and healing, the Westchester sets a distinct precedent not only for the design of sacred buildings but also for future Jewish architectural identity.
This article is part of gb&d‘s Green Typologies series, which in each issue explores a single type of building. For more of our most recent collection, Places of Worship: Contemporary Religious Design in America, choose from the list below.
• Prayer Pavilion of Light, DeBartolo Architects
• Cathedral of Christ the Light, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill
• Green Mosque Proposal, Faith in Place
• St. Nicholas Eastern Orthodox Church, Marlon Blackwell Architect