Building After Auschwitz

Is there a Jewish architecture?

Architecture and the Jewish Outsider

In The Architecture of Exile, Stanley Tigerman reminds us that we are burdened by Paradise. The Garden of Eden set the bar high: that “single, unique but unknowable place denied by God to humanity but reverently, relentlessly sought nonetheless. The perfect place uninhabited by challenge plagues our consciousness, only to leave us baffled by the omnipotent presence of the challenge itself.” 1 This challenge has dominated Jewish history. Not long after Adam and Eve were banished from Eden, God’s wrath was aroused and his flood devastated the world; God made a covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and yet the Israelites were soon enslaved in Egypt. The great kingdom of Israel, established by Saul, David and Solomon, broke apart into northern and southern parts; the northern kingdom fell to the Assyrians and a couple of centuries later the southern kingdom was conquered by the Babylonians and Solomon’s Temple ruined. A second Temple was built. Rome eventually destroyed it. In diaspora, disaster followed disaster: Crusader assaults on Germany’s medieval Rhineland Jewish towns; the Spanish expulsion and Inquisition; Bohdan Chmielnicki’s massacres in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth during the mid-17th century; the Nazi Holocaust.

Tigerman’s book suggests parallels between Jewish history and architectural ambition, starting with the claim that since the Renaissance the architectural discipline has been haunted by the Sisyphean task of staking out a permanent, perfect place in the wake of the exile from Eden. Is there a correlation between architecture — perhaps humanity’s greatest affirmation of its presence on earth — and Jewish experience — one of the most enduring exemplars of rootlessness? Can the Jewish yearning for a return to Eretz Yisrael and reunion with God have anything in common with the aims of Western architects, compelled to enact in bricks and mortar a version of the long lost cosmic union? And to what extent does the Nazi War Against the Jews, which resulted in exile and destruction of unparalleled scale, negate the humanistic architectural project that European society has cultivated over the past half millennium, the nascent secular world’s attempt to construct a moral society irrespective of divine rule and guidance?

Gavriel Rosenfeld’s grandly ambitious book, Building After Auschwitz: Jewish Architecture and the Memory of the Holocaust, contends with these and other questions of Judaism and architecture, extending Tigerman’s ruminations on exile into modern times. Rosenfeld wants to know “the ways in which buildings built by and for Jews since 1945 have been imbued with Jewish significance by their creators and users.” [page 6] But the inclusion of the word “users” misleads. The book concentrates on the aims of architects as gleaned from their writings and buildings. Rosenfeld’s key questions are: How were the ideas of Jewish architects shaped by Jewish historical memory of exile? And how do they reveal different responses to the opportunities and predicaments of Jews in the modern world, especially the Holocaust?

Early on, Rosenfeld briefly confronts the contentious idea of “Jewish architecture.” Given the Jews’ historical lack of spatial security and contiguity, given the thoroughgoing stylistic and constructional influences from other cultures upon their synagogues and communal structures, and given the need for modest expression in the wake of ongoing persecution, Jewish architecture, he correctly states, presents a set of complexities absent in the architecture of most national peoples. Should Jewish architecture be confined to those buildings used primarily by Jews — synagogues, study houses, cemetery structures? Yet even in this comparatively narrow definition problems arise. Architecture, as opposed to building, emerged in Early Modern Europe as a discipline tied to the writing of treatises, study at academies, and patronage by the court and wealthy bourgeoisie. As a result, throughout Europe, the buildings used by Jews were imbued with the architectural conventions of the particular state in which they resided.

Top: Percival Goodman, Congregation B’nai Israel. [Photo via Congregation B’nai Israel] Bottom: Erich Mendelsohn, Park Synagogue, Cleveland, Ohio. [Photo by Stu Spivack, courtesy of ookaboo]

Since Building After Auschwitz directs its analysis to architects, not users and programs, Rosenfeld furthermore wonders why Jewish involvement within the discipline itself occurred relatively late within the history of modernity. Jews did not practice architecture in large numbers until the 20th century and, even then, their accomplishments in the field, as compared to most other arts (aside from painting), were slow in coming. It was not until after the First World War that one can make a list of notable Jewish architects: Michel de Klerk in the Netherlands; Pierre Chareau in France; El Lissitsky and Moisei Ginzburg in the Soviet Union; Eric Mendelsohn in Germany; and, in the United States, European émigrés like Albert Kahn, Rudolf Schindler, Richard Neutra, and Marcel Breuer. After the Second World War, the development of American modernism was guided in part by American-born Jews like Gordon Bunshaft, Max Abramovitz, Louis Kahn and Richard Meier. Jews were even more active in the subsequent dethronement and deformation of modernism: Peter Eisenman, Daniel Libeskind, Frank Gehry, Denise Scott Brown, Robert A.M. Stern, Eric Owen Moss, and Stanley Tigerman. By the final third of the 20th century, it would be hard to contest the claim that Jews had made their mark on the building art.

Rosenfeld reads this development as something more than an expression of Jewish success, especially in the New World. He wants to show that the history of architectural achievement by Jewish Americans transcends acculturation to the discipline. There must be some Jewish element to the work, even independent of commissions for buildings with Jewish program, some traces in concrete or conception that reveal the deep feelings of a Jewish upbringing and life experience — what one might call a consciousness of exile.

Building After Auschwitz confines itself to Jewish American (and Canadian) architects and thereby to the particular socio-material conditions of the North American diaspora. Hardly any mention is made of Jewish architects in other parts of the diaspora: the large communities in Britain, France, Russia, Argentina. Nor does Israeli architecture figure, apart from what amounts to an apology in the conclusion. The only other place to receive any sustained inquiry is Germany. That choice can be explained in light of Rosenfeld’s take on modern Jewish memory and identity as a primarily a response to a Jew’s outsider status. He spends little time asking how Judaism, the religion, might play into an architect’s approach. Nor does he distinguish, as most historians do, Judaism from Jewishness, the religious practice from the modern, ethnic identity that preserves aspects of the language, cuisine, music and larger culture of the “Old Country.” Since Rosenfeld accepts that most architects either shed their religious beliefs or kept them separate from their professional work — and since it would be difficult to trace ethnic customs within architectural works — he focuses on the psychological and social status of Jews as outsiders and, after 1945, on their responses, or lack thereof, to the Holocaust. Jewishness boils down to reactions to the promise and pain of assimilation.

Top: Marcel Breuer, Whitney Museum, New York City. [Photo by Gryffindor, via Wikimedia] Bottom: Gordon Bunshaft, Lever House, New York City [Photo by masck, via Flickr]

After a capsule survey of Jewish building history before the 20th century, Building After Auschwitz turns to this guiding issue and first considers the disturbing fact — given the book’s thesis — that from the 1920s to the 1980s the secular works of Jewish architects — civic buildings, residences, commercial structures — did not display Jewish traits or features. Outside of commissions for synagogues or community centers, architects of Jewish origin strove to work as architects — not Jewish architects. Rosenfeld attributes this attitude to the personal desire to integrate into secular society and also to the disciplinary idea, or insinuation, that the a-historicism of modernist architecture could endow Jewish building types a style absent any of the imitative baggage of prior styles — and consequently, a means of expression both Jewish and modern. But Rosenfeld is dubious about this synthesis, as expressed in the mid-century synagogues of Percival Goodman or Eric Mendelsohn, and he keeps returning to Jewish architects’ lack of response to their outsider status and, in the case of works after 1945, to the Holocaust. We read about one Jewish American architect after another who denied his immigrant background and strove to demonstrate, in a manner akin to the Jewish producers of Hollywood films, a harmony with American values and Western design ideas. But in light of the times and the nature of architecture, should it be a surprise that architects didn’t act otherwise?

Modern architecture cannot take on and express the social critique commonplace, say, in literature or film. Within the parameters of the building art there cannot be artists like Saul Bellow and Philip Roth or like Sidney Lumet and Woody Allen, who in books and movies probe the excruciating details of the Jewish encounter with American capitalism and lifestyle. Architecture cannot tell stories about one’s Jewish mother or one’s Jewish nose. Especially in the era of high modernism, architecture possessed limited expressive resources for detailed cultural critique. Given that historical ornament had largely been banished, Rosenfeld acknowledges that architecture’s “upbeat nature made it less suited than other areas of modernist culture to express the plight of the Jew as alienated outsider in a modern world.” [page 35]

Louis Kahn, Hurva Synagogue, unbuilt, digital reconstruction by Kent Larson. [Photo via MIT Media]

It is only when the book reaches Louis Kahn that readers are asked to detect, and then only slightly, a Jewish building sensibility. Yet where does Kahn’s architecture show that sensibility? Rosenfeld weakens his argument when he admits: “Jewishness in architecture exists less in the visible attributes of buildings than in the sensibilities that Jewish architects expressed in designing them.” [page 98] We read that Kahn, though not a practicing Jew, visited Israel. This correlation seems a stretch. Mostly, it seems, Rosenfeld finds in Kahn the beginnings of a Jewish sensibility because of Kahn’s deviation, in his later works, from modernist a-historicism — his raising of monumental, ancient form as an essential companion to the use of industrial materials and efficient planning. In several synagogue projects, Kahn also showed a great interest in ruins as well as in the legacy of Polish wooden synagogues. Still, detecting Jewish sensibilities in the design of a synagogue is easy, even if some earlier modernist synagogues eschewed any expression of religious or ethnic identity. More to the point, the author makes no convincing argument for how or whether Kahn’s overall wielding of monumental legacies from architecture’s history indicates a Jewish slant.

The postmodern interregnum of the 1970s and ’80s appears to offer more fertile hunting ground for what has become, halfway into the book, a frustrating search for Jewish architectural traits. Along with other identity-focused movements, like civil rights and feminism, the 1970s experienced a significant rise in Holocaust consciousness and in the questioning of Jewish assimilation into the American mainstream. By the ’80s, then, Rosenfeld finds several architects whose theoretical as well as formal approaches appear to display potent Jewish aspects. He describes the movement that would later be labeled deconstructivism as “undeniably the movement with the most self-consciously Jewish features in modern western architectural history.” [page 159]

Peter Eisenman, Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin. [Top photo by Chumchum 14, via Wikimedia; bottom photo by Chaosdna, via Wikimedia]

The works of Peter Eisenman, deconstructivism’s theoretical godfather, represent to Rosenfeld a third, Jewish stream of architecture. In rejecting modernism’s affirmation of industrial technology and rationality, and in also rejecting postmodernism’s association with a peculiarly populist revival of classicism, Eisenman explored a darker path for architecture. His themes were those of instability, anxiety, fragmentation, absence and loss — emotional states familiar to Jews. Characterizing Eisenman’s “Jewish contribution,” Rosenfeld writes: “By embracing the techniques of decomposition, architecture would be able to express the Holocaust’s legacy and redefine itself in keeping with the (bleak) spirit of the postmodern world.” [pages 166-167] No doubt, the ruptures embodied in Eisenman’s designs can be read as expressions of Jewish angst akin to those of his onetime philosophical collaborator, Jacques Derrida. They can also be traced, however, to the artistic avant-gardes of the early 20th century and, in Eisenman’s time, to conceptual art — aesthetic movements consisting of Jews and non-Jews alike. Granted, Eisenman’s urge to express instability and incompleteness may echo his reaction to American assimilation and the Holocaust. But couldn’t one argue that it equally represents his response to the failures of the Enlightenment project and his alienation from mainstream architectural culture?

Eisenman’s awakening to his Jewish angst was catalyzed in psychoanalytic sessions where he recovered Anti-Semitic childhood episodes. With Frank Gehry, too, the Jewish architectural connection dates to childhood, and could be seen as influencing the expression of social insecurity as built instability. During his youthful years in Toronto, Gehry frequently went with his grandmother to the Jewish market where she shopped for live carp to be used in the preparation of gefilte fish. Back at home the fish were plopped in the bathtub, where they became, if only for a day, the young Gehry’s playmates. Fish have been a running leitmotif in his work. Yet does Gehry’s fascination with fish as (architectural) forms and fish scales as (architectural) skins suggest a Jewish sensibility, or rather an artistic reaction to childhood memories? Should we really consider the fish — after all, the first great symbol used by Christianity after its split from Judaism — Gehry’s attempt to create a Jewish architectural element?

Daniel Libeskind presents the best case for Rosenfeld’s shaky thesis that Jewish-American architects eventually incorporated a potent Jewish sensibility in their oeuvres. Whereas Eisenman wrote occasionally on Jewish themes and Gehry not at all, Judaism is braided into Libeskind’s theoretical armature. When he has designed Jewish museums, Libeskind has explained their plans and shapes through direct analogies to Jewish ideas. But isn’t it also the case that Libeskind’s preference for acute angles and sliced volumes occurs in practically all of his work — Jewish and otherwise? Two conclusions can be drawn. One, Libeskind’s overall work confirms Rosenfeld’s thesis that Jewish experience imbues an architect’s design strategy. Or, Libeskind’s sharp geometries originate more truthfully in an architectural, and not Jewish, reaction to the discipline’s customary reliance on rectangles and right angles. Why, after all, should the theoretical and formal dissonances of architectural deconstructivism be attributed to the longtime outsider status of the Jewish people, especially given the fact that the brief design movement included numerous non-Jewish architects and philosophical sources?

After the brief period of deconstructivism, Jewish sensibilities in American design recede once more. Rosenfeld acknowledges that most other Jewish-American architects, like Meier or Owen Moss or Stern, express no Jewish traits within their work. Stern’s oeuvre, in fact, displays a striking tendency to affiliate with the traditional design legacies, most drawn from neo-classicism, of the American Yankee elite. Finally, although there is no mention of it in the book, the contemporary parametric design movement, although including architects of Jewish origin, appears to omit entirely the kind of design variables that would allow an architect to explore personal background or emotional attitudes toward social inclusion and exclusion. Ultimately, we close our survey of 20th century design by Jewish Americans with but a scant few building exemplars of Jewish traits.

Frank Gehry, Fishdance Restaurant, Kobe, Japan. [Photo via tabimobi]

Building After Auschwitz includes two late chapters on Holocaust museums and German and American synagogues whose designs are consciously impacted by the destruction of European Jewry. Their inclusion confuses me. If the thesis of the book proposes an exploration of Jewish traits within the work of Jewish architects, isn’t any exploration of such building types a tautology? How could Holocaust museums not refer to the Holocaust? Isn’t it logical that a selective survey of recent synagogues, German or American, would include references to wartime atrocities or losses? While interesting as discussions in their own right, these chapters swerve away from the book’s central inquiry.

Startlingly, in the conclusion, Rosenfeld writes: “Perhaps the most intriguing possible reason for postwar Jewish architectural success is the growing willingness of Jewish architects to make their work more Jewish.” [page 339] While the book indicates a spike in inspiration from Jewish sources within the work of a few, if certainly not a majority of Jewish American architects, that possibility does not justify the broad sweep of the above quote. Building After Auschwitz ends in a lengthy discussion of Holocaust museums and synagogues because, by then, its argument has exhausted its explanatory power, its ability to show a substantial development of outsider Jewish expressions and Holocaust reactions within the buildings designed by Jewish architects. It is unfortunate that Rosenfeld, who throughout the book conscientiously admits examples that disprove his argument, adheres to it in the end.

Top: Daniel Libeskind, Jewish Museum, Berlin. [Photo: Studio Daniel Libeskind, via Wikimedia] Bottom: Daniel Libeskind, Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco. [Photo: Contemporary Jewish Museum, via Wikimedia]

I am troubled by Rosenfeld’s assessment that the choice for modern Jewish architects has been either assimilation or alienation. Gehry’s personal use of fish motifs disproves this assessment, as does Libeskind’s affirmative employment of Jewish religious ideas. Tigerman’s German projects appear assertive and perhaps angry, not alienated. Why, in any case, should alienation equate, as Rosenfeld indicates, with innovation and assimilation with continuity? Doesn’t Kahn’s extraordinary assimilation of Western architectural forms disprove any such argument? Limiting Jewish architectural creativity to a reaction against outsider status restricts design possibilities and essentializes Jewish identity. It furthermore limits the scope of Jewish architectural traits. While encompassing anxiety, a Jewish sensibility might display other traits — a love of God, ritual, study, good deeds, community, heritage, and place.

I find it strange to read a book about architecture as largely practiced by Jewish Americans and not hear that the future, rather than the past, has been their dominant focus — as it has been for most Americans. In the public sphere, the realm of work, politics, recreation, consumption and entertainment, Jewish Americans have long lived in a manner that was unthinkable in the Old World. They have been driven to participate in most aspects of society and, especially in the postwar era have achieved extraordinary successes. At the same time, they have been able to cultivate their ancient faith and traditions as they see fit — with of course the attendant reality that the myriad avenues of upward mobility would lead to greater intermarriage and lesser religious observance. The societal acculturation process, as Jewish and other ethnic Americans have shown, demonstrates that immigrants and their descendents have changed American society as profoundly as they have been changed by it.

Outsider attitudes of alienation and rebellion may have been potent ingredients of such changes, yet here too they are hardly the province of Jews. Given their history on this continent, African and Native Americans possess a far longer and stronger sensibility in this regard. Other ethnic groups who have experienced exclusion and discrimination — the Irish, Chinese, and Mexicans — share outsider traits with Jews. The list goes on to include women, the LGBT community, the disabled, teenagers, and even segments of white America. A consciousness of exploration and transformation that slides into alienation and rebellion has, in fact, characterized American culture for centuries and been one of the dominant aspects of popular culture since 1945. Feelings of alienation may stem from the immigrant experience and discrimination, but, as history has shown, alienation has become a default position for a blindingly vast number of Americans.

I can understand Rosenfeld’s motivations for this study, his awareness of the difficulty of the immigrant and post-immigrant experience, his anger at the calamity of the Holocaust and, most of all, his desire to detect in architecture traces of a person’s social and religious background. Yet by focusing on architects and not users, on all buildings and not buildings used for Jewish purposes, he places an impossible demand on the architects he studies. Because of the manifold aspects of a building project, because of the manifold trajectories impacting an architect’s thinking, evaluating Jewish American architects for the Jewishness of their built works feels like a forced and, given the book’s lack of evidence to the contrary, futile exercise.

Editors' Note
  1. Stanley Tigerman, The Architecture of Exile (New York: Rizzoli, 1988), 47.
Mitchell Schwarzer, “Building After Auschwitz,” Places Journal, February 2012. Accessed 01 Jun 2023.

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Past Discussions View
  • 02.02.2012 at 11:51

    This image ought to have been included as well:

    Architecture with a message.