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Sense of community

review

Louis I Kahn's Trenton Jewish Community Centre By Susan G Solomon. Princeton Architectural Press, 2000. 200pp. £14.95

The Trenton Bath House (1955) was where Kahn, as he put it, 'discovered himself '. This tiny, early project was where so many of what now seem like classic Kahnian themes were explored for the first time.With its four interlocking square pavilions under floating pyramidal roofs, this seminal building clearly illustrates ideas of served and servant spaces, and shows how the use of defined volumes and spatial hierarchies liberated Kahn from the dogma of the free plan. But, apart from interpretations of its iconic plan, the bath house is one of those projects about which we know very little.

Susan Solomon looks at the Jewish Community Centre project, of which the bath house was a part, from a Jewish perspective, giving us a richer insight. The mid 50s saw the growth of prosperity in the Jewish community; welfare projects changed from meeting basic physical and spiritual needs for a new ÚmigrÚ inner city population, to maintaining Jewish identity, an identity which was beginning to be subsumed by the American suburban culture.

The Jewish Community Centre was a secular place where the whole family could come to relax, play sport and socialise - a place where you could be both Jewish and American.

The commission was a complex one.

Kahn's dealings with the inexperienced committee client were obviously fraught with difficulties, and eventually, after changing budgets and briefs which led to four scheme proposals in two years, Kahn resigned from the project.

The community centre comprised three built elements within a landscaped site. The bath house and swimming pool were built first - very quickly and cheaply - to establish the centre; it was immediately successful and well used. The second project, the main community building, is widely known even though unbuilt; the book shows how the scheme developed from its Buckminster Fuller-like beginnings to Kahn's own, hierarchical style.

But perhaps the most interesting project is the Day Camp. This was built in 1957, but not published (presumably at Kahn's wish) until after his death and is still little known. The camp was a collection of four Sol LeWitt-type open pavilions, seemingly randomly placed within a circular clearing in the trees. Like the bath house, it used cheap materials, but in this case the construction was more experimental - terracotta flue tiles used as permanent shuttering for the concrete columns.

Unusually for Kahn, the detail failed: the tiles disintegrated and the camp became a living ruin within a couple of years. However, in terms of the planning, the contrast between the pavilions' inter-relationships and the static platonic form of the circle established a new dynamism that is apparent in his later work.

The book is thorough, but more importance is given to searching through dusty boxes of community centre meeting minutes than asking (let alone answering) key questions. Judging by the one rather forlorn contemporary photograph, the bath house is not in a good state of repair, suggesting that it is now neither loved nor well used (see also AJ 8.4.97).What does this say about the suburban Jewish community today?

The constant thread through the book is Kahn's sense of humanity. He was an unaffiliated non-practising Jew; his shelter projects (he helped with the housing crisis in newly formed Israel in 1946), and the religious quality of the bath house, show just where his faith lay.

Sarah Jackson is an architect in London

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