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Bricks and Torah

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van Heyningen and Haward’s New North London Synagogue is low key and austere, with moments of beauty, Photography by James Brittain

Although I’ve often passed the long brick wall that screens the Sternberg Centre from north London’s East End Road, I only recently discovered what lies behind it.

Since 1981 the early Georgian manor house which stands on the site, and its surrounding outbuildings and grounds, have been home to the Akiva Jewish primary school and a rabbinical training school.

Next came the headquarters of Reform Judaism, Finchley’s Jewish Museum, the offices of a Zionist youth movement and the New North London Synagogue (NNLS). NNLS was initially housed in two separate premises on the site and has now moved into a single building, designed by van Heyningen and Haward Architects (VHH) and completed in January 2011. The Sternberg Centre is the largest Jewish community centre in Western Europe.

Like Jewish communities, synagogues turn up in surprising places. Some are tucked away, like Bevis Marks in the City of London, which in 1701 was constructed at a time when Jewish people were forbidden to build on public thoroughfares. Others, such as London’s New West End Synagogue, belong to a later period when the Jewish community was more emancipated, and synagogues emerged from alleyways and announced their presence.

Both types are in different ways, and for better or worse, absorbed into their context, and some argue that there is a reciprocal relationship between a dominant English social framework and those Jewish communities that, up to a point, choose to be assimilated by accepting its values and customs. The covenant with God that many Jews regard as the foundation of their faith involves prescribed practices, but also a role within the non-Jewish world.

Synagogues are often chameleonesque. In Islamic cultures they can resemble mosques – in England, churches. Bevis Marks, modelled on the Spanish and Portuguese Great Synagogue in Amsterdam, is like a Wren City church with an ark and a Bimah, whereas the New West End Synagogue, completed in 1879, is Neo-Gothic.

NNLS is affiliated to the Masorti movement, somewhere between Reform Judaism, which is more open to the reinterpretation of Jewish customs in response to modernisation, and Orthodox Judaism, which resists adaptation. Reform Judaism could be seen as part of the integration process, although its balance between tradition and modernisation and its religious emphasis is in constant flux. The Sternberg Centre is in some ways a campus for Progressive Judaism, an umbrella term for Reform, Liberal and Masorti communities, although its reversion to the tucked away format could be interpreted as the opposite of assimilation.

The centre’s grounds are a wonderful asset to its institutions, but its planning history is enormously complex. NNLS was required to ‘respect’ the listed manor house and its grounds. Some neighbours were concerned about noise, others about off-site parking on Shabbat, and Zionist organisations and the Green Party objected to proposals to fell preserved trees. The campus strategy does enable these institutions to share a single control point for the enhanced security which is now required. It’s the most painless security check I’ve experienced, although I’ve no doubt that the affable guard knows how to look after himself.

Once through security, a long garden wall beyond the manor house partially screens the view of the bulk of NNLS, which is more accurately described as a synagogue complex with community facilities. It serves 2,500 people and has three spaces for religious services, each with a distinctive character. These combine to provide capacity for up to 800 people. The largest of these spaces, the Beit Knesset (the assembly house or principal prayer space), is double height and balanced by two storeys of accommodation to the north of a single-storey reception which connects and articulates these volumes.

The synagogue’s horizontal massing complements the manor house’s verticality, and the lime-pointed brickwork of its east elevation rhymes with its neighbour, Rosenfelder Associates’ new building for Akiva School, completed in 2008, which was subject to visual control by VHH in their capacity as the Sternberg’s masterplanners.

New and recent synagogues such as NNLS are usually in a contemporary idiom and can feel quite Spartan. They have the puritan qualities of Modernist churches but in a different register, evolving from a tradition that, while including certain types of imagery, places a strong emphasis on words. Like the Jewish custom of leaving stones on tombs rather than flowers, synagogues can feel quite stark and, with some notable exceptions, few can compete with the sumptuous highlights of church and mosque architecture. The exterior of NNLS is low key and austere. Its brickwork provides visual warmth, but there is no room for sentimentality. Whereas Frank Lloyd Wright tied himself in knots when he explored symbolism at Beth Sholom Congregation in Pennsylvania, VHH avoided this trap.

‘One of the reasons why NNLS chose us may have been to do with the fact that we weren’t Jewish’, says VHH senior architect Adrian Truan. This detachment yielded an analytical approach and a rejection of the superfluous. NNLS resembles other VHH buildings such as the Edward Alleyn Building for Alleyn’s School in London, with its dark brickwork and stainless steel sign, because it addresses similar core architectural concerns with clear, legible planning and sustainable design. There are only occasional lapses in its rigour, such as the obsolete section of the brise-soleil on the south elevation, rationalised as a unifying visual element, or the economies of a steel frame and stretcher bond brickwork with white mortar pointing on the secondary elevations.

VHH’s spaces work hard to give NNLS the flexibility and generosity it needs, helping the community to tackle complex questions involving science, interpretation of tradition and the role of women. The three prayer spaces enable services with segregated seating for men and women to run in parallel with integrated worship, but VHH tried to avoid a rigid hierarchy.

A break in the west-facing garden wall leads to an intermediate external threshold space, then an L-shaped reception that is used for the Kiddush ceremony on Shabbat and Jewish holy days, with a ritual hand-washing bath and lockers. It also serves as expansion space for the Beit Knesset or for informal gatherings.

The Beit Knesset, and the rest of the complex, has ample daylight from windows and a central lantern. Like the stained-glass panels flanking the ark and the lamp, which is integrated with Franceso Draisci Studio’s sound-reflecting olive panel overhead, the Beit Knesset has symbolic dimensions and could be read as transcendental or immanent. Its geometry and four-square, stocky and masculine proportions resemble Louis Kahn’s Temple Beth El in Chappaqua, New York or Denys Lasdun’s proposal for Jerusalem’s Hurva Synagogue, one of the great uncompleted buildings of the twentieth century.

VHH wanted natural ventilation throughout, but, because of concerns about noise break-out, this wasn’t possible. The other, smaller, less formal prayer spaces also serve as venues for study, meetings and other uses and, along with facilities such as the pre-school, are connected by an informal circulation space with carpet flooring, as in the Beit Knesset.

Although the Beit Knesset impresses, the most beautiful moment is the yellow-lined skylight over the main staircase, where controlled austerity finally melts and yields to colour and personality. NNLS is not a building that makes your pulse race. Animation is provided by the synagogue community rather than the architecture, which is there to complement rather than to dominate, bringing to mind Golda Meir’s quip that Israel is a country of three million prime ministers. Witnessing the constantly shifting ebb and flow of people, the voices of children and the footsteps of elders, evokes the Hebrew salutation ‘L’chaim’: ‘To life!’

AJ Buildings Library

See full project data, photographs, plans, sections and details for Van Heyningen and Haward Architects New North London Synagogue, London

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