For a cathedral, the architectural ingredients are generally the same in each case: Here is your nave, there are your aisles, your transept, your apse. One can expect a reasonable amount of filigree, too—stained glass, flutes on soaring columns, quatrefoils. But synagogue design doesn't follow this rigidity of form. Yes—there are worship space must-haves but, when it comes to the elements of style, you'll find no straitjacketing dogma.
This sense of freedom helped guide New York City firm Architecture Research Office (ARO) as it designed a new home for a 43-year-old synagogue, Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST), that has long been a champion for the LGBT members of its community and, more generally, LGBT issues.
Today, CBST occupies two revived floors—the ground-floor and basement, totaling 17,000 square feet—in a 1929 building on Manhattan's West 30th Street, designed by early-20th-century architect Cass Gilbert, of Woolworth Building acclaim. With 50 feet of street frontage (and visible Pride flags hanging in the lobby), CBST has settled in.
Though much of Gilbert's glorious pile was converted in the 1990s from a commercial building to a residential one, its excellent bones remained. "We looked seriously at about forty different spaces over a number of years, trying to find something [CBST] could afford and that could work as a synagogue," project architect and ARO principal Stephen Cassell told Curbed.
ARO began working with CBST leaders long before hands were laid on the Cass Gilbert building: "In 2007, we did a programming study for them, before they looked for a space," Cassell explains, and "really divided it into spaces for learning and spaces that support basic religious functions of a synagogue." Today, the building includes offices and classrooms, in addition to the sanctuary, which accommodates 299 congregants.
"Synagogue design is relatively open and less prescriptive than church design," admits Cassell. That meant expanded possibilities when it came to design moves in the space. One such move did double duty, helping filter light into the space—natural light is one prescription in synagogue design—and maximizing the floor area ratio (better known as "FAR") in the sanctuary: The ARO team tilted the sanctuary's southern wall, which contains its ark (where the Torah scrolls reside), leaning it away from the room to open up the space to a skylight.
In an added bit of design magic, the 12-inch-thick concrete wall features glass-reinforced-concrete ribs, which both look great and contribute to the room's acoustic—great news for a congregation that frequently worships with music.
One quirk of the design: In a typical synagogue, "the ark should be on the east wall," Cassell says, "Right now, the ark is on the south wall. When we started, the ark faced east, but because of the long nature of the space, it felt almost too much like a church. And the way CBST conducts its services is really about community. So we talked to the rabbis and decided as a group that it was more important to have a space that functions."
Another important factor for the community was making sure its bathrooms were gender inclusive, despite city building codes, which mandate gendered restrooms.
"Clearly there are other gender-neutral bathrooms in the city, but usually they worked around the code," Cassell explains. "Rabbi [Sharon] Kleinbaum wrote a great letter about the importance of [the gender-inclusive bathrooms] to their LGBT community and we received the variance with a three-line thing from the building inspector saying 'as we understand the importance of non-gender bathrooms, we hereby grant…' and then it said 'make sure you have good ventilation'," Cassell recounts, laughing.
When the synagogue opened on Sunday, April 3, a parade of worshippers moved ever-so-slightly north from their former space, in an Episcopal parish in Chelsea, to their new one.
"What's been so satisfying and exciting and incredibly moving," says Cassell, "was how meaningful the project was for so many people. The space helps further who they are and represent them. That’s why you become an architect."
∙ Architecture Research Office [ARO]
∙ Congregation Beit Simchat Torah [CBST]
∙ All Renovation Week content [Curbed]