Community centre, Smolensk
Jewish community centre
SMOLENSK (RU) - Past, present and future play an equal role in Manuel Herz's deconstructivist design.
Europe largely surrendered its Jewish heritage in the cataclysms of the previous century and it is not surprising that every new building designed to serve a Jewish function carries a distinct metaphoric and commemorative charge, evoking the ruptures of identity, space and history. This process has brought to the fore a slew of deconstructivist designs, which are presumed to embody such experience of fragmentation and disruption.
The German architect Manuel Herz's project for a Jewish community centre (International Lubavitch Centre) in Smolensk, in western Russia, is the first attempt to transplant a fully-fledged deconstructivist scheme onto Russian soil. For a country locked in a perpetual identity crisis, where the traumas of history are both more apparent and less acknowledged than elsewhere in Europe, Herz's design is notable for its probing balance of symbolic and functional elements.
Smolensk is one of the oldest towns in Russia and the area's once thriving Jewish community played a pivotal role in the development of the Lubavitch religious movement. The planned Jewish centre will thus fulfil a tripartite purpose: to commemorate the past, to serve the community in the present and to revive Jewish life for the future. Herz spent two years working in Daniel Liebeskind's studio in the 1990s and the influence shows. He also won first prize in the 1999 competition for the Jewish community centre in Mainz, Germany, a project that is currently in its final design phase. The building in Smolensk was a private commission, and it elaborates on the spatial and sculptural concepts of the earlier design for Mainz.
Occupying an area of 3000 m2 just outside the fortified walls of Smolensk, the centre cuts a serrated outline in space. The volumes rise to seven high points perforated by skylights, a reference to the menorah, a seven-branched candelabrum used during Chanukah, the festival of lights. If the diffusion of light establishes one implied axis in the design, the other is provided by a kind of semantic allusion to four Hebrew letters, whose stylized forms are behind the physical silhouette of the complex. The centre's footprint carves an S-shape in the ground plan. The building is intended to serve all aspects of Jewish communal life, housing a synagogue, library, performance hall, teaching facilities, and administrative offices.
The project has already gone through a series of alterations and even a change of site. Construction has yet to start and the estimated completion date of 2007 is now in doubt, subject to questions of financing and official approval. Still, it is a stirring design, certain to leave a vivid architectural mark in Russia. The centre achieves a congruity of symbolic content and practical form, avoiding the kind of memorial excess that has plagued Jewish buildings in recent years.
November | 2005 | Russia | Paul Abelsky