February 1, 2013

Contemporary Worship: Ulm Synagogue

Founded in 1992, Cologne-based Kister Scheithauer Gross Architekten und Stadtplaner has worked on religious projects across a variety of denominations. Like many of their peers, they believe contemporary design is helping to keep religion relevant. “Certain aesthetics which have influenced public buildings have also become relevant for religious architecture,“ says Susanne Gross, partner in charge. “Because of that, sacred buildings have opened up to their surroundings. Access for outsiders has become easier: to the religious contents, the occupants, the building itself.“

Gross has built a synagogue in the city of Ulm, the birthplace of Albert Einstein. The site itself is historical, and of public interest. The original synagogue, located slightly off the main square, was destroyed in 1938 during Kristallnacht, a series of coordinated attacks against Jews throughout Nazi Germany and parts of Austria. After World War II, a secular building was constructed there. Now, says Gross, with this new construction it’s as if the synagogue has taken a step forward and reclaimed its site.

“When building a synagogue, there is often a spatial dilemma between the correct urban alignment and the correct religious alignment,“ says Gross. “In the case of the Ulm Synagogue, we organised all rooms orthogonally, with one exception: the prayer room as the actual synagogue.” The diagonal position of this space allows for a layer of religious meaning; its geographical direction is directly towards Jerusalem, the spiritual and religious center of Judaism.

The Ulm synagogue—a freestanding, 56-feet-high cuboid—combines both religious and non-religious elements. A community center and nursery share the same space within a single building encased in reinforce dconcrete with a limestone facade. No programmatic distinction is made between the prayer room and the other functions. And the overall preservation of public space was essential. Single-block structures with multipurpose interiors are in line with German synagogue construction since 2001, when the constraints of urban surroundings bega to converge with mindsets.

Inside, the foyer and many of the rooms are laid with stone tiles, while the prayer room and community hall have oak parquet. Above—over the bimah and seats—is a custom 11-foot-wide chandelier representing the twelve tribes of Israel.

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