Architectural Modernism in European Synagogues
Looking at a range of European synagogues from the early part of the twentieth century, this itinerary is designed to illuminate not only the significance of the Jewish contribution to European built heritage in that time, but also to show the depth and range of that heritage as it still stands. For that reason, this is a transnational tour that draws on themes of aesthetics and architectural style as much as it does on more established themes of Jewish religion and culture.
The devastation to Jewish populations and culture across Europe in the mid-twentieth century also had an inconceivable impact on Jewish built heritage. Despite this, it must not be forgotten just how much still survives and how significant the conservation effort to save it is. Recognition and promotion of these structures in a wider European architectural context can only further support these efforts.
The modern synagogues in this itinerary are not representative of all the buildings that existed or currently exist, but it seeks to draw a number of important 20 th Century works, some well-known and others less so, together thematically. It is meant as an online heritage trail, through which we can explore the architectural history of the early twentieth century synagogue across the continent.
The first style in architecture we can truly identify as modern is Art Nouveau, although visually it appears very linked to the historicism of the 19 th Century in Europe, it is really a transitional step towards modernity. Many European architects worked in the style from the turn-of-the-century onwards and the range of aesthetics produced in the style is surprising, from the flamboyance of Subotica Synagogue in modern Serbia, to the understated elegance of Lucerne Synagogue in Switzerland.
This break with historicism that marks the beginning of our itinerary means many interesting buildings from the latter part of the 19 th Century that one may consider to be proto-modern, lay just outside the scope of this work. The search for an identifiable style in Europe at the turn of the century expressed itself in a huge variety of aesthetics. Architects in certain countries embraced the avant-garde and other ideas of modernity more readily than others, Hungary, for example, contains many notable examples as architects there stretched the possibilities of bringing together modern technologies with historical styles as they sought a national style. In Holland too, progressive communities employing equally progressive architects, left behind an important modernist legacy.
Synagogue architecture in Europe in the twentieth century is a huge subject area that continues to be the focus for a wide variety of scholarship. At the end, all the itineraries on the AEPJ Website are presented as ongoing projects, if you know of a synagogue that you feel should be included, please do get in touch and we can add it.
Notes on Art Nouveau
Art Nouveau impact on architecture and the visual arts was profound and long-lasting. The first movement in which we begin to recognise attributes that we would now consider modern, Art Nouveau, literally 'new art' was the style that launched the 20 th century and it had a tremendous influence on a number of important modern styles that followed – particularly art deco. Art Nouveau was a total style that manifested itself in art, applied and decorative art and architecture. Although known by a number of different names across Europe as it arose in the 1890's and despite a wide variety of regional differences across the continent and in America, Art Nouveau style is instantly recognisable. Taking inspiration from the study of natural forms and harnessing a desire to break away from the historicist styles of the 19 th century, Art Nouveau forged a completely new aesthetic, one that is perhaps best appreciated when fully realised in both interior and exterior architecture.
Art Nouveau as Jewish Heritage
Art Nouveau is rightly never considered a modest style, in fact generally quite the opposite, but the range of architecture it encompasses is often far broader than usually considered. The break with historical styles that the style instigated allowed architects working across Europe a degree of freedom to explore and experiment.
In many countries, the contribution made by Jewish architects and designers, to the built environment was immense and is sometimes overlooked. In Hungary, for example, where Art Nouveau found a strong and lasting foothold and formed the basis of a national style, Jewish architects were fundamental to the formulation of the regional variation in the style.
Synagogues in the style are a case in point and many of them, built by (usually local or regional architects) express a lesser known, modest side to the style. Expressed in overall massing and proportion and the manner in which architectural elements relate and react to one another, many Jewish architects who worked in the style across Europe managed to create deft, understated architecture that rewards closer inspection. Some of these buildings owe much to the English precursor to Art Nouveau, the Arts and Craft Movement, which eschewed quality of materials, a high level of craftsmanship and, like Nouveau an emphasis on total design, from the roof to the foundations. In moving away from monumentality and overt symbolism, reflecting the changing nature of congregations, outbreaks of anti-Semitism and increasing focus on the community, many of the modern synagogues made a move towards a more domestic appearance – these buildings too are often overlooked architecturally but can be as rewarding to visit as any of the larger, better known examples.
Notes on Art Deco
Art Deco influenced almost all forms of design in Europe during the 1920's, 30's and 40's. Arising in France it went on to be influential across the continent and whilst it is often characterised as eclectic it was avowedly modern, reflecting the embrace of technology and the demands and aesthetics of the machine age.
In architecture, it manifested itself through new materials, such as reinforced concrete and
aluminium and through a return to symmetry and classical proportion, whilst often adding historicist styles into the mix. Bold colours and striking visual motifs are a hallmark, the ensemble often creating buildings of great elegance and visual drama.
Art Deco as Jewish Heritage
Few are the number of synagogues across Europe that can lay claim to being uniquely Art Deco in style and the term is often misused, but the fact is, because of its inherent eclecticism, the spirit of deco is very much alive in many European synagogues that do not immediately appear to have the aesthetic. The Byzantine influenced synagogues of the UK are perhaps the best examples of how the style manifested itself as a union of historicism and modernity, borrowing heavily from the popularity of deco as a cinema style in the UK in the 1930's. They are not alone however and in the International Modernism of many other synagogues across Europe, the return to rectilinear, rather than curvilinear decoration and the reinstatement of symmetry after Art Nouveau's extravagant freedoms, Deco's spirit can be seen.
Notes on Modernism
There is no easy way in which to encapsulate the various ways in which modernism affected architectural thought. Generally, ideas of modernity in its various forms expressed themselves in simplicity of form, use of new materials and above all, considering the stylistic movements that preceded it, a lack of any ornamentation or decoration. Some of the ways in which that was expressed in buildings differ markedly from one another and there are numerous styles from the turn of the century onwards that one would call Modern.
Modernism as Jewish Heritage
The contribution made by Jewish architects to the architectural history of Modernism is virtually incalculable and such was the changing nature of Jewish communities in the early years of the century, that many pioneering non-Jewish architects designed synagogues. Peter Behrens, who taught Mies van Der Rohe, Walter Gropius and most significantly, Le Corbusier was the designer of the important synagogue in Zilina, Slovakia, which is currently the focus of a restoration scheme to restore his pioneering vision. Key figures in the wider story of modernist architecture include Erich Mendelsohn (1887-1953) and Richard Neutra (1892-1970), both of whom submitted synagogue designs. Germany, partly because of the Deutscher Werkbund, led the way during the period of the Weimar Republic and many Jewish architects were actively designing in the modern style.
A superb site focusing on the pioneering and now largely forgotten work of more than 450 Jewish Architects working in Germany before war can be found here - blog.pentagram.com.
Conservation of the Modern synagogues of Europe
Whilst attitudes towards the conservation of 20 th century architecture differ across Europe, the general trend has been one of increased education and a more sophisticated approach to the preservation of built heritage from the more recent past. This is partly due to taste and the fact that the older a building is, the rarer it is and the more we value it, but for buildings of the first half of the century, other national and regional factors also, obviously play a part.
The story of the conservation of modern Jewish Heritage
Attitudes towards the conservation of modern architecture generally have changed significantly in the last 20 years. Since and there is an increasing awareness of the practical considerations for the preservation of modern architecture. Modern materials like concrete and steel, require specific techniques to conserve and protect them and here again, much progress has been made.