Architecture Unseen
Fri, 03/06/2009
Staff Writer

As an architect, I believe it is not the literalness of what one sees in the built world that creates a Jewish environment. Instead, a Jewish urban space is more like street theater, which can be set against any backdrop. The Jewish people have never been identified by the material things of our culture (a building type, a style, a constant aesthetic), but rather by events, ideas, concepts, dialogues and other intangibles in the public realm.

Standing back and looking at street life in a Jewish neighborhood, this is what I see: A word moving between two people; a concept argued and exchanged; an artifact changing hands accompanied by currency. I hear the life force of emotions in the spaces between people, in all of their understandings and misunderstandings. I feel a lively tempo in the choreography of strangers. I see improvisational performance amidst light and shadow, joining the organic world of a community to the inorganic world of built form. I think of Buckminster Fuller’s idea of dynamic equilibrium, where all parts are simultaneously in motion yet stable.

In history and interpretation, there are precedents of this immateriality in the Jewish tradition. The Mishkan was the first example of a structure in Jewish history, as described in Exodus. Its power was that it was always intended as a temporary structure. This sanctuary, which traveled with the Israelites for 40 years in the wilderness, was a metaphor for the movement from motion to stillness, from measured time to timelessness, from the six days of the week to the Sabbath.

For the Jewish people, time is the constant, our data line, our internal framework. And herein lies the great juxtaposition, one that Jews everywhere, some more, some less, live with throughout their lives. We enact what is holy in space only as it relates to time, moving from the secular to the sacred through action. And what appears chaotic in the everyday is tethered by the intricate lattice of our rituals in time — of the non-material and the un-built.

At various points during the day, the week, the year, people move through space in different ways. On Shabbat, for instance, people walk slowly, in groups, without a sense of urgency as during the week; they linger in the moment. The space shifts, in emotion, energy and pattern of movement between the everyday and the sacred, between the physical and contemplative worlds. Here, not in the architecture of the scene, but in the life of the people within the scene, the idea of a Jewish environment can be deeply experienced.

When I saw a performance by the Inbal Pinto Dance Company in Tel Aviv, the scene on stage might have been a street anywhere, a family, a house, a city, a town — the scale and the materials did not matter. The emotions and movement of the dancers mattered. The performance was artistically fierce, with a physicality and an abstraction so real, that this performance could only have been created from a people possessing the unique memory and dynamic on which our culture is built.

Bonnie Roche-Bronfman is an architect, writer and inventor who designs public projects in New York City and elsewhere.

PQ: The Jewish people have never been identified by the material things of our culture (a building type, a style, a constant aesthetic), but rather by events, ideas, concepts, dialogues and other intangibles in the public realm.