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Exilic Landscapes: Synagogues and Jewish architectural identity in 1870s Britain

Part 2 Dissertation 2014
Leon Fenster
Bartlett School of Architecture (UCL) | UK
When Jews in Florence submitted plans for a new Great Synagogue in 1872, the designs were rejected not on the usual religious or political grounds, but for stylistic reasons. The Accademie del Arti Delle Disegno, the body tasked with regulating Florentine artistic endeavours, explained that the proposed neo-classical design was not of a ‘Jewish enough’ style and should rather evoke ‘the dates and places that are of most interest for this religion’. The Florentine Jews were, however, at a loss as to what constitutes ‘Jewish Style’. Exilic Landscapes revisits that particular historical problem, asking what relevance such
debates had then and might still have today.

The most acute call for monumental Jewish architecture in nineteenth-century Europe came following Napoleon’s real and metaphorical toppling of the ghetto walls. But what types of buildings were needed? A prayer service can, according to Jewish law, take place wherever a quorum of ten Jews are gathered.

The subsequent unimportance of grand architecture within Judaism has led most synagogues to be designed in styles simply borrowed from surrounding buildings. It follows, therefore, that synagogues have hitherto remained on the fringes of architectural discourse. In Banister Fletcher’s seminal categorisation of world architecture, for instance, synagogues were only referred to in passing to as examples of prevailing architectural styles. Fletcher only conceded a Jewish architectural canon when discussing ancient architecture.

Compared to other religious groups in Britain in the 1870s, Judaism seemed to have virtually no established framework through which to seek a cohesive architectural approach, resulting in synagogues being designed in styles ranging from neo-Classical to Egyptian Revival to Moresque.

Exilic Landscapes considers how the architecture of synagogues in Britain in the 1870s contributed to the dramatisation of the Jewish worldview that took place within them. It focuses on five important ‘cathedral’ synagogues during this decade. The seeming absence of a Jewish architectural canon is shown to belie consistently hybridized synagogues which reflect the culture’s embrace of an exilic reading of history. The resulting architecture provides a model of religious architecture which strongly resonates with contemporary ideas of identity and sacredness in a transitory globalised world.

Leon Fenster

Professor Murray Fraser
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