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Folio: Louis Kahn’s unbuilt synagogue

Louis Kahn Jeshurun Scheme1

Louis Kahn Jeshurun Scheme1

It was after travelling around Rome, Greece and Egypt that Louis Kahn recognised monumentality and spirituality as essential qualities to be conveyed by architecture – and realised modern buildings were failing to provide them. Although not traditionally religious, or affiliated to any synagogue, Kahn identified with being a Jew – in a way inevitable for almost any immigrant of his generation – and received several commissions from Jewish institutional patrons.

His very first built work was a synagogue for Congregation Ahavath Israel, completed in 1938 in Philadelphia, and his design for Jerusalem’s Hurva Synagogue (1968–74) is considered by many to be the greatest unbuilt project of his career – in limbo for many years, the scheme might have seen the light of day had the architect not died suddenly in the lavatories of Manhattan’s Penn Station in 1974.

The lesser known, also unrealised, Adath Jeshurun scheme (1954) – pictured here – was conceived for a site just half a mile away from the Ahavath Israel synagogue. Rumour has it that Kahn felt deeply inspired by Beth Sholom’s triangular plan drafted by Frank Lloyd Wright for a neighbouring congregation, but the combination of triangle and circumscribing circle was a motif already found in his design for the Yale University Art Gallery staircase, completed the previous year.