Shaarey Zedek was commissioned and built as a synagogue, religious school and community center. The complex was meant to bring together the sacred and secular elements of Jewish life, where congregants could find answers to their own and world problems within the sanctity of traditional thought and law.
The congregation first gathered in 1861 in Detroit, MI and between 1861-1962 worshiped at six different locations in the city. Desiring to build a group of buildings to serve their congregation, they commissioned Percival Goodman, a noted synagogue architect, to design a campus on a large parcel of land the Detroit suburb of Southfield, MI. In 1962 they moved to the new synagogue, where the congregation worships today.
The sanctuary was designed at 15,000 sq ft to hold 1200 worshipers normally, the space can be expanded to hold 3500 people on High Holy Days. In order to achieve this amount of seating, while keeping the space intimate where no seat is further than 120' from the alter, two adjoining spaces can be opened into the sanctuary. On normal days these two spaces serve as a lecture hall, and 600 seat dining area with a kitchen and service area attached.
The rest of the complex comprises two smaller chapels, one for adults, one for youth, a library, an administration block, and a school comprising 29 classrooms, with planned spaces to add more classrooms as needed.
The three buildings are joined together with a entrance hall, where one enters the sanctuary through doors on the northern wall, a smaller chapel ahead, and on the south wall a hall leading to first the library and then the classrooms. The sanctuary roof sweeps up into a peak, the base splayed out to form the roof connecting to the rest of the complex.
The other buildings in the complex are low slung and horizontal in contrast to the more vertical sanctuary. Two rows of stained glass, formed of multiple panels each, along the long edges of the peak wall flow from the base of the wall to the top apex. Made of concrete, the sanctuary walls are mostly light gray, contrasting with the darker warmer colors of the other buildings, and the metal roof. The side walls are made of repeating equilateral triangle pre-cast window frames. The approach to the building is towards the profile of the sanctuary, so visitors see the sprawl of the low buildings, and the high peak rising up from them.
The three buildings, synagogue, school and community center, were built together. At the time they were designed, Percival Goodman also designed where expansions could go as the congregation's needs changed.
The area around the complex was landscaped at the time of construction. Southfield, MI is a suburb of Detroit, and like a lot of mid-western towns has a fairly spread out layout. The congregation was able to purchase a large plot of land, setting the complex apart not hemmed nor compared to any neighboring structure.
There are a total of 17 synagogues in the town of Southfield. The majority cluster on 10 mile road, which seems to form the main artery through the town. Congregation Shaarey Zedek is several miles separate from this downtown cluster. In the sixties when the congregation bought the land it seems unlikely they could have found an equivalent site in the downtown area, large enough for their planned complex.
The main structure of the sanctuary is of poured reinforced concrete, other buildings in the complex combine concrete and brick. Framing for the service areas behind the social hall are made of reinforced concrete with a plank roof deck. The roof of the sanctuary and social spaces is made of wood planks over the steel trusses, covered in Terne metal roofing. The interior space of the sanctuary is wood paneled walls, leading to a white ceiling. The main focal point is the wood and white marble Ark, framed with abstract stained glass, the glass supported on the outside by a concrete pylon. The outside of the pylon is decorated with ten pre-cast ornaments representing the ten commandments. The Ark is 40' tall, and the sanctuary ceiling slopes to a height of 100' over it. The Ark has a stainless steel sculpture on it of the Ner Tamid, a symbolic representation of the tree of life, the inspiration for the menorah, whose form is taken from that of the Ner Tamid. The sanctuary is separated from the social hall spaces on normal days by a system of removable partitions made of wood and accented with colored glass. These act in part as noise reduction between the three spaces.
The adult chapel near the sanctuary uses the same wood paneling and white ceiling, only in different forms. Here the walls are covered in a hexagonal pattern. The Ark in the chapel is a vertical recess in the wood wall.
None of the materials nor building technique used are innovative, instead the strength and innovation of the building lies in the functional and aesthetic design created by Percival Goodman.
The space, especially the sanctuary followed the contemporary model for synagogue design, where smaller intimate spaces are preferred over the grand open, impersonal spaces of synagogues of the 1950's. While the smaller spaces were especially favored by Modern Orthodox congregations, many other congregations found the more intimate, understated space preferable to a grander design. An example of the earlier design style is the Temple Beth Shalom in Miami Beach, which Percival Goodman designed in the early 1950's, and was completed 1956. The synagogue in Miami Beach has one large open space, formed from a great white dome rising high above the congregation. While beautiful, the large space is on a much grander scale than the sanctuary of Shaarey Zedek, and less human for it. This shift in scale for the sanctuaries towards one more human, is something that Percival Goodman and other synagogue designers believe will help congregants in their worship. (Gruber 157)
The sanctuary for normal service occupies about of third of the floor space of the space, the walls formed by the wood partitions. For High Holy Days and other special services, the walls are folded back and the sanctuary tripled in size. On normal days the other spaces serve as a dining hall and lecture space.
There was a trend in synagogue in the post-war years, where the design would call to mind a tent, or Mount Sinai, or the prow of a ship, all important images to the Jewish story. (Gruber 83) Shaarey Zedek is a good example of this trend as the great vertical thrust of the sanctuary portion of the building easily recalls the image a ship or a mountain. The roof, and its white interior call to mind the inside of a tent. Percival Goodman was a prolific synagogue modern architect. He helped translate the modern building vocabulary and material form to synagogues, never repeating a aesthetic design. As many Jewish congregations moved to the suburbs, part of the migration of the middle-class from the cities that took place all across America, Goodman received many commissions to design new suburban synagogues. The stained glass and art in the synagogue reflect Goodman's insistence on including modern art within his interior design. The style of both the ark and windows behind it in the sanctuary, and the furniture Goodman designed for the interior, all follow the modern aesthetic.
Historically Jews, like most other religious groups, have tended to build worship spaces in the dominant style of the time. Shaarey Zedek, and other synagogues of the post-War period, break with this tradition. Architects concern themselves, not with aping a tradition, but rather with the whole of the space, the light that fills it, and the functional use of the space by the congregation. Many of these congregations were interested in a modern style building, as architects were, as one that was uniquely Jewish not simply copying or altering the form of Christian church or other religion.
Abraham Rattner designed a large abstract stained glass window for the Chicago Loop Synagogue, the popularity of which started a trend for abstract stained glass in synagogues. The windows behind the ark in the sanctuary by Robert Pinart follow this trend.
Shaarey Zedek is both a beautiful modern building, and Percival Goodman design. Each of Percival Goodman's synagogues are unique, fitted to the site and congregation's needs. It fits well within the scope of his synagogue work, compared to the early ones it has the small, intimate spaces favored in the 1960's versus the 1950's. The expanding space of the sanctuary, is characteristic of the importance Goodman placed on the functionality of a design, the building meeting the needs of the congregation.
Gruber, Samuel, Paul Rocheleau, and Scott J. Tilden. American Synagogues: A Century of Architecture and Jewish Community. New York: Rizzoli, 2003. Print.
Israelowitz, Oscar. Synagogues of the United States: A Photographic and Architectural Survey. Brooklyn, NY: Israelowitz Pub., 1992. Print.
Meior, Richard. Recent American Synagogue Architecture. N.p.: Jewish Museum, 1963. Print.
"Shaarey Zedek." Shaarey Zedek. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Feb. 2013.
Archive of Percival Goodman Drawings and Papers, courtesy Columbia University Avery Drawings and Archives
Depicted item: Congregation Shaarey Zedek, source: From Local Projects' "The Synagogue Experience"