The Pietro Belluschi/Charles Wise designed Mandell Sanctuary at Temple Adath Israel in Merion Station, Pennsylvania, recently underwent major renovations led by Atkin Olshin Shade Architects. Among other updates, two backlit art glass screens, each 12.5′ h x 11.5′ w, were commissioned and installed on either side of the Ark (the cabinet that contains the Torah scrolls). These screens were designed to infuse the space with new energy, while referencing Jewish symbolism and the synagogue’s history.
Temple Adath Israel’s origins go back to 1936 with most of the facilities built in the 1950s and few updates made since then despite significant and ongoing growth. The synagogue accommodates vastly different sizes of groups, from intimate services with several dozen congregants to High Holiday services with many hundreds of people, posing unique design challenges. Hence, the renovation goals included improving capacity, access, and flexibility through a range of critical updates, while honoring the historical building design and the interests of the community.
The goals for the commissioned artwork aligned with these larger goals, particularly in the realm of access, as the team considered not only physical access but also a broader aesthetic access. This included transforming the relatively dark sanctuary into a lighter, more welcoming environment that would offer a sense of contemplation, hope, peace, and community for groups large and small. To this end, the we spoke in depth during the planning process about the ways in which color, pattern, and light have a profound impact on the visitor’s experience.
This project was highly collaborative, involving numerous participants, including Rabbi Eric Yanoff, the architects at Atkin Olson Shade, and the synagogue’s in-house design review committee. Other participants included the project management team, glazing contractor, millwork company, and lighting consultant. My first task involved becoming very familiar with the whole renovation project and its goals, then with the Sanctuary itself, and finally with the specific area where my art glass installation would live. The design process then involved many conversations with Rabbi Yanoff about Jewish symbolism, the history of the space, and the needs of the congregation. In settings like this one, where a strong community has existed for many years, changes in design can be overwhelming, even alienating, so we wanted to proceed with utmost sensitivity, thoroughly considering and contextualizing our decisions in close dialogue with the synagogue community. I gave multiple presentations of my design ideas, including samples of the glass, and a mock-up to study the proposed lighting; and I worked in concert with the entire team to realize the final concept.
The renovated space opened last fall, on the first day of Rosh Hashanah 5775, with a dedication by Rabbi Yanoff in which he spoke about the challenges and opportunities that come with any dramatic change, and how every aspect of the renovation had been considered according to Jewish symbolism. In his sermon, Rabbi Yanoff eloquently summarized the result of our collaboration: “The blue glass, like the blue fringe on a tallit [a Jewish prayer shawl], is intended to reflect both the water… and the heavens. That’s why the blues fade away, intended to draw our eyes upward, heavenward.”
Adath Israel Art Glass Installation
Time-lapse video of installation
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CODA: Collaboration of Design + Art
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Art matters. Attention to the details of our environment leads to love of place, which brings us to take responsibility for the spaces where we live and work. And by extension, the people with whom we live and work. And by extension, to our local communities, our cities, our nations, and our world.
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