Holy Blossom Temple Renewal

Submitted by Diamond Schmitt Architects

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Client: Holy Blossom Temple

Location: Toronto, ON, Canada

Completion date: 2020

Project Team

Architect

Martin Davidson, Duncan Higgins

Diamond Schmitt

Artist: Parochet & Glass Panels of the Twelve Tribes of Israel

Sharon Epstein

Sharon Epstein Textiles

Artist: Blown Glass Ner Tamid

Blaise Campbell

Jeff Goodman Studio

Wood Design and Fabrication

MCM

Overview

The renewal of Holy Blossom Temple transforms a historic synagogue into a contemporary, integrated campus. Containing a House of Worship, a House of Learning, and a new House of Gathering, the campus is home to Toronto’s first Jewish congregation.

Designed in 1938 by Chapman and Oxley, Holy Blossom Temple was built in Romanesque Revival style and featured an 1100-seat sanctuary. A modernist addition by John B. Parkin Associates, in 1960, offered an education wing—a House of Learning. However, this addition shifted the architectural centre of the original building, causing an unintended maze-like experience throughout.

Exploring the campus led to re-imagining—and transforming—its latent spaces. Positioned between the two historic buildings, a new light-filled atrium rises four floors, complete with a helical staircase and a vast skylight above. Here, architecture emerges by converting marginal into critical, defining a House of Gathering. This gesture—the third House—transforms the experience of the Temple, providing a place for celebratory and communal events akin to a living room. It also—physically and visually—connects the two existing buildings and the ancillary spaces, offering a comprehensive campus that is the Holy Blossom Temple today.

Goals

Framed by two different buildings, the renewal finds an architectural language which bridges the gap between the decorative and the austere. The integration of art was critical to develop an artistic thread in time and space from the 1938 Sanctuary to the new architecture.

Taking cues from the Sanctuary, the renewal showcases abstracted decoration to highlight moments of spiritual and community connection. Natural light casts shadows across the surface of the boardform concrete walls and carved textures on wooden doors to recognize entry. Passages of text are cast into the 1938 concrete; in the new atrium, text is cut out of the plate steel guard allowing stories to be revealed at different times of the day.

To mark the transition from public to sacred space, and from new to old, 12 glass panels inset within 12 monolithic panels of stone form a vestibule to the sanctuary. Vibrant coloured glass illustrate the twelve tribes of Israel, while referencing the stained glass of the Sanctuary.

In the new Family Chapel a hand-blown coloured glass vessel contains the Ner Tamid, the eternal light, which hangs above the carved wooden Ark. Inside, the rich colours of the stained glass are transposed to the bold Parochet, the Ark curtain. Both artworks celebrate the sacred.

Process

As the architecture took inspiration from the existing Sanctuary, so too did the artwork. The red glass of the existing Ner Tamid inspired the use of the same hand-blown material for the new light. Informed by the existing, we worked with Blaise Campbell to create a singular vessel based on the basic pinched form of an olive oil lamp. This asymmetrical form is then hung on a custom retractable light armature which can be lifted into the ceiling when required.

An abstraction of the Star of David, seen in the centre of the Rose Window, inspired the carved wood motif used throughout. With our millworker, MCM, we worked to find the right scale and depth of carving, before applying it to doors of the Family Chapel and the Ark within. The carving of the Ark doors was developed to reveal the story illustrated on the Parochet behind.

The vibrant design of the Parochet began with an inspirational text from Rabbi Splansky. Artist Sharon Epstein used an iterative process of sketch review and fabric sampling to convey the essence of the text with strong composition and vivacious colours. A combination of printed velvet and hand stitching results in a powerful, but delicate textile.

Sharon was also the artist of the colourful Twelve Tribe glass, which enrich the Sanctuary entry.

Additional Information

While acknowledging the past and looking to its future, the Holy Blossom Renewal project commemorates the story of its congregation through a contemporary architecture. It reveals the significance of history, juxtaposing it with a modern vision—one that celebrates community and continuity. This renewal project, as a complete renovation, is targeting LEED Silver.