Understated approach for synagogue

Design and function find harmony in a multi-faceted plan, writes Stephen Crafti.

Design and function find harmony in a multi-faceted plan, writes Stephen Crafti.

New synagogues aren't built very often in Melbourne, but when they are, the word quickly gets out in the community.

"I think the last synagogue built was at least 15 years ago," said architect Chris Idle, director of Idle Architecture, who worked closely with associate Evan Cooper. "It was certainly something that had been on the mind of this community [the Chabad Synagogue] for some time. Our first meetings with them started in 2004."

The Chabad Synagogue had been operating from a 1960s community centre-style building for several years. One option was to renovate and extend, while the other was to create a new synagogue, customised to accommodate up to 800 people.

"It would have been problematic to accommodate that number in the original building. It would have been a series of compromises," Idle said.

The new synagogue in South Caulfield features a bold and striking facade with eight striations of timber, each illuminated by a single light source.

"The eight branches reference the menorah [candlestick] used for the Hanukkah festival," said Rabbi Riesenberg. "But it's quite a subtle interpretation."

As well as references to the menorah, the synagogue's facade, with its angular forms, alludes to movement, in particular the movement of the Jewish people around the world.

"We wanted to create a strong dynamic form, rather than something which appeared static," said Idle, who included copper soffits to animate the exterior.

The two-storey synagogue opens to a laneway-style foyer, finished in a patchwork of limestone tiles. The lobby, with a double-height void, also provides an important gathering space for larger functions.

And for even larger functions or significant holidays when numbers increase, timber bi-fold doors between the function area and lobby are pulled back.

"One of our main concerns was that the synagogue felt intimate rather than overwhelming. There's definitely a worldwide trend for smaller and more bespoke synagogues which feel welcoming," Rabbi Riesenberg said.

While the lobby can be tailored to suit the occasion, the synagogue is spread over two levels. Pivotal to the design is the Bimah (a pod-like structure from which the service is delivered) made from Victorian ash, and the Tabernacle, finished in limestone, which contains the Torahs. Evocative of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, the limestone has been applied in a variety of angles to accentuate the rough texture of this wall.

A sense of the outdoors is created by the architects' use of skylights, including a circular glass skylight in the ceiling as well as the integration of polycarbonate into the walls.

Customised seating includes timber and upholstered chairs with finely woven Star of David motifs in the fabric. "We designed these chairs, but they were all produced on a kibbutz in Israel," said Idle, who found the project intriguing and satisfying.

"Our brief from the start was to provide something contemporary, but not a building that screamed for attention. But it had to suggest movement and going forward."

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