Architecturally speaking, the landmark Wilshire Boulevard Temple, home to the oldest Jewish congregation in Los Angeles, is a tough act to follow. Built in 1929 and designed by architect Abram M. Edelman in a hybrid of Byzantine and Romanesque styles, the magnificent domed synagogue has all the exotic glamour of the great movie palaces of the era (think Grauman’s Chinese Theatre). Beneath a coffered dome that nods to the Pantheon in Rome, the interior is lined with a cycle of dramatic figurative murals depicting key moments in Jewish history—a rare exception to Judaism’s traditional avoidance of figurative synagogue art. Not surprisingly, the murals were commissioned by the Warner brothers and executed by artist and silent-film director Hugo Ballin.
In 2015, WBT launched an international design competition, funded by the late Eli Broad, for a new structure on the congregation’s Erika J. Glazer Family Campus in Koreatown, which encompasses school buildings, recreation areas, and the Karsh Family Social Service Center, through which the temple and local organizations work together to offer comprehensive resources to the surrounding community. The new building, containing event spaces, meeting rooms, offices, a medium-size chapel, and a variety of outdoor terraces, was conceived, first and foremost, as a place of gathering.
“The upside of the terrible downside of the COVID pandemic is the pent-up demand to connect, to sing together, to pray together, and to put our arms around each other,” says WBT’s senior rabbi, Steve Leder. “In planning this building, we had to aspire to be as great as museums. We knew that only a singular, iconic building would excite and inspire people,” he adds.
OMA, the Rotterdam-based Office for Metropolitan Architecture, which had been a bridesmaid in earlier design competitions for L.A.’s Broad museum and the reimagining of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, ultimately won the WBT commission. Under the direction of partner Shohei Shigematsu and the OMA New York office, the firm produced an ingenious scheme that deftly balances architectural brio and deference to the landmark temple. The Audrey Irmas Pavilion, as it came to be known, was named in honor of its lead donor, who funded her $30 million donation with proceeds from the $70.5 million sale of a classic Cy Twombly blackboard painting in 2015.
“Event spaces are notoriously difficult. You have to build in so much flexibility that they typically become characterless and hermetic,” Shigematsu says, describing one of the project’s main challenges. “Here, the event spaces needed to maintain their own integrity while acknowledging the old temple and the other buildings on the campus,” he adds.
Shigematsu and his team took the basic structure of a box—the generic model for event spaces—and finessed it into a quasi-parallelogram, with façades that cant in response to the program’s various conceptual and functional imperatives. The pavilion leans away from the temple and the old school building in a show of reverence for the historic structures—a move that also opens up the existing courtyard to an influx of natural light. The south side of the pavilion tilts forward to embrace the busy Wilshire Boulevard corridor, physically and symbolically reaching out to the community. “Much as the building engages the neighborhood, it also feels like it’s opening its arm to the future,” Rabbi Leder notes.
The façade is clad in a field of rotated hexagonal panels, each housing a rectangular window, which underscores the dynamism of the architecture in a dazzling play of pattern and color alive to the movement of natural light. At night, the building glows like a perforated Moroccan lantern. Three interlocking event spaces, articulated as voids carved within the monolithic volume, offer a range of experiences. On the first floor, the grand ballroom, a sprawling, column-free expanse—the largest of the venues—features a dramatic vaulted ceiling of book-matched sassandra wood veneer and a floor of polished red concrete with exposed aggregate. The second level contains a trapezoidal chapel and outdoor terrace that frame views of the temple’s stained-glass windows in a gesture reminiscent of the perspectival compositions of Renaissance paintings. The third floor, occupied by Wallis Annenberg GenSpace, a community center for older adults founded by the prolific L.A. philanthropist, is laid out around a circular sunken garden that leads to a rooftop terrace.
“We emphasized a sense of transparency and porosity through sight lines and apertures that connect the major interior spaces while forging bonds between the pavilion, the existing campus buildings, and the city beyond,” Shigematsu says of his instant L.A. landmark. “Connectivity is the heart of this project.”
Originally Appeared on Architectural Digest