Alien Semiotics of Botta’s Synagogue at Tel Aviv University

Mel Alexenberg

While Gerhy’s art museum expresses the Jewish dynamic, vigorous, and passionate structure of consciousness, Mario Botta’s 1997 Cymbalista Synagogue at Tel Aviv University expresses the opposite sensibility, Roman update of Hellenistic form.  Botta’s architecture negates the fragile, portable, human scale, moveable modular architecture of the mishkan.  In the essay “Roman with Modern Forms” in Mario Botta: The Complete Works, Benedikt Loderer writes: “Botta manages to build Roman with modern forms….  They are always massive, solid, firm volumes.  They are still standing in “saecula saeculorum,” immovable…his walls always appear massive.  They always seem heavy and strong to us, we think they are unconquerable.  They are Roman walls made of contemporary layers.”  Botta prefers the symmetry honored in Greek thought that Bowman identifies as static and harmonious.  “Symmetry protects from coincidence and prevents arbitrariness.  It establishes a geometric demand which must be obeyed.”  

Botta’s symmetrical synagogue misses the main point that the place between the twin turnings of the Torah scroll is where the action is.  A column or two of text at a time is revealed to the reader who follows the lines with a pointer as he brings the hand-written Hebrew letters to life through his public chanting.  It only reaches symmetry in the middle of the year.  It begins with the full scroll on one side, gradually growing smaller as the weekly reading proceeds until the whole scroll has moved to the second side.  Holidays require movement back and forth in counterpoint to the annual cycle.   The space between two towers in Botta’s synagogue is an entrance hall, a bridge separating two activity centers.  In a 1988 Museum of Modern Art film, Botta marvels at bridges as architecture speaking from a car cruising down FDR Drive along NYC’s East River.  He talks about how a bridge has the power to create a new space that unites two banks.  However, his bridge in his Cymbalista building experienced as a powerless non-space linking two powerful soaring spaces. 

As an architecture student in Italy, he may have seen the dual focus of the 1548 Scola Italiano synagogue in Padua.  It is a long and narrow room with ark and bima facing each other connected to the middle of the long walls only a few feet away from each other.  The space between the ark and bima is a stage for the active process of carrying the Torah scroll to be read from the ark to the bima and then returning it after the public reading.  Although Botta created a synagogue with a dual focus, he missed the point that the bridge itself is a focus of sacred action.  The two towers separate learning from prayer.   The synagogue is beit kneset in Hebrew.  It means “meeting house” where study and prayer traditionally merge and are often celebrated with eating and drinking in a single multi-purpose space.

My first encounter with Botta’s building walking on the Tel Aviv University campus is seeing two smokestacks.  At first, I thought it was the campus power plant.  When I got closer and saw that it was synagogue, I was horrified.  It resembled smokestacks of crematoria in the death camps aimed at the annihilation of the Jewish people.  It presented a semiotic statement that gave me the strong urge to turn away and run.

Inside of both towers, one experiences the metamorphosis of a rectangular room soaring up into a circle.  Rectangle and circle are closed forms that can symbolize negative values in Judaism.  The Israelites were enslaved in the malben during their Egyptian bondage.  The Hebrew word malben means both brickyard and the rectangular geometric form.  The rectangle is a closed form that must be opened to free ourselves from Egypt, in Hebrew mitzrayim, which literally means “narrow straits.”  In the Torah, we learn that a rectangular garment must be broken open with fringes flowing out from each of the four corners.  Each of the fringes includes four sets of spirals ending in branches. Unlike circles and rectangles, spirals and branches are open-ended forms.  The circle symbolizes idolatry.  It is the sun god (the Ra) of ancient Egypt that was transformed into an idol usually called the golden calf.  In Hebrew, the word for calf, egel, is written with the same three letters as the word as egool meaning circle.  Although usually read as “golden calf,” it can also be read as “golden circle,” the sungod Ra.  Transformation from square to circle in Botta’s synagogue symbolizes movement from slavery to idolatry, from the brickyards of Egypt to the golden circle/calf, not from the narrow confines of Egypt to the freedom of the open desert.

If one senses opening in Botta’s synagogue, it is gazing up to the sky from the pit.  Jacques Gubler in his essay on Botta, writes: “Bott’s buildings always have a reference to the sky, to the heavens.  He once said: ‘In open rooms a person can once again approach the stars.’”  Botta completed the Church of San Giovanni Battista the same year he began working on the Cybalista Synagogue.  This beautiful church is a single tower where a square rises up to become a circular skylight.  It expresses the centrality of one’s gaze upward toward the heavens characteristic of Christianity.  Botta’s synagogue is basically two of these churches connected with an insignificant bridge.  Although Judaism does not negate occasional glances upward, the essence of Jewish experience moves in the opposite direction in its attempt to bring heaven down to earth.  In his book, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, Kandinsky uses a triangle with its apex pointing upwards as a metaphor for spirituality.  Hasidism points out that the Jewish people are called am segulah, the People of the Segol.  The segol is a three-dot vowel point.  When connected they form a triangle pointing downward.  The color violet in Hebrew is segol, which brings the blue of the sky down to the red (adom) of the earth (adamah) and mixes them together.   The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem M. Schneerson, teaches: “It is not enough for the Jew to rest content with his own spiritual ascent, the elevation of his soul in closeness to G-d.  He must also strive to draw spirituality down into the world and every part of his involvement with it – the world of his work and his social life – until not only do they not distract him from his pursuit of G-d, but they become a full part of it.”  

Sitting on rows of fixed seats in church-like synagogues does not lend itself to the spirited dancing welcoming the Sabbath in increasing numbers of Chabad, Carlebach, havurah, and Jewish Renewal minyanim.  It does not lend itself to the dynamics of hevrutah study expanded globally through the Internet, to learning in multisense, multiage, interactive ways like the Pesach seder as participatory performance art, and to community action in social and political realms.  The challenge of the postmodern synagogue architect is to create formal statements that express the deep structure of Jewish consciousness. They must seek new ways to create down-to-earth expressions of alternative forms of synagogue usage as prayer and torah study are evolving to become more dynamic and expansive.