The Old Testament contains one of the oldest architectural briefs in history: A description of the Tabernacle, a portable compound that God describes as his earthly dwelling place. It’s a surprisingly specific set of guidelines — from the dimensions of the tent to the dolphin-skin roof — which have been interpreted in countless ways over the centuries. So what would it look like if it was built in modern-day Manhattan?
That was the question asked of New York architecture firm HWKN by the author of Unscrolled, a new book that invites artists and writers to reinterpret pieces of the Hebrew Bible. As part of their contribution to the book, the designers at HWKN transplanted God’s guidelines into midtown Manhattan, imagining the tent as a contemporary building. “Every synagogue looks different all over the world, but when you go back and look at the Torah it’s evident that God actually gave us a style,” says principal HWKN Marc Kushner. “We took those instructions almost verbatim from the Bible.”
There’s been quite a bit of disagreement about the section of Exodus in question, though. In T’rumah (“Offering”) from Exodus 25:1-27:19, God hands down directions to build a “dazzling Tabernacle” to house the divine presence while the Israelites wander the desert (“And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them,” he tells Moses). Originally, that meant a fenced-in compound around a tent, inside of which rested holy relics like the Ark of the Covenant. But some scholars argue that God was actually describing the layout of the Temple of Solomon, which would explain the dimensions of the “portable” divine sanctuary. Later on, these rules inspired the layout of modern-day synagogues.
HWKN’s design borrows a bit from both branches of scholarship. In order to fit the compound dimensions onto their site in Midtown, they flipped it 90 degrees on its side, creating a tall, thin tower criss-crossed with long staircases (“There was plenty of room for the Tabernacle in the desert, but finding a place for it in Manhattan would require a lot of real estate,” explain the designers). Inside its glassy frame rest the elements bestowed by God in Exodus: The large golden box is the Ark of the Covenant, while the smoke billowing from the façade is a nod to the Altar of Burnt Offerings.
Of course, HWKN’s commission was entirely conceptual — this is a think piece on how we understand the specifics of a 3500-year-old writ from God in contemporary times, not an actual proposal for a skyscraper synagogue. But it’s worth pointing out that it joins a number of real-world news stories about religion-related architecture in Manhattan.
Just a few years ago, designs for a 13-storey building meant to house an Islamic Cultural Center in Lower Manhattan sparked controversy within the freakout-prone GOP. And likewise, this April, Trinity Church made news when it was forced to reveal its assets, which amounted to $US2 billion and included some of the most valuable properties in the city.
It seems that in Manhattan, it’s almost impossible to divide church and real estate.