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26 May 2017

Project of the Week: Centre for Jewish Life at Drexel University, Philadelphia, United States, Stanley Saitowitz | Natoma Architects

Project of the Week: Centre for Jewish Life at Drexel University, Philadelphia, United States, Stanley Saitowitz | Natoma Architects

Project of the Week: Centre for Jewish Life at Drexel University, Philadelphia, United States, Stanley Saitowitz | Natoma Architects
 

Take a walk through downtown Philadelphia and you may come across an unusual box-like structure nestled in between the classic and modern architecture of the area. Clad in textured, red brick, the Centre for Jewish Life at Drexel University immediately grabs attention through its unique cuboid shape and facade. 

 

Centre for Jewish Life

 

Also known as Hillel House, this joint religious and education centre might not outwardly reflect its Jewish roots. These reveal themselves not by taking a closer look, but by taking a step back. Its façade, arranged in rectangular columns interspersed with glazed elements, is actually a nine-branched Menorah. The hidden religious patterning is really only revealed when the building is viewed at street level.

 

Centre for Jewish Life

 

The Menorah is one of Judaism’s most important religious symbols. The building’s façade marks a spirited way to merge religious elements into the overall composition of Hillel House without overwhelming the entire building in religious iconography. Sometimes subtly is more rewarding than aggrandisement, and this approach fits the character of the building well.

 

Centre for Jewish Life

 

It is also a highly tactile, textured structure. The interplay between the Menorah-forming frontal columns and voids, i.e. doors and windows, creates an almost undulating effect. Brick notches also cover the façade – lending the building a solid, chunky feeling; one that fosters interaction and touch.

 

Centre for Jewish Life

 

Notched facades and large, building-covering windows also serve a further purpose that fuses functionality with thematic ideas. By day, these allow light to stream in while reflecting off the brick bumps. At night, the reverse is evident, as internal lighting spills from the interiors out into the world. The idea is reflect how the Centre is a beacon of learning for Dexel University; a place that attracts the leading lights of its Jewish population, and one that shares its collective knowledge with the world.

 

Centre for Jewish Life

 

The Centre for Jewish Life is obviously a religious building at its heart. But, like many such religious centres the world over, it is more than that. It functions as a place of worship, but also as a community and educational hub for Philadelphia’s Jewish community at large – not just its student wing. As such, it features various functionalities split over four interconnected levels. These have been organised by the architects, San Francisco-based Stanley Saitowtiz | Natoma Architects, into four zones: Support, Action, Formation, and Worship.

 

Centre for Jewish Life

 

Support covers the buildings utilities. These are located in Hillel House’s basement, which includes kitchens, storage, and mechanical areas. 

 

Centre for Jewish Life

 

The street level is the Action level, dedicated to everyday life or the business of fostering community links. This is first typified in the multi-level courtyard that greets the centre’s visitors. Internally, the reception holds an staircase, linking it the second floor, as well as an amphitheatre, auditorium with balcony, and an eating area. The eating area backs onto a garden, providing further spaces for visitors to meet and engage with one another, cultivating that communal atmosphere.

 

Centre for Jewish Life

 

Formation, or the educational core of the Centre for Jewish Life, is located on the second floor. Here visitors have access to offices, rooms for quiet study, places for group learning, and other education-focussed facilities.

 

Centre for Jewish Life

 

Finally, at the top of Hillel House, are found the sanctified spaces given over to worship. This “Shabbat Floor” hosts three separate prayer gatherings. Each serves the three major branches of Judaism (Conservative, Orthodox, and Reform).

 

Centre for Jewish Life

 

These are connected via a central court sitting underneath a circular cut which exposes interiors to Philadelphia’s soaring sky. According to the architects, this affords this holy spot the only views of the city free of mankind’s influence. Only the works of the Almighty (clear, undisturbed skies) are displayed here. The courtyard connects the three branches of Jewish worship together in shared faith, not just physically.

 

Centre for Jewish Life

 

Additionally, the top floor links both the religious and educational aspects of the Centre for Jewish Life together. It is here where the Beiy Midrash, or “House of Learning” is located. Essentially, this is a large library full of religious works and cultural tomes aimed at furthering the study and understanding of Judaism. 

 

Centre for Jewish Life

 

Colour schemes differ internally as visitors move through Hillel House. Downstairs, at the reception area, spaces are characterised by terracotta oranges, reminiscent of the red brick façade, and timber flooring. Places for worship, however, are finished in softer hues (pinks, lilacs, and gentle purples) offering a feminist counterpoint the more masculine shades seen elsewhere in the building.

 

Centre for Jewish Life

 

All told, the Centre for Jewish Life at Drexel University merges aesthetics with functionality in a very pleasing way. Its programmatic layout allows it to function as intended: a hotspot for sharing cultural information and a hub for the community to meet, worship, and learn together in one place. A welcome addition, then, to the hallowed halls of Project of the Week.

 

Images: © Stanley Saitowitz
Source: worldbuild365.com


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