Mark Lamster | Essays

Philip Johnson’s Synagogue Problem

In the mid-1950s, Philip Johnson designed a synagogue for Kneses Tifereth Israel, a congregation in suburban Port Chester, New York. Johnson, in the 1930s and early 1940s, had been a proponent of Nazi Germany and a writer of anti-semitic tracts, so the job was presented as a kind of atonement, and completed without fee. It was also his largest institutional commission to date (at the time, he was primarily an architect of refined modernist homes), so a handy resume builder.

Johnson provided a little commentary on his design thinking for this project in a catalog for the 1963 exhibition Recent American Synagogue Architecture, curated by a young Richard Meier at New York's Jewish Museum:  
The problem in designing the contemporary synagogue is a nearly impossible one....The difficulty comes from the habits of the High Holy Days when the attendance, shall we say, swells. Now the space is either great small or great large, but it can hardly act like an accordion and be great small and large. How to design a room that will be great both ways? Our solution at Port Chester was a great room, with a small screen divider, because it seemed to us that most of the congregation comes on the on High Holy Days and we wanted the community to enjoy the temple.
The "High Holiday" problem, it should be noted, is not any different for a Jewish house of worship than it is for a Christian one. In any case, there are tools at the architect's disposal to mitigate this problem: a fan layout, for instance, in which the wings can be closed off, is a good deal more amenable to shifting audience sizes. Balconies offer additional space that can be filled on busy holidays but otherwise don't make a place feel empty. Which is all to say, Johnson's suggestion that a space can either be "great small" or "great large" is false. KTI, anyway, isn't great, period. 

Johnson's design, a rectangular box for the sanctuary with an attached eliptical entry pavilion, was essentially cribbed from an earlier project, for a church. (The relationship between pavilion and sanctuary is considerably more fluid in the original scheme.) The sanctuary is a simple, bright room, its signature element being its wavy ceiling, which is suspended from above and appears to float, like a giant rectangular ribbon pinned to the walls. There's nothing particularly ethereal about it, though it is impressive, and is arguably an early manifestation of postmodern design. Johnson liked cathedrals. I suspect he had that kind of scale in mind when he designed this big shoebox.  

The congregation has wrestled with the building for decades, and a few years ago undertook an unfortunate renovation. The dramatic Ibram Lassaw sculpture that had been placed behind the altar has been replaced with a panel of Jerusalem stone. One can at least muster some justification for the removal of the wire sculpture, which some claimed reminded them of concentration camp fencing. There really is no defense for the egregious screen that divides the sanctuary in half, leaving the back free as an open space for synagogue functions. 

One sympathizes with the congregation; dealing with this ungainly space is not easy. Johnson himself couldn't figure out how to do it, and wound up designing for the exception rather than the rule. But there's got to be a more elegant solution, and it need not break the bank. The building, whatever its weaknesses, is not without qualities. It may never be great, but it doesn't have to be bad.

Some images follow.

Comments [9]

The punchline for an old Jewish gent ....." so what did you expect for free from a former Nazi ? " Great article !!

Is the explanation of Johnson's design intent really so simple? Adapting an unused design for a different client, no matter the dogma or liturgy, isn't really that shocking, let alone in 20th century.
Any record of the design process with client? What you call a "wave" I see as his major interest in vault forms during the period. And actually, it resembles more a tent. Talith symbology, anyone? The project dismissal seems a bit too quick.
Jon Buono

i don't think i've dismissed the project. i think it's an interesting, if not entirely successful building, which is why i put this piece up. it's disappointing that the congregation hasn't done better by it. otherwise, yes, johnson was interested in vaults at the time, as the metropolis piece i've linked to makes very clear.

it's an important commission for johnson, so you can be sure i will be dealing with it in greater depth down the line.
mark lamster


I'm curious about your first paragraph. Was the job "presented as a kind of atonement" at the time? Was the congregation aware of the extent of Johnson's fascist activities (the ride into Poland following the Wehrmacht and his acompanying anti-semitic articles)?

I had always understood that Johnson's friends had suppressed his history of fascism and racism effectively enough that it was only known by those closest to him.

Was his backstory something everybody knew, but nobody mentioned in polite company (until Sorkin in Spy Magazine)?

javier zeller

the trustees were aware, or some of them were--everyone was too polite to confront it too much. "presented" may have been a poor word choice by me: it was not publicly offered as an expiation.the majority of the congregation was almost certainly unaware.

otherwise, johnson's history was no great secret in ny society at that time. some forgave him for it. others didn't.
mark lamster

Glad you posted this. I've always wanted to see his famous "atonement." And you analysis is always informative.

You say "johnson's history was no great secret in ny society at that time. some forgave him for it. others didn't." This is true with a caveat.

Fact is, many in NY society were anti-Semites (NY was loaded with "exclusive" clubs, like the Metropolitan Club. Across the street is the Harmonie Club, created by Jews who were restricted from joining NY society). This group of anti-Semites may not have supported Hitler, but many did, both philosophically and (as in the case of Henry Ford) monetarily.

I hear from Johnson's friends that he did indeed do generous things for others, including his Jewish friends. Maybe you can elaborate on how, what, where and when he renounced his youthful fascination with the Nazis and Father Coughlin.
Steven heller


johnson was a man of contradictions. he was a friend to jews at the same time that he was condemning them. he began his process of expiation during the war--with his words, his actions, and his checkbook.

this is a subject that demands a lot more than a reply in a blog post comment thread. i will be addressing it in depth, in the future.


mark lamster

a work in keeping with his normal quality.
not a maestro, but working the crowd and performing well.

It turns out that Johnson probably did not have atonement in mind as much as "getting the job." In my new book, Building After Auschwitz: Jewish Architecture and the Memory of the Holocaust (Yale, 2011), I discuss the story of KTI in a bit of detail. It happens to be the case that Johnson first offered his design to another local synagogue, Temple Sholom in Greenwich, but not for free (he did so through his contacts with Albert and Vera List, who were congregants). This is why the board of trustees ended up going with the cheaper design of the architect, Ralph Pomerance, who was a congregant (and the brother in law of historian, Barbara Tuchman). Only after Johnson was rejected by Temple Sholom did he offer his design to KTI, this time for free. Had altruism and atonement been motivating forces, he should have offered his design to Temple Sholom for free in the first place.

-Gavriel Rosenfeld

Jobs | May 19