When students return to class at one Philadelphia school this semester, they will have a new Hillel to call home.
The Raymond G. Perelman Center for Jewish Life at Drexel University, designed by San Francisco–based Natoma Architects, anchors Jewish life on campus. The firm, which came to the project with extensive experience designing spaces for Jewish life and memory, wanted to “create a continuing community of Jewish values through meeting, learning, ceremony and ritual.”
To achieve this, the center’s design invokes shape and spirit of a menorah, the ritual candelabra that symbolizes wisdom and the creation myth, among other things. (Those who celebrated Chanukah last week light a chanukiah, or nine-candle menorah.)
The four-level, three-story building features a worship space on top divided into three sections for Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox services, plus a library. A circular court, above, connects the three spaces and gives synagogue-goers a taste of sky, free from the clutter of other buildings. Below that, offices and flexible classrooms provide venues for meetings and discussion groups, while the first and most social ground floor is connected to the upstairs by a gracious staircase that doubles as stadium seating. The basement, a kitchen and storage space, rounds out the program.
Outside, handsome, complex brickwork references the weaving of tallit, Jewish prayer shawls, and Philadelphia’s vernacular redbrick facades.
Philadelphia Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron praised the building in a recent review: “At a time when so many new buildings in our city have become relentlessly generic, it’s a pleasure to see one saturated with narrative and meaning.” The structure, Saffron said, is intended to attract more Jews to Drexel, where about seven percent of students identify as Jewish.
Natoma Architects, founded by Stanley Saitowitz, has completed synagogues in two California cities that use the same menorah motif to different effect. At Beth Sholom Synagogue in San Francisco, above, Saitowitz invoked the menorah’s traditional curves to craft a stone sanctuary on a plinth above the street. At La Jolla’s Beth El Synagogue, concrete columns alternate with glass windows and open space to create the characteristic menorah shape.
Saitowitz’s clean detailing extends to the smallest Judaica, too. His firm has a stainless steel mezuzah for sale, as well as a threaded steel chanukiah.
The $9.6-million Center for Jewish Life is one small component of the university’s recent growth. Drexel is in the midst of a major expansion, part of a $3.5-billion project to spur development in neighborhoods on opposing sides of the Schuylkill River.