‘A New Sacred Space’ for Congregation Beth Shalom

Acclaimed Architect Preston Scott Cohen to Design a New Sanctuary at Beth Shalom’s Overland Park Site

Congregation Beth Shalom traces its roots to 1915, when a group of congregants separated from Congregation Keneseth and took up temporary lodging at 31st and Charlotte streets in Kansas City. Over the next century, Beth Shalom occupied a series of properties on the Missouri, and then the Kansas, side of the state line, reflecting the growth and migration of the Jewish community in the Kansas City area.

The next chapter in the congregation’s storied history will soon be written with a new sacred space designed by internationally recognized architect Preston Scott Cohen at its current site, 14200 Lamar Avenue in Overland Park.

The Lamar site building was constructed in 2006 to serve primarily as a school. As Gina Kaiser, chair of Beth Shalom’s Sacred Space Committee, explained, the plan was to add a sanctuary, but that was delayed by the recession.

For about a year, the congregation continued to use the sanctuary at its previous location at Bannister and Wornall Roads. It then began to use a multi-purpose room at the Lamar site for smaller gatherings, such as weekly Shabbat services and weddings, and to rent space at the Jewish Community Center for High Holy Days, which attract much larger numbers.

But the JCC multi-purpose room, as Kaiser puts it, is “less than inspirational from an aesthetic standpoint.” There is a need for a “true sacred space,” she added, one that “enhances one’s connection to God.”

Enter Preston Scott Cohen. Cohen is the principal of Preston Scott Cohen Inc, an architectural firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts, celebrated for its innovative geometry and its new approach to integrating buildings with their environment.

The sanctuary for Beth Shalom is not Cohen’s first sanctuary. He recently designed one for Temple Beth El in Springfield, Massachusetts, where Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz, who previously served as an associate at Beth Shalom, alerted Cohen to Beth Shalom’s plans. Cohen investigated the proposed project and threw his hat into the ring.

As Kaiser puts it, Beth Shalom chose Cohen based on his “stunning” design work and his “accommodating” and enthusiastic approach. In an interview with “KC Studio,” Cohen welcomed the project, saying that designing a sacred space is the “most wonderful opportunity for an architect.”

On Feb. 21, Cohen spoke at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art’s Third Thursday Visiting Artist Presentation. He chose as his topic “Idea and Precedent: Connecting Art and Architecture” and addressed how art and architecture have influenced each other over the course of the last century. He included Beth Shalom in his remarks and identified two challenges of the project.

The first was how to design a “beautiful” and “stately” sanctuary next to a “functional” structure built to serve as a school. Second, he needed to consider how to properly accommodate the large fluctuations in attendance for its various uses.

Cohen explained that his design, still at the conceptual stage, was inspired by the Torah and the Polish synagogues that were destroyed during World War II. The result is an oval-shaped sanctuary — as opposed to the more commonplace longitudinal axis design — that resembles the Ark of the Covenant with its high walls and sculpted Torah scrolls.

Two scroll-like, tubular designs are proposed for the exterior, one near the main entrance and the other on the opposite side. Two other scroll-like designs, appearing to be partially unrolled, grace the interior of the sanctuary. A smaller scroll motif is superimposed on a larger one, behind the bimah, with the Ark located in the center.

Seating in the sanctuary is divided between unsecured chairs and permanent pews, separated to accommodate different attendances, which can vary from around 100 to more than 700, the former needing a more intimate setting.

A balcony is planned for the rear of the sanctuary, and a library/minion has been designed for the main floor, where small groups may gather to pray or study the Torah. The sanctuary building, located at the far end of the existing complex, faces east (as is required), thereby angling it away and further distinguishing it from the existing building.

A History of Innovation

In addition to his work for Preston Scott Cohen Inc, Cohen is the Gerald M. McCue Professor of Architecture at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. He has received numerous honors, including induction as an academician into the National Academy of Art, five Progressive Architecture Awards, first prizes for seven international competitions, and an Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

He is also the author of “Contested Symmetries and Other Predicaments in Architecture” (2001), which features his intricate abstract geometries and his explanation as to the mechanics and theory behind their application.

Preston Scott Cohen Inc has designed projects around the world. The most celebrated of the firm’s designs is the Tel Aviv Museum of Art’s new Amir Building, completed in 2011. A model of the “Lightfall,” an 87-foot-tall spiraling atrium, which was the most talked-about feature of the Amir building, was exhibited in Harvard’s Druker Design Gallery in 2012.

As explained in the Druker Design Gallery exhibit, the Amir Building posed “an extraordinary architectural challenge: to resolve the tension between the tight, idiosyncratic triangular site and the museum’s need for a series of large, neutral rectangular galleries.”

To solve the first challenge, the triangular, nearly 200,000-square-foot building was twisted into the site. In an article in “Harvard Design Magazine,” Robert Levit of the University of Toronto School of Architecture compared Cohen’s maneuver to “grasping the building’s roof and base between the palms of one’s hands, then turning them slightly so the building’s bounding walls warp.”

Cohen met the second challenge by, as he put it, “twisting geometric surfaces of the Lightfall that connects the disparate angles between the galleries . . . while refracting natural light into the deepest recesses of the half-buried building.” The result is a spectacular, sculptured spiraling effect connecting the different levels, leading to a glass ceiling.

Soon the Kansas City audience will have an opportunity to experience Cohen’s architectural mastery. Beth Shalom’s Kaiser hopes the project will start construction in spring 2020 and be finished in 2022.

Kaiser and Cohen have high praise for Kansas City’s BNIM, the architectural firm that will collaborate on the project. Principal Steve McDowell says he looks forward to working with Cohen and Beth Shalom to realize the congregation’s “spiritual mission” and to create “an inspirational space.”

Bryan F. Le Beau

Bryan F. Le Beau is retired from the University of Saint Mary, where he served as Professor of History, Provost, and Vice President for Academic Affairs. He is the author of several books on American cultural and religious history.

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