IS THERE SUCH A THING AS JEWISH DESIGN? IF SO, WHAT ARE THE HALLMARKS? HOW HAS THE KABBALAH INFLUENCED ART AND ARCHITECTURE? THE PRINCIPLES OF THIS AGE OLD PRACTICE ARE MORE PRESENT IN JEWISH ART AND ARCHITECTURE THAN ONE COULD IMAGINE. ARCHITECT ALEXANDER GORLIN SHARES HOW KABBALAH HAS INFLUENCED HIS DESIGNS AND THOSE OF MANY OTHERS WELL-KNOWN ARCHITECTS, AND SHOWS US HOW TO DETECT ITS INFLUENCE WHEN VIEWING ARCHITECTURE.
By Nelson Agelvis
Alexander Gorlin jokes that his first brush with Kabbalah was a visit to the family mystic. Inheriting him and his advice from his mother, Gorlin was told he would do well in real estate. As an architect, he was close.
His journey began in 1995. Hired to renovate Louis Kahn’s synagogue in Kings Point, New York, Gorlin turned back to Kabbalah with fervor. For Gorlin, Kabbalah offered a window into the origins of Jewish design. He went back to the Zohar—the foundation work of Kabbalah—to study the origins of its thinking.
“Kabbalah now means many things to people when they hear it,” said Alexander Gorlin, founder of Alexander Gorlin Architects, an AD100 architecture and interior design firm responsible for some of the world’s most iconic homes and institutions, including the redevelopment of Bell Labs in Holmdel, New Jersey.
“When people hear Kabbalah now, they think of popular culture or wellness. Before any modern day celebrities made a name for Kabbalah, it was known to only a small portion of Jewish men over 40,” he said. Lost during the period of the Enlightment and the growth of Reform Judaism, few realize that Kabbalah was once at the heart of Judaism, for almost 300 years.
Since that epiphany that came to him with his work at Kings Point, Gorlin has seen certain trends everywhere he goes. In his book Kabbalah in Art and Architecture, published by Pointed Leaf Press, Gorlin shows examples of themes from the Jewish creation story that may have sparked the creative juices of some of the world’s most well-known architects, such as Frank Gehry, Daniel Libeskind, Richard Meier, and Louis Kahn; and artists such as Anselm Kiefer and Yayoi Kusama.
He has found that the Kabbalah is filled with metaphors pregnant with meaning for the arts and architecture. Concepts such as the void, sephirot, vessels of light, the breaking of the vessels, tikkun and the golem, all trace back to Kabbalastic thinking and all appear in groundbreaking works. On his book, Gorlin says:
This book is a personal interpretation of the Kabbalah as a source of ideas and inspiration. As Kabbalah is a theory of correspondence with everything connected to everything else, it is not inappropriate to ascribe Kabbalistic meanings to art or architecture—in illustration, allusion, metaphor, symbol or parallel, even when clearly not intended, as in American architect Frank Gehry’s museum in Bilbao, Spain. Gehry told me he had wanted to design a synagogue for years, and when I asked him about the Kabbalah, he told me ‘he tried to study the Zohar, but it was too difficult.
This might be the first time a parallel between Kabbalah and architecture is drawn, because while artists enjoy much more freedom, architecture is a study in pragmatism first and foremost, and Kabbalah has long suffered from being viewed as too abstract, too irrational and too much folk superstition.
HOW TO SPOT THE INFLUENCE OF KABBALAH IN A BUILDING OR ART INSTALLATION
Color plays a central part in the Kabbalah. Blue, purple and crimson were often depicted throughout the Zohar. Curtains were especially important in marking sacredness.
The Space Between
Artists and architects use a void to create a sense of drama or stark imbalance. It’s an area without, and thus one that makes one question.
Israeli architect Moshe Safdie designed the Yad Vashem, or Hand of God, Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, with a 600-foot-long gash through Mount Herzl. The void is carved in light by the skylight and it is a steep triangle seen in sections. Similarly, in Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin, Germany, a visitor zig-zags along the path of the Tzimtzum, the contraction of G-d in the universe.
Abstraction in Form and Light
Kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria of Safed, Israel, was a major figure in Kabbalistic teachings. In 1570, he proposed a dramatic concept that was equal to Tzimtzum. It was Sh’virat Ha-Kelim or the “breaking of the vessels” of light. He used this as a tool to explain the apparent disorder and chaos in our world.
According to Gorlin, it is said that G-d’s ten glowing vessels in the void eventually cannot contain the divine light flowing into them so they explode, breaking into myriad shards. On this, Gorlin writes:
One Kabbalistic theory is that the light of the vessels was unstable, combining good and evil in a volatile mixture that blew up. This idea contends that the first emanation of the Divine light was a means for G-d to purify himself of the evil that was mixed in with the good. Evil is therefore construed to be an original part of the Divine, and was released when the vessels broke. In the Book of Isaiah 45:7. G-d says:
‘I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.’
A broken world that must be repaired, or tikkun, is a Kabbalistic theme that has reverberated throughout the centuries, and it is especially relevant today.
“Few ideas express the mood of contemporary architecture and art so much as fragmentary form,” said Gorlin.
To illustrate these ideas, we can mention some of the most popular works of our day, such as Polish-born architect Daniel Libeskind’s Imperial War Museum in Manchester, England, which has a design based on the fragments of a broken globe; German artist Anselm Kiefer made a series of paintings called Ha-Kelim (the vessels), which were shown in Paris in 2000; British sculptor Cornelia Parker’s 1991; Cold Dark Matter at the Tate Gallery in London was an exploded shack; and Italian architect Renzo Piano’s tower (completed in 2012), is the tallest in London and named the Shard.
In all, if we look for all these elements in the architecture we have around us, we just may discover that behind that strange design is the millenary mysticism of Kabbalah.