Award-winning San Francisco-based Stanley Saitowitz/Natoma Architects are known for a practice that combines the principles of early modern architecture with the materials, techniques and sensibilities of the 21st century. Raised in a traditional Jewish family in South Africa, Saitowitz has designed private residences, institutions, public and commercial spaces, and religious architecture across the globe. Among the many commissions he has completed during his 30-year career are a number of significant Jewish spaces, including the Holocaust Memorial in Boston and the critically acclaimed Temple Beth Shalom in San Francisco’s Richmond District.
Now, Saitowitz brings ancient tradition and contemporary design together in Stanley Saitowitz: Judaica, an extraordinary display of modern Jewish ritual objects on view at the Contemporary Jewish Museum November 3, 2011 through October 16, 2012. More information on the exhibition after the break.
“This exhibition presents an opportunity to examine traditional Jewish objects from the point of view of an accomplished architect who thinks deeply about Jewish space and community,” says Museum director Connie Wolf. “We are thrilled to share Stanley’s perspectives on Jewish tradition with the public and welcome him back to the Contemporary Jewish Museum.” In 1984 when the Museum was founded, Saitowitz won a competition to design and build a sukkah as part of the Museum’s Invitational exhibition series. (A sukkah is a temporary shelter built to celebrate the holiday of Sukkot, the autumn harvest festival.)
Rendered in metal and inspired by Saitowitz’s commitment to a modernist aesthetic, the collection is characterized by the clean lines, rational proportions, and smooth, unembellished surfaces that also define Saitowitz’s architecture. Most of the 13 objects on view, were prototyped for this exhibition and have never been seen before. They range from those objects associated with daily ritual, such as the mezuzah affixed to the doorpost outside one’s home, to more festival-specific objects, such as the etrog box used during the harvest festival of Sukkot. The one-of-a-kind collection also includes a kiddush cup (a cup to hold the wine for sanctifying Shabbat), challah cover (a cover for Shabbat bread), havdalah set (implements to mark the conclusion of Shabbat), Shabbat candlesticks (these hold the two candles that are lit eighteen minutes before sundown to welcome Shabbat), a menorah (the eight-pronged candlestick used for Chanukah), seder plate (a plate holding the six items used for retelling the story of the Exodus at the Passover seder), matzah plate (holds the seventh symbolic item, the stack of three matzahs, used during the seder), tzedakah box (a charity box), rimonim (the ends of the staves around which the Torah scroll is wound), netilat yadayim cup (a cup used for ceremonial hand-washing), and a yad (the pointer used to read the Torah).
For Saitowitz, the ritual objects carry the immense power of a collective Jewish heritage and a personal family past. He remembers the candlesticks his grandmother carried in her suitcase when she escaped the pogroms in Riga; the kiddush cup his grandfather brought from Latvia, which his family used every Friday night in Johannesburg. But when he entered architecture school, he began to think differently about these familiar objects. “As I became more aware of the Judaic traditions, and understood better how material carries meanings, I began to see conflicts in the designs of the objects of my upbringing,” he says. “Many were ornamental and decorative, and conflicted both with my growing modernist preferences and with my understanding of the laws of Judaic objecthood, which forbade iconography and equated ornament and imagery with idolatry. So I began to wonder about other ways to look at these objects and to think about them as ceremonial instruments that expressed their function, rather than as decorative objects.”
Stanley Saitowitz: Judaica is the result of that life-long thought process. For this project, Saitowitz has been especially interested in how the Jewish traditions of non-figuration mirror the modern movement’s insistence on abstraction. “The objects on view here are a synthesis of these influences,” he says. “The disinterest in ornament and the direct expression of function that modernism sought has always been inherent in Judaic traditions. The structuring of thought as theological and Talmudic, minimalist and dialectical, where ideas and concepts govern laws and actions, is fundamental to modernism. Rigors similar to those of kashrut, which regulate what can and cannot be eaten, and shatnez, prohibiting the unnatural mixtures of materials, are traditional counterparts to contemporary modernist thinking.”
“The objects,” says Saitowitz, “Pursue direct and honest expression of their function as divine instruments.”
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