A contemporary case study in collective narratives:
The Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation Synagogue in Evanston, Illinois
Architect: Carol Ross Barney of Ross Barney Architects
The Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation is a contemporary case study in the symbolic reuse category of collective narratives; where materials are salvaged and reused to create visual markers about the collective history, lineage, and experience of a group of people. It also demonstrates how decoding these narratives can be dependent on the viewer’s “special knowledge” or “visual skills.”
Collective narratives operate on two levels in this building. On the first level, JRC’s narrative centers on maintaining the collective memory, experience, and lineage of the congregation. First, when the old building was demolished, 96% of the debris was used to fill in the basement; supporting, literally and figuratively, the foundation of the new building. The ceremonial front doors were made from a stand of memorial trees, previously planted on the site in remembrance of individuals important to the congregation. These needed to be removed during the new construction. Instead of throwing them away, the collective memory in these trees in preserved in the doors. Reuse also serves to tie the congregation to its Jewish heritage. The reclaimed cypress serving as cladding on the exterior was meant to recall the old wooden synagogues of Eastern Europe. It appears again in the interior, cladding the walls of both sanctuary spaces, “giving the space a tent-like feel, calling to mind the scriptural reference, ‘How goodly are they tents, oh Jacob.’ In order for this reuse to be “visible” the viewer must possess “special knowledge” in order to decode the significance of each.
The second narrative operating in the JRC Synagogue is one defined by the congregation as “tikkunolam,” or the Jewish principle “repairing the world,” and is much more visibly explicit throughout the building. Carole Caplan, the former president of the board for JRC and serving at the time of planning the new building said their main goal was to teach the congregation and surrounding community about the value inherent in waste. Also, it was important to show that through reuse, waste can be beautiful. Unlike the reused materials which denote Jewish heritage, and require “special knowledge” to read, the areas were this narrative is illustrated show reuse in a visually palpable way. This is important, as JRC leads docent tours of the new building and uses it as a teaching tool to discuss the importance of sustainability and “green” living.