Design of new Drexel Hillel was inspired by a menorah

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Exterior of The Raymond G. Perelman Center for Jewish Life, which was inspired by a menorah.

For an architect assigned to design a Jewish building, the menorah is an irresistible starting point. Its recognizable form instantly conveys Jewishness and Jewish values — enlightenment, knowledge, endurance, resiliency. And yet the metaphor is so obvious that when I told my editor Drexel’s new Raymond G. Perelman Center for Jewish Life was inspired by a menorah, her groan was immediate and loud.

The thing is, it’s not even the architect’s first menorah building.

Before you join the chorus, let me say that the architect, Stanley Saitowitz, has produced Drexel’s most powerful new building in years, and it’s anything but a cliche. Slotted between a pair of Victorian houses on 34th Street, the three-story jewel box marries a deep commitment to modernist ideals with religious symbolism and some old-fashioned Philadelphia redbrick. 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.

Drexel has been gradually stepping up the quality of its architecture, in part by importing big-name firms from out of town. Not all the stars have delivered high-quality results. After first contemplating a rather boring, contextual design, Drexel decided to seek out Saitowitz, who has a reputation for practical, well-crafted buildings that come with a side of poetry. He's known as an architect’s architect.

He grew up in a tight-knit Jewish community in South Africa and came of age in the profession when Louis Kahn was at the height of his influence. After moving to Berkeley, Calif., to study and teach, Saitowitz helped start Natoma Architects. The firm has won high marks for synagogues in San Francisco and La Jolla, Calif., and for the New England Holocaust Memorial in Boston. The La Jolla and New England projects both incorporate the menorah symbolism into the design.

What makes the Center for Jewish Life special is that it fuses Saitowitz’s formative experiences — growing up Jewish, worshiping Kahn — into a single building located, appropriately enough, in Kahn’s hometown.

Kahn saw architecture as a search for eternal forms, and you can see Saitowitz striving for the same result. For many years, he taught a course on Jewish religious architecture. The earliest synagogues were simple cubes topped with a dome. Here, he inverts the idea by turning the "dome" on the boxy Perelman Center into a circular void open to the sky. The area below the opening is enclosed by glass walls, creating a meditation room. Kahn would have enjoyed the geometry.

Even though the facade takes its shape from a menorah, it is not a literal interpretation and relies on simple geometry. At this time of year, we tend to be focused on the nine-branch menorah called the Hanukkiah, but the seven-branch candelabra that stands in front of the Torah ark is really the more common Jewish symbol. Yet, by my count, the center’s facade has 10 glass branches, 11 if you think of the brick verticals as the menorah.

The point is, you don’t need to identify the facade as a menorah to appreciate the geometry or the design’s multiple metaphors. The brick facade is woven together like the fabric of a Jewish prayer shawl, incorporating deeply scored stripes and punctuating dots in the form of protruding bricks. But that asymmetrical arrangement could just as easily be read as a bar code.

Along with establishing a Jewish identity, the facade was designed to exploit light and shadow. The glass on the upper level captures the sky and passing clouds, and mysterious shadows nestle in the recesses of the entry colonnade. As the sun moves across the surface, new patterns emerge on the protruding bricks. It is especially striking to approach the building from Cherry Street.

The $9.6 million center, which was funded entirely with private donations, was created to serve as the home of Drexel Hillel. For an East Coast school, Drexel has an unusually small Jewish population, and officials say they offered Hillel the land for the project in the hope of attracting more Jewish students. The low plinth and short flight of stairs in front of the building are meant to double as a welcoming gathering place.

Inside is where the hat-tip to Kahn becomes most apparent. One of Kahn’s most admired buildings is his deceptively simple Trenton Bathhouse, where four square structures revolve around a square courtyard. The square Perelman Center is similarly supported by four stout columns placed near the outer walls.

Kahn is famous for dividing his buildings into "served" and "servant" spaces. Because the columns contain all the ventilation, electrical, and plumbing equipment, they are the servants. (Given the facade’s menorah metaphor, they could be called the shamash, the Hebrew word for "attendant," and the name of the candle used to light the others on Hanukkah.)

The big advantage of placing the columns close to the walls is that Saitowitz created open interiors that can be used for a variety of events. On the ground floor, the centerpiece is a wide staircase that doubles as an amphitheater. It separates a cozy lounge and coffee bar (complete with a fireplace) from the dining room, used for Friday night’s kosher Shabbat dinners. The irregular pattern of the white oak railing was inspired by the stripes on Jewish prayer shawls. Because the ducts and pipes are tucked away in the columns, the ceilings were left as a smooth polished expanse of concrete that gently reflects light.

One of the trickiest aspects of the design was accommodating chapels for Judaism’s three main movements — Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform — on the same floor. Each room is fitted with special elements particular to each group, such as separate doors for men and women in the Orthodox chapel. But, ultimately, they are meant to be multipurpose spaces, says Hillel’s director, Isabel de Koninck. “We like the idea of having an Orthodox minyan in one room and a drum circle in another.” The walls have been painted in rich colors of bordeaux and royal blue, reminiscent of the leather covers on Jewish prayer books.

Our contemporary buildings have become so focused on function that we rarely get to encounter architecture so laden with meaning. Of course, it’s easier to do with a religious building. But the Center for Jewish Life is one of those rare designs that feeds the mind as well as the spirit.