Synagogue Design: Gender, Collaboration And The Practice Of Architecture – JTS

Writings and Lectures Lectures


In this lecture I will reflect on two seemly separate questions:

  1. Why do we pray in a communal setting as well as the design implications that follow from this specific activity?
  2. And how do we create, invent and think of new ideas?

I hope I can answer these questions using my experience of designing synagogue spaces, my understanding of the architectural creative process and theories of gender and collaboration or what I like calling “Relational Creativity”.

The question of Synagogue Design

In the last few years I have had a number of opportunities to design synagogues. Unlike  churches or mosques, which have a canonized floor plan that evolved over hundreds of years, a synagogue is always an opportunity to think a fresh about the physical aspects and the phenomenological experience of prayer.

I admit that when I first started thinking about the design of a synagogue I was perplexed by the seeming contradiction between what I imagined to be sincere prayer and the communal, synagogue setting.  In prayer, I thought, we strive to connect to our most personal feelings of longing, hope, regret and gratitude in a conversation with God.  But Tefilla BeTzibur, communal prayer, seems to suggest a different experience, one of choreographed ritual a shared, fixed text and the comradery of a sing-a-long.  Could spiritual introspection, Avoda She’balev, take place within a public setting? How could we access fragile moments of spiritual intimacy within the synagogue, communal, environment?

This tension can be traced to the famous disagreement in the G’mara Brachot  (26b)as to the origin of prayer:

איתמר רבי יוסי ברבי חנינא אמר תפלות אבות תקנום

רבי יהושע בן לוי אמר תפלות כנגד תמידין תקנום (ברכות כו:).

R’ Yossi the son of R’ Hanina said:  “Prayers were established by the forefathers.” R’ Yehoshua Ben Levi said: “Prayers were established instead of the daily sacrifices.”

In these two opinions regarding the origin of prayer I see traces reflecting this tension about the nature of prayer.  R’ Yossi suggest that prayer was learned from the forefather’s personal, spontaneous and intimate, communications with God while R’ Yehoshua views prayer as a public ritual, learned from the recurring daily sacrifices in the temple.

Who is praying?

In order to try to tackle the paradox of communal prayer we might start by wondering about the nature of the self which is praying. I suggested that prayer is a time in which we strive to access our own authentic feelings.  But “accessing our own authentic feelings” is not a simple or obvious task. So often we struggle to know what we want, what we are feeling, and why we might be anxious or distracted.  So the question we might need to answer could also be rephrased as: How do we discover our own mind and emotions so that prayer could be sincere?

Here, I briefly turn to of psychoanalysis, not to explore its relationship to religiosity and prayer, but rather for insights about the relationship of the self to others and the nature of discovering our own minds.

While the classic psychoanalytic view saw each person as a separate entity; his or her mind safely contained ‘independently and autonomously within the boundaries of the individual,’ the contemporary understanding of Relational Psychoanalysis (Mitchell, Aron, Benjamin) suggests a model of the mind that is inherently social, interactive and interpersonal.

This means that our self is formed by the interactions we have with our family and we continue to change and transform through our personal relationships with family, friends and colleagues throughout our lives.  I become a particular version of myself within this contexts of lecturing at JTS, a contexts that triggers unique aspects of my personality, abilities and history.  It is not only that we speak differently to various audiences but we become slightly different presents in these contexts.  

If the self is always in a relationship to its surroundings, the understanding of the psychoanalytic therapy process must also shift. Seen through this lens, therapy is not an inquiry into the patient’s fixed history, trauma and resistances which the therapist tries to understand and interpret; rather therapy is shared, co-created, experience in which the therapist and patient both play curtail active roles. The therapist must pay close attention not only to the patient’s words, but to the subtle ways in which patient and analyst influence, reflect and effect one another, how they cast each other in familiar yet limiting roles that reflect a rigid habitual set of interpersonal patterns. The goal of a relational analysis shifts, from the interpretation of repression to a process that strives to widen the range of authentic experiences the patient can have, allowing the patient to tolerate his own emotions, memories and desires and try out new ways of relating to those around him.

A similar understanding derived from a developmental inquiry, can be found in the work of another psychoanalytic group which focuses on the process of Mentalization (Fonagy et al). Mentalization is the capacity to understand our own mind and the minds and feelings of others. The ability to mentalize develops through the child’s secure attachment to a caregiver who can mirror the correct feelings to the confused child.  “I see that you are angry” I might say to my tantruming daughter, in order to help her organize and understand her overwhelming emotions and calm down.   “The self is not merely open to environmental influence: it is in part constituted through its interactions with a responsive and safe social environment.” Therefore, the analytic space must be a secure framework in which the patient, through the mirroring of the analyst, learns to accept his own positive and negative affects and in so doing “allows the self to flourish” (Jurist, p. 107).

Prayer as an Intersubjective Process

I found an interesting precedent to these recent psychoanalytic ideas in a book titled The Psychology of Prayer, written in 1909 as a PhD dissertation of the 23 year-old Anna Louise Strong. Strong was an interesting character who went on to be a labor organizer, journalist and political radical choosing to live her last years in communist China.  What took me by surprise was the contemporary, intersubjective, relational tone of Strong’s words in considering prayer.

She writes:

“Self-consciousness is not attained at any given period in the history of either the race or the individual.  Rather, as life goes on, we are continually attaining self-consciousness, and each time it is the consciousness of a slightly different self. This new self is not a self which (although we have indeed just come to the knowledge of it), has existed all along, deliberately choosing to enter into relations with other selves and coming out of them essentially unchanged.  It is a self which became what it is as the result of the personal relation. It will enter into new relations and the result of those will be again another self. 

Thus it is that a small and narrow self develops into a larger self, through what we call…”Imaginative Social Process”….

Prayer is one form, one very important form, of this imaginative social process.”

(The Psychology of Prayer, p. 19-21).

Strong suggests in this text that a self is always changing through its interactions with big and little O others.  She emphasizes that the ongoing transformation of self, promotes growth from a narrow self to a wider self. The self becomes what it is, as a result of these “Imaginative social Process”, growing and expanding through these relationships.  And “prayer” she writes “is one from, one very important form, of this imaginative social process.”

I’m intrigued by Strong’s idea that prayer is an instance that allows us to develop our self though an interaction with both a divine Other and through the communal others with which we pray.

Using Strong’s words I would like to suggest that prayer, much like other processes of introspection and self-discovery, depends on a supportive and reflective field of others to help us understand our own feelings. Much like the child’s caregiver who mirrors emotions to both decipher and regulate the child’s feelings, a community can provide a framework in which authentic, affective experiences can flourish.

Collaborative Design

I would like to tie these ideas about the centrality of our social relationships to our ability to understand and expand our own self to my understanding of the architectural design process.  And I’d like to share a personal story from my architectural practice as an opening to this topic.   

After months of design, bidding, negotiations and city approvals, we finally entered the site for our first weekly construction meeting. The general contractor had begun the demolition, and I was excited to see the bare space, its walls and other distractions removed, and to imagine it as we designed it. Richard and I entered the apartment for this first meeting and the new site manager was waiting for us. Noticed us, he walked over to Richard, a graying man of around 60, shook his hand and introduced himself. Richard, accustomed to this situation, introduced himself, smiled and then introduced me, announcing, “Please meet my boss, Esther.”

I’ve been running my architectural practice for a decade and in this time, I, like Richard, have gotten accustomed to people assuming that my male employees–whether younger or older–are the lead architects to which one should turn with questions and for decision. Yet this time a lingering frustration colored the rest of my week, a sense that while feminism has made significant progress on the conscious level of society, little change has trickled down into the unconscious of our culture. The default assumption is still that the architect is a man.

Perhaps was particularly annoyed by my invisibility because the architectural community was buzzing during that exact time about the Pritzker Prize that was denied from Denise Scott Brown when it was awarded to her work partner and husband, Robert Venturi, in 1991.

The Pritzker prize, conceived to recognize an individual, aspires to encourage and stimulate greater public awareness of buildings and to promote creativity within the architectural profession. When Robert Venturi was selected for the Pritzker in 1991, the committee adhered to the original prize rule that it could be given only to one person. They therefore passed over Denise Scott-Brown and gave the prize to Robert Venturi, erasing her role in the making of their joint work.

Denise Scott Brown has been voicing her frustration over the place of women in architecture since the early seventies and when the 2013 Pritzker Prize laureate (Toyo Ito, another man and just last week Frei Otto) was announced, Denise Scott Brown said in a video interview from London, “They owe me not a Pritzker Prize but a Pritzker inclusion ceremony. Let’s salute the notion of joint creativity.”

After hearing DSB’s interview, two Harvard graduate students, launched an online petition calling on the prize committee to recognize DSB’s work and include her in the prize. Harnessing the power of social media, the petition caught the imagination of the architectural community and a general audience and collected over 18,000 signatures.

Scott Brown and Venturi came from very different backgrounds and their marriage, both professional and personal, synthesized their distinct styles and interests. Venturi’s dowry included a house for his mother and his first book Complexity and Contradiction (1966) in which he countered Mies Van De Rohe’s famous dictum “Less is More” with a mischievous, post-modern “Less is a Bore.”

Scott Brown brought her own sensibilities to their collaboration, including a background in art and a commitment to social change and urban consciousness.  Their joint work made a strong mark on architectural world, but perhaps their biggest contribution was their book (written with Steven Izenour) Learning from Las Vegas (1972), a groundbreaking investigation of the overlooked side of the American commercial strip.  In Las Vegas, Venturi and Scott Brown found a new kind of architecture, one of billboards and neon signs, fast food and vast paved parking lots.  This was an architecture that juxtaposes the beautiful and the ugly, accepting the legitimacy of both as expressions of life.

Relational Creativity

Denise Scott Brown’s story gives us a vantage point from which to consider the place of women in the workforce, at a time when we are exploring how to “Lean in” and “ramp on.” But I would like to return to the second part of Scott Brown’s when she says “Let’s salute the notion of joint creativity.” This idea calls into question many entrenched assumptions about individual genius in art, literature and science that participate in the marginalization of women in these fields and distort the understanding of the creative process.

Christine Battersby, in her book Gender and Genius, studies the evolution of the concept of a genius.  She notes that from antiquity through the Renaissance, the artist was one who perfected past techniques and imitated nature. But by the late 18th century, Romanticism introduced a new idea, that of the artist’s originality. The Romantic artist was uniquely gifted, autonomous and decidedly male. Modern architecture, despite breaking with the past stylistically, nonetheless maintains the Romantic image of the gifted architect as a lone and autonomous genius who needs to overcome gravity and prevail over his client.

But a growing body of recent research shows that creativity is not necessarily the domain of an autonomous individual. Alongside those who create in solitude, there are also creative people who discover their new ideas through interactions with others, as we have suggested before.

I cannot speak for the entire field of architecture but from my own particular experience of the design process, moments of joint creativity are often the most exciting, unexpected and fun part of designing. I cherish those moments when after a frustrating sense of stuck-ness, an idea suddenly emerges from the relational creative field, and an idea which cannot be described as authored by anyone individual, emerges as a joint creation.  In these moments, everyday boundaries between me and my design collaborators, our client or builders, are blurred and innovation surfaces from a field of interaction.

Keith Sawyer’s bestselling book Group Genius follows many examples, from jazz music to the development of the mountain bike, demonstrating that most inventions are the result of the eponymous “group genius.” Of course I also do not want to undemand the agency and authorship of individuals in these creative process. Often, collaboration involves a group in which not all are equal. I learn so much about myself and about parenting from my relationship with my daughters.  Nevertheless, in order for us to feel safe it’s important that I remain in the role of a parent and maintain the mother-child asymmetry.  Similarly in the firm environment we collaborate with younger and older professionals and their levels of experience and expertise are reflected in the shared product. While history has celebrated the works of independent genius figures we should now also recognize this other, no less important and often overlooked, model of creativity, one in which work emerges from a collaborative field in which assigning individual authorship is a limiting model. 

Collaboration isn’t only an aspect of the innovative teamwork; society itself plays a central role in defining innovation, therefore actively participating in the creative process. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in his book Flow, points out that genius and creativity are not objective achievements, but are measured and acknowledged within a specific cultural and historical context. Art becomes art when it is recognized as such by the cultural discourse. And similarly, innovation in technology and science must be seen as such to become an agent of change.  

DSB was well aware of this for many years. In an article called “Sexism and the Star System” (1989), she noted that definitions of Star Quality omit the “fact that stardom is something done to the star by others. Stars cannot create themselves.”  When we are touched, excited and interested, it is our participation as viewers, users and critics, that makes art into art.  In this context one might also think about the role of social media. The public heard the call to acknowledge Denise Scot Brown along with Robert Venturi because of Facebook and, tools that allowed thousands to participate in a cultural process that was traditionally reserved for a select group of jury members who author and authorize the historic record of great architects.

Feminist Theory and Art Criticism

The shift which re-positions the reflecting parent and the observing analyst as a central participants in the creation of a self can also be traced in current feminist art criticism. The critic and art theorist is no longer understood as passive, objective, uninvolved observer but rather another user and participate in the creation of the artistic and spatial experience.

Starting from Linda Nochlin’s ground- breaking article, “Why Were there no Great Women Artists?,” in which she suggested that artists are formed through participation in organized educational institutions, which traditionally excluded women, and followed by Bourdieu’s “But Who Created the ‘Creators’?,” which expanded the creation of art to include the curator and critic, the observed and observer, subject and object have become ever more intertwined.  Jane Rendell, in a wonderful book, Site Writing (2011), draws on the psychoanalyst Laplanche, who inverts the traditional view of art from a communication of the artists towards a receptive public (Kris) to suggest that it is the expectation of the public that provokes the artist to create the work of art. (Rendell, p. 9). Rendell’s writing and installation work is a provocative experiment in the situated nature of the triangular dialogue of the art object, artists and critic.

Relationality and Gender              

One might wonder how this idea of a collaborative, relational creativity is useful to our understanding of gender structures. I am confident that by expanding our understanding of creative processes to include new paradises and an awareness of the biases of traditional models, new work by women and minorities that was previously overlooked will emerge to challenge the status quo.  

But I would like to point to another connection between relationality and gender structures through the work of feminist theorist and psychoanalyst – Jessica Benjamin.

 Benjamin writes of the parallel aim of psychoanalysis and feminism which both strive to “deconstruct the dominance of an objectively knowing subject in favor of a personal subjectivity” (p. 25) and “disrupt the conventional oppositions and their encoding in gender hierarchies.” Benjamin suggests that these fields “may join … to challenge the valorization of the autonomous, active, ‘masculine’ side of the gender polarity without reactively elevating its opposite.” (Benjamin, The Shadow of the Other, 1998, p.9).  

In challenging the binary gender structures, she calls to move from a mindset of complementarity which sets up a series of oppositions of dower/done to, male/female, active/passive to a position which she terms the “Third” – moments when these oppositions soften, and a shared experience emerges. An experience which transcends the boundaries of each individual while not dissolving their own sense of self into a terrifying disorganization. 

I would like to use this link between a loosening of binary oppositions that Benjamin suggests as another layer in our understanding of the creative process and of the space for prayer.

Relational Architecture

The architectural product – the building – is a physical object charged to respond to multiple personal and social needs. It is probably one of the most complex problems, technical and formal, emotional and cultural, that finds a singular physical solution in the form of a concrete structure. The building must shelter us from the elements, resist the pull of gravity and make a space for living. It must be financially viable, technologically possible and comply with local legal and zoning codes.  As Stan Allen (2009, p. XI) writes: “The practice of architecture tends to be messy and inconsistent precisely because it has to negotiate a reality that is itself messy and inconsistent”.

Architecture is always a collaborative process. It is practiced within firms, in conjunction with engineering consultants, it involves the participation of the clients and the ingenious problem-solving of the construction team. I am suggesting that these interactions should be seen not as necessary compromises, harming the purity of an autonomously designed concept, but rather as collaborating participants in the design process which contribute to the richness of the architectural project.

Thus, a successful design process occurs when the architect is able to collaborate, negotiate and incorporate input from these many sources. The architect is challenged to stand between her dream and a reality that demands practical consideration, allowing the building to emerge from these negotiations not as a preconceived independent idea, but rather as a form that embeds within it the memories and logics of the design and construction process. Its beauty is not a pure, baby-like innocence, but rather the building emerges as an already weathered structure, reflecting the complexity and contradiction of creation, the scars and traces of the construction battles.    

The Architectural Assignment

And so I return to my initial assignment to design a space for communal prayer.

In Strong’s surprisingly precocious 1909 text, I find the beginning of an answer which ties my exploration of prayer, creativity and architecture.  Strong suggests that prayer is an action of expanding the self in an ever-changing relation to others. This view, as mentioned, resonates with relational psychoanalysis in which through encounters with the other one discovers and accepts his or her own complex self. 

Profound prayer, I suggest, is experiencing the full range of human emotions; the finality of mortality, the depth of yearning, the pains of regret and joy of gratitude and hope. And this is a process that can only be done in an intersubjective field. It was this idea that I carried into my design of space for prayer, a wish to create a space in which one discovered oneself within a supportive communal setting.

The Minyan – Communal Jewish Prayer

I find a resemblance of what I’m calling “relational creativity” to the centrality of community in the Jewish practice. Both the spiritual practice of prayer and its intellectual counterpart – torah study,  are traditionally done within a communal setting.  Study is done in Hevruta, the yeshiva study couple, suggesting that intellectual analysis is enhanced when done in association with another.

The Hebrew term for a house of prayer – Beit Keneset –would literally be translated as a “house of assembly.” This meaning is preserved in our English word “synagogue,” derived from the Greek term for assembly. As the name suggests, it is not the building’s from that that is essential for prayer but rather the assembly, the ‘Minyan’ quorum of ten, without which certain prayers are not said and the Torah is not read aloud.  One might also add that the importance of the communal prayer experience can also be seen in the prayer texts which are almost all written in the plural.  Through prayer we hear a symphony of voices, the depth of which we could not experience without the mirroring and widening of the self that a community can facilitate. 

Self and Other

But community can also overshadow the self like the oppressive atmosphere of a political protest. Freud writes after WWI that the group promotes regression to a state of primitive emotions (1921). Prayer space must occupy a delicate position which offers a supportive mutuality while protecting the individual’s agency (Slavin, J) and allows ambivalence alongside faith.

Derrida In a lecture spoke of prayer as a situation that holds the contradicting feelings of religious belief and philosophical doubt, mature analytic thought and childish fear. In prayer, he suggests, we hold the hope that prayer has a real effect and realize it might affect us only subjectively. Our prayers are both for our loved ones and to them. 

Prayer, whether seen as imminent introspection or a transcendent conversation, aims to allow the participant to access a wide range of authentic emotions that may have been split off by the profanity and banality of everyday life. When prayer is understood as an emotional experience, the community – a reflective, mentalizing, holding environment of others – becomes a central participant in this situated practice of discovering ourselves through others.

The ideal prayer space, as I therefore see it, is one that allows the praying individual to simultaneously feel the sheltering, supporting influence of fellow congregants accompanied by previous generations who transmitted and shaped the prayer text, while giving that person opportunities to meditate and contemplate his or her own very personal experience, and a capacity to be alone in conversation with God.


To conclude, I find much insight into the processes of both prayer and collaboration from the understanding of our self as always discovered and transformed in a relational process that occurs between us in a field of others. In this context we are able to discover aspects of our self which have been hidden and to expand our emotional amplitude. 

Through our shared interactions we discover new ideas, design new spaces and try new emotions.  It is this type of collaboration which I cherish in my architectural practice and which I strive to enable in the design of spaces for prayer. 

I would like to end with another line from the G’mara in Brachot (7b):

‘ואני תפילתי לך ה’ עת רצון’ – אימתי עת רצון? בשעה שהצבור מתפללין”.

“‘And I shall pray to you God, at a time of favor.’  When is it a time of favor?  When the community prays.”

In this text I find support for my understanding that the time of favor, the time when prayers and creativity are authentic and sincere, is not a specific calendrical time but rather a frame, that of a community. It is this frame that enables us to be deeply grateful and painfully vulnerable and to discover ourselves through others.

The Jewish Theological Seminary
New York

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