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Herz:social practice of an architect

date:2011-12-18 14:54:04 click:391


Interviewee & Picture Courtesy: Manuel Herz (Hereinafter referred to as Herz), a famous Swedish designer.

Interviewer: Megan Wu, reporter of Hunter Douglas in China (Hereinafter referred to as “Reporter”)


Manuel Herz ,a famous Swedish designer.


Architecture is a multi-dimensional process


Reporter: When designing Jewish Community Center Mainz, you used five abstract Hebrew letters as the silhouette of the structure, which is very imaginative and gives the building a symbolic meaning. So, my question is whether the atypical shape of the building has an influence on the function. Based on this, how do you arrange spaces ingeniously to meet the functional requirements of the community and the synagogue?


Herz: The overall design, including the Hebrew letters, and the up-and-down is first a response to the urban context. It is trying to find the right architectural answer to its kind of urban condition. After a string of urban considerations, I already developed an overall strategy. Simply put, urban issues stood at the very beginning of my thoughts when I started designing the building. The thing with the letters or using the idea of Hebrew letters to make the building more precise is more a need to give it an additional symbolic meaning. It enriches, on a symbolic level, the shape that has previously come out of urban consideration. So, what is important to me is not simply the kind of the diagrammatic translation of a word into a building. That would be too simplistic, but it combines the attempt to find a response on an urban level and of course also the attempt to find the correct architectural spaces for the function, and thirdly, a symbolic dimension of the building. You cannot separate them. They all come together, the urbanistic, architectural and symbolic.


Architecture is not a linear process. You don’t start with the function and create the shape for this and then create the design for the details and select materials for the building. It is much more a multi-dimensional process. To derive the final shape and the final result takes many different avenues. Now we have initiated the desire to design something, then the function influences it, and then the symbolic level influences it. Everything influences each other. It is a discursive process, not a linear process. So, it is not that I develop the shape and try to include the functions into it. The kind of functions also shaped the shape. It is very complex.


Jewish Community Center Mainz


Reporter: Why did you choose terracotta panels as the façade material?


Herz: I would be lying if I say this is this or that quality of terracotta that inspired me to choose the material. I got to know terracotta through the process of designing the building, and I didn’t know about all the potentials in terracotta when I started. In this case, I was really thinking of many materials, concretes, fiber cements, even some kind of plastic materials, and we sat down with engineers, with material experts. We tried to mention the production process, and then we saw that it would fail because of this reason or that reason. For example, concrete creates quite large joints, seams between big elements, which will destroy the solid appearance of the building.


Then I finally spoke to someone who was an expert in ceramics. He was not complicating it, but was taking it as a kind of challenge and as an inspiration of how to solve it. He said why the idea was suited for ceramics. During the process, I found out about all the potential of the material, about the quality on the level of statistics and also on the level of practical issues. I experimented a lot with this kind of transparent glazing, which I found extremely attractive. After consulting with experts, advisors and planners, then the vote came to use terracotta panels. Through practice, things like easy maintenance and cleaning came in to play. I need to thank this ceramic expert, as he showed me all the possibilities of the material. Architecture is a process where you work always with a team of people. Architects don’t have all the ideas. Otherwise, it will become boring if architecture becomes predicable.


Architects’ responsibility to the public


Reporter: Many people told me that in your presentation, the cultural background of Jewish Community Center Mainz impressed them a lot. Your familiarization with Jewish history, religion and culture and your concern for the Jewish community center’s existence in Germany deeply moved them. What attracted you to the issue?


Herz: I think an architect should always be concerned with the specific needs and requirements of your clients. I think that’s one of the basic tasks of an architect. I am Jewish myself, and, of course, this has given me a greater insight of or more experience in to the matter, but I don’t believe that the building like the synagogue can only be built by Jewish architects.


Reporter: Meanwhile, we noticed that you also do research in the field of humanitarian action. Does it influence your architectural practice?


Herz: It’s true that I do research in the field of humanitarian action and its spaces. First of all, it is the subject that interests me. Second, on the larger issue of architecture, I think it is very important that the architect upholds his or her responsibility to the general public. It’s important that the architect is aware of what he is doing and is not just designing, but always has political implications. Then the notion of dealing with the topic of refugee camps in the end also reveals something in Jewish architecture itself, because it is a practice of space at the very extreme condition, which always reveals something about the heart of architecture.


On the other hand, I don’t bring the two things together very quickly. The practice of architecture and the research on refugee camps are at the moment two separate activities. Of course they take place in the same head but they don’t influence each other immediately. They influence me maybe on a bigger scale, on a kind of values or on issues of conceptions. They shouldn’t come too close together. It would be cynical if I say I don’t want to make a beautiful private house because I saw something in the refugee camps that influenced me or inspired me, or because I saw an interesting way of construction at a refugee camp.


Jewish Community Center Mainz


Reporter: Why did you choose architectural design as your career?


Herz: It was my desire. I thought it was a great way, a kind of act. It’s visible. It affects many people and it’s one of the most public ways of acting. It is always very public and I think it’s a great thing, and it’s fantastic to be able to shape shape, to give space the spatial quality, a kind of essential quality, material quality, and quality of life. It is fantastic.


Reporter: That is to say, architecture is one of your ways of expression. You communicate with people, practice your notions and drive social development through architecture.


Herz: Yeah, sure.


Reporter: What qualities do you think a good architect should have?


Herz: I think it’s a very good question, but very hard to answer. Communication is at the core of architecture. Of course, if you look into history, you find many artists are very good communicators. But, you will also find brilliant architects who are terrible communicators. Anyhow, you need to be open and take others’ opinions into consideration. At the core, there’s a certain kind of drive to produce space, drive to produce architecture, then history will tell whether this is really good or not. Also, a lot of what people consider great architecture today, maybe in 100 years will be insignificant. If an architect is able to have a sense or sensitivity for the issue that will become important in the future, able to foresee certain kind of social, political or technical developments and bring them into his architecture, he can use architecture to push society and he himself will go down in history as a master architect.




· Jewish Community Center Mainz


Narrated by Manuel Herz Organized by Jeff


Jewish Community Center Mainz


Jewish Community Center Mainz in Germany is designed by Swedish architect Manuel Herz. The center houses a synagogue, office spaces, school rooms and two apartments, as well as a multipurpose space for the community. It represents the social and cultural core of local Jewish people and is used for internal purposes as well as for public events for the whole city.


Speaking of importance and tradition, few Jewish communities can surpass Mainz. Its history can be traced back to early medieval ages and most religious teaching, research and writings of Judaism are completed here. Among them, Rabbi Gershom ben Judah was given the name of ‘Light of Diaspora’ after which the newly built Jewish Community Center Mainz was named as the designer was attempting to draw out the tradition. On the other hand, the history of Mainz is also a mirror that reflects the destiny of the Jewish people. From around the year 900 AD to current day, local Jewish people have upheld faithful beliefs despite frequent persecution. The community has been eradicated but resettled repeatedly, making it almost a synonym for hope, knowledge and unshakable belief in the future. During World War II, Jewish people suffered the atrocious Holocaust, and the Community Center was razed to the ground by German Nazis. After the war, a small group of Jews rebuilt the community. Before the 1980s, about 75 Jewish families were living in Mainz. However, this number has grown six times larger with the increase of Jewish immigrants. So, the existing building of the community cannot meet the growing demands for religious, social and cultural activities. A new building for a synagogue and community center has become necessary.


Plane drawing of Jewish Community Center Mainz


During the design process of Jewish Community Center Mainz, architect Manuel Herz did a lot of research. He went deep into the history of local communities and read the whole Talmud carefully. Based on his readings, he tried to make a difference for German Jewish communities and build Jewish Community Mainz into a public place, instead of a traditional synagogue. Herz noticed that the Jews in Germany live in a much isolated status, and the Jewish communities in Germany are often marked by the desire not to raise much attention with their activities. In most German cities, Jewish communities are always protected with monitors, security guards and barbed-wire fences to keep them safe from attacks. As a Jew himself, of course Manuel Herz doesn’t want to see this, as the isolation will inevitably have negative results. He hopes that the open manner of this building can attract the inhabitants of the city, including Jews as well as non-Jews, to participate in and thus understand Jewish religious, social and cultural activities.


Sectional Drawing of Jewish Community Center Mainz


In its urban setting the new Jewish Community Center Mainz follows the perimeter block pattern that dominates the neighborhood since the 19th century. The building is situated parallel to the streets and its facades are in line with the existing neighboring buildings. As the urban context is dominated by six to eight-story buildings, and the design of the synagogue and community center requires its main functions to be located on ground floor, so the building needs to rise to a significant height for functional and spatial reasons. As a result, the building is shaped into five abstract Hebrew letters, with continuous rises and falls that form a proper response to the context. The building volume and its façade are arranged continuously along two main streets. By turning inward and orienting the synagogue towards the east, two squares are created: first is a public square in front of the main entrance that directs members, visitors and inhabitants into the building while offering an open space for the neighborhood within the densely built-up urban fabric. Second is an internal court that gives the community a space for celebrations, outside events or parties and a space for kids to play. The absence of any kind of gating or barriers means that this square has become a truly public space that is used for everyday activities by the general public. This is very rare for a religious building, especially for a synagogue in Germany.


In terms of design, the synagogue in the community is situated near the entrance. The building is shaped like the ‘shofar’ (the ram’s horn), a symbol of the connection and the trust between mankind and God. The organization of a synagogue space is usually characterized by a certain inner contradiction: on one hand, synagogues are oriented spaces, directed towards the east or Jerusalem. On the other, a centralized space is preferred, as the reading of the Torah is performed at a central position in space, and in the midst of the community. This inherent contradiction is spatially resolved by the horn-like roof that distinctly orients the synagogue towards the east, but also brings light right into the center of the space so that it falls exactly onto the position where the Bible is read. Glazed ceramic tiles are used on the façade of the community center, which form a rippled and three-dimensional surface. This pattern is arranged in a concentric way around the windows thus creating a perspective play of dimensionality. This spatial quality is enhanced by the transparent green glazing of the ceramic tiles, which not only reflects the shifting light conditions of its surroundings, it also displays a wide array of hues and shades. The building presents different amazing effects at different times and different seasons and from varying angles. When the new synagogue appears on the map of the city with full confidence, it not only illustrates the profound Jewish cultural background, but also successfully attracts the inhabitants of the city, lessens racial barriers and helps incorporate the Jews of Mainz into a more active part of society.




· Gallery of Jewish Comminity Center Mainz, Germany


1/2.Model Diagram of Jewish Community Center Mainz 3.Inside of the Synagogue at Jewish Community Center Mainz


Jewish Comminity Center Mainz, Germany


Jewish Comminity Center Mainz, Germany


Jewish Comminity Center Mainz, Germany




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