LA’s oldest Jewish congregation teams up with Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas

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Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas and his firm OMA are designing a new events center for Wilshire Boulevard Temple, a historic synagogue in Koreatown. Why did the temple need a name-brand architect? And will the two buildings “talk” to each other?

The interior of the Byzantine-style dome of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, following the 2013 restoration. Photos by Avishay Artsy. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas and his firm OMA have been tapped to design a new events center for Wilshire Boulevard Temple, a historic synagogue in Koreatown and the oldest Jewish congregation in Los Angeles.

The synagogue is notable for its large Byzantine dome spanning 100 feet and rising nearly 140 feet above street level. Its Wilshire façade combines a traditional Romanesque three-arch portal and rose window. The sanctuary is modeled after Rome’s Pantheon, and is decorated with interior murals, pillars and stained glass.

The events center has a far more contemporary and open feel from the temple, but senior rabbi Steven Z. Leder says the two buildings will complement each other, like I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid at the Louvre Museum in Paris.

“I’m hopeful it has the same effect, in the sense of each one enhancing the other and making the other more interesting,” Leder said.

The events center – to be named the Audrey Irmas Pavilion – resembles a trapezoidal box that leans away from the synagogue and towards Wilshire Boulevard. It’s covered in a continuous skin of hexagonal shapes, embedded with rectangular windows at seemingly random angles. Entrances are at Wilshire Boulevard and next to the synagogue. The second floor has a large window looking onto the synagogue, with steps leading up to a 10,000-square-foot rooftop with a garden and amphitheater that seats 150 people.

LA landscape architect Mia Lehrer will design the outdoor landscaping for the events center. New York-based firm members Shohei Shigematsu and Jason Long will lead the project’s design team.

“For me, respecting the existing building doesn’t mean you have to have exactly or similar appearance or similar materiality,” Shigematsu said. “It’s really about the relationship and how the sequence of use is seamless.”

Wilshire Boulevard Temple was known from 1862 to 1933 as Congregation B’nai B’rith. It traces its origins to the first Jewish worship service in Los Angeles, held in 1851.

There were two earlier B’nai B’rith synagogues. The first was built in 1873 at the corner of Temple and Broadway, and the second was built in 1896 at Ninth and Hope.

Wilshire Boulevard Temple, completed in 1929, is listed as a City of Los Angeles historic-cultural monument and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

It was designed by architect Abram M. Edelman (the son of the congregation’s first rabbi, Abraham Edelman). It was the dream of Rabbi Edgar Magnin, known as the “Rabbi to the stars” for his close relationship with the city’s pioneers and Hollywood moguls. They funded the construction of the temple, using tricks of set design. Its columns are made of plaster and painted to look like marble. There’s no center aisle because, like a movie theater, those are the best seats in the house.

Inside the main sanctuary of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, with a view of the stained-glass windows and the Hugo Ballin mural. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

At the time of its construction, the location on Wilshire Boulevard was considered the western edge of the city. Rabbi Magnin foresaw the movement of the city, and especially its Jewish population, westward.

The temple began extensive renovations of the historic facility in 2008 under the supervision of architect Brenda Levin, and the remodeled sanctuary reopened in 2013. It was given a preservation award by the Los Angeles Conservancy.

Earlier this year the temple opened the Karsh Family Social Service Center, offering free dental and vision care for its primarily Korean- and Spanish-speaking neighbors.

Leder says an events center has been needed for some time, for the synagogue and for non-profit groups and other faith-based communities in the area.

“The function of a synagogue was always threefold. It was a place of prayer, a place of study and a place to gather. And we didn’t have that third leg of the stool,” Leder said.

OMA was picked to design the events center after a selection committee – including former MOCA director Richard Koshalek, former dean of the USC School of Architecture Bob Harris, developer Bruce Karatz and others – picked a list of 24 architects of different tiers to invite to participate in a competition funded by developer and philanthropist Eli Broad.

That list was narrowed down to four finalists, including LA-based Morphosis Architects led by Thom Mayne, Steven Holl Architects, and Japanese architect Kengo Kuma. The firm of OMA (Office for Metropolitan Architecture) was selected for the project.

A view of Wilshire Boulevard Temple from Hobart Street. The Audrey Irmas Pavilion would be built on what is now the parking lot in the foreground.

“What I was committed to and did know from the beginning was that we could not build just an ordinary building next to the sanctuary. First of all major donors aren’t interest in funding ordinary things. And secondly it would have been disrespectful, I think, to the level at which our ancestors arrived in creating the sanctuary,” Leder said.

The project is expected to cost between $60 to 70 million. Half of that funding has already been raised after longtime temple member and supporter Audrey Irmas sold a Cy Twombley 1968 “blackboard” painting at auction. She donated $30 million of the proceeds toward the construction of the events center.

“The discussion I had with her was, let’s consider taking a piece of private art that is going to end up in someone’s living room above a couch. And let’s turn it into a piece of public art that millions of people will drive by and appreciate, and tens or hundreds of thousands of people will get to experience. And she she was all in. She said, ‘let’s do it,'” Leder said.

Apart from a Prada store in Beverly Hills, Rem Koolhaas and OMA has not built in LA. It had a series of near-misses though: it worked for a while on a project for Universal Studios. Then Koolhaas won a competition to redesign LACMA. Its scheme (never built) recommended replacing four existing buildings with one single building. That idea underpins the current scheme by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor. OMA was also the runner-up to design the Broad Museum on Grand Avenue, but lost to Diller Scofidio + Renfro.

Koolhaas is suddenly very busy in Los Angeles. OMA’s working with Mia Lehrer on the First and Broadway Park in downtown LA, as well as a commercial development in Santa Monica.

This article was made possible with support from California Humanities, a nonprofit partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.