I have always been uncomfortable with the architectural term brutalitist. Part of the rub is, I suppose, that the name is a perversion of Le Corbusier’s most treasured design element, béton brut; or, rough or raw concrete. The story goes that Corb was dissatisfied with the stewardship of some of his early, pristine, white buildings. Owners did not provide the level of upkeep required and the buildings showed their age more than Le Corbuiser (Corb) found acceptable. In a seeming about-face, he decided no longer to incorporate smooth and precise materials in his work but rather use them in a less finished, natural state. Concrete was an obvious choice. It required little upkeep -not even painting. His decision to raise what had hitherto been primarily a structural element to an architectural has been tremendously influential on generations of architects, particularity from the mid-1950’s through the early 1980’s. But alas, brut became brutal – and as one may suspect, brutalist.
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This was a far cry from what Corb had in mind: using a material in its natural, unfinished, and pure state – not as a means to be savage or cruel – but to convey a timeless, unalterable beauty. One of the finest examples of his use of béton brut – and one of the finest pieces of 20th Century design – is his monastery in rural France, La Tourette.
As with many works of originality and genius the precedent Corb set was too often fumbled by lesser designers; however, the Temple De Hirsch Sinai, a béton brut masterpiece, is certainly not one of them. It is, in fact, an gem of mid-century design just south of Capitol Hill. As in La Tourette, concrete was used as a finish material, as structure, as enclosure, and, even, as window mullions and muntins (just like La Tourette). Another similarity to La Tourette is the Temple’s use of concrete not only as a boldly expressive element, but also as a fine-grained element for details and geometric textures. La Tourette has elements such as concrete-screen balconies while the Temple has a concrete filigree (marking the location the bema) and slender vertical ribs on the dome. The pattern of the windows and those at the bema are an abstraction of a menorah, a brass representation of which fronts 16th Avenue.
While concrete is the dominant material on the exterior of the building, the design of the entry hints at more things to come. At the entrance on 16th are two pairs of unadorned, walnut entry doors with period-appropriate brass hardware and all-caps, sans-serif fonts. Passing through the doors one sees the thoroughness in execution of the exterior’s design themes of offset geometries and contrasting planes of transparency and opacity. The temple’s designers created many of the interior’s fixtures including the ceiling hung lamps. The lamp shades have the same crisp geometric highlighted by subtle texturing as the building’s exterior. The 45 degree juxtaposition of the lamp within its cove continues this theme.
Such design elements may go unnoticed by many; however, sure to be noticed by all is the spectacular interior of the Alhadeff Sanctuary, the temple’s main worship space. Despite sharing the same form, geometry, and scale, there is a profound and unexpected contrast between the exterior and interior of the space. The rationale of the structure – with its crisp lines and folded planes – as well as the plethora of angles is not new, but their lushness was totally immersive. While the exterior is reserved and quiet, the interior is sparkling and colorful. And nothing could have prepared me for the chandelier. As playful as the lights in the lobby were, the chandelier captured the spirit of the space as few other objects could. It is quite a sight to behold, and a masterful piece of design and engineering.
The current temple, although of mid-century origin and perhaps 50-plus years old, is not the oldest building on the congregation’s campus. There is the Temple Center, a stately, classically-inspired building executed in the familiar brick and terra cotta that graces many of Seattle’s pre-war buildings. There is also the preserved west elevation of the original temple also of terra cotta and brick (note the pediment above the entrance holding the tablets of the Ten Commandments – this was a serious space). Both the extant Temple Center and the remains of the original temple share the same design quality as does the mid-century work. When contrasted, these buildings tell a nice story of the congregation’s history, their reverence to their past, and – when the current temple was conceived -an eye looking towards a bright future.