Vacant Possession

John Goldwater’s magnificent centre for the Auckland Hebrew Congregation faces an uncertain future.

Vacant Possession

John Goldwater’s magnificent centre for the Auckland Hebrew Congregation faces an uncertain future.

Greys Avenue is one of Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland’s more gracious inner-city streets, thanks to its plane trees, planted in the 1870s, and its architecture, which rises in quality as it ascends the street. There’s the good: the 1920s factory that is now Parklane Apartments; the better: the 1940s Lower Greys Avenue Flats; and then the best: the Auckland Hebrew Congregation’s Synagogue and Community Centre, which opened in 1968. “As a work of architecture of its time, it’s right up there,” says Jeremy Salmond, Auckland’s leading heritage architect. “It’s exceptional.”  

Bordering the footpath with a brick façade coloured the ‘golden buff’ of Waitematā sandstone, the Synagogue and Community Centre offers the city a fine piece of streetscape. On its steep eastern side, it contributes to the landscape of Myers Park. And it is one of the best examples in Tāmaki Makaurau of the use of a courtyard as the organising principle for a building.  

These are among the impressive characteristics acknowledged by the Institute of Architects when it awarded the Synagogue and Community Centre a 25 Year Award in 1995. But awards, even for endurance, are no guarantee of survival. The Auckland Hebrew Congregation and co-resident Kadimah School are leaving their building, which is for sale as a development site. The time to appreciate it may be running out.    

John Goldwater put his heart and soul, and much of his life experience, into the design of the Centre. The building, the replacement for the original 1885 synagogue on Princes Street, was easily the most significant work of Goldwater’s career, much of which was spent teaching at the University of Auckland. The architect, who was born in 1930, was in his mid-30s when was he given the design commission. This was a young age to be entrusted with such an important project but Goldwater had advantages to go with his ability. He had familial connections to both architecture and Auckland’s Jewish community. His father, Albert, was an architect, mainly of houses, but also of the liberal Beth Shalom synagogue (1960) on Manukau Road. 

There were other things that Goldwater brought to the design of the Centre. In the early 1950s, soon after graduating, he and his wife Hinda departed on their OE. The couple’s sojourn in Spain – they lived for a year on the island of Ibiza – was an education in Spanish and Moorish architectural traditions, and in the way in which buildings were sociably occupied in a Mediterranean climate. Goldwater picked up the language of thick walls, courtyards and colonnades and would use it in his own architecture, and especially in the design of the Greys Avenue building. “Goldwater builds solid-walled buildings and punches holes in them with a natural sense of judgement, controlling light and view,” wrote architect and writer David Mitchell, whose first job as a graduate was working for Goldwater on the Centre.

Drawn as he was to the architecture of Iberia and the inward-focusing, ‘hollow square’ model of medieval Moroccan synagogues, Goldwater was also, like so many of his contemporaries, an observant Modernist. Every young mid-century Modernist loved Alvar Alto, and the influence of the Finnish architect’s celebrated Säynätsalo Town Hall (1951), a brick-walled courtyard building with strong sculptural qualities, is clearly evident in the Synagogue and Community Centre. Le Corbusier, of course, was another Modernist lodestar. The chunky concrete planter suspended above one side of the courtyard calls to mind the curved concrete roof of Corb’s chapel of Notre-Dame du Haut at Ronchamp (1955). It illustrates, too, David Mitchell’s judgment that “there was nothing prissy about Goldwater’s work”.

There were more factors at play in Goldwater’s design for the Greys Avenue building. He had to consider, he said, “what a synagogue should be like in the latter part of the 20th century.” He also wanted to give expression to Hebraic traditions and form to the poetics of Judaism. Heroic modernism and Holy Land history encounter each other across the courtyard where the Corb-esque planter is juxtaposed with a mature olive tree, still flourishing in a corner of the concrete plaza. And then, at a fundamental level, Goldwater had to answer a brief that called for places for worship and ritual, offices, meeting rooms and a small school. (The growth of Kadima School has had profound implications for the building.)

The rich mix of generative ideas and influences behind the design could have proved too eclectic for the building’s good. What holds everything together, in addition to the cloistered courtyard at the heart of the composition, is the simple material palette of brick, concrete and timber used with single-minded discipline throughout the building, the sophisticated geometries of the plan, and the priority given to the building’s worship spaces. 

There are actually two synagogues, or shuls, within the complex, one originally designed to accommodate 750 worshippers, and the other a 100-seat minor synagogue. The synagogues, which occupy the eastern half of the site, are aligned with two edges of the polygonal courtyard. Perhaps this shape alludes to the first five books of the Hebrew bible, the Torah (the Pentateuch, in the Old Testament of the Christian bible); or perhaps this interpretation is a surrender to suggestiveness in the face of so much symbolism. The smaller shul is also five-sided, a dramatically vertical, brick-clad room illuminated with natural light admitted through a large, east-facing window. A corner ark contains copies of the Torah, including the first to be hand-inscribed – as are all Torah scrolls – in New Zealand. Set high in the wall near the ark are two tablets preserved from the 19th-century Princes Street synagogue. The shul, which is largely in its original condition, must be one of the most atmospheric spaces in Tāmaki Makaurau.   

The larger synagogue has been significantly altered, unfortunately, from an architectural perspective, pragmatically, according to the needs of the building’s users. In his design for the octagonal main shul, which is flanked on either side by two ovoid brick staircases, monumentally ageless, Goldwater took inspiration from the mishkan, the tented tabernacle described in the Book of Exodus. The synagogue’s form rather resembles a pagoda: three stepped clerestory levels recede upwards to a high roof supported by 12 steel struts, one for each of the tribes of Israel. The 12 tribes – the Shivtei Israel – are also referenced in the ark, carved by sculptor Mary Macalister. Fifteen years ago, two mezzanine levels housing classrooms for the expanding Kadimah School were inserted by architecture practice Peddlethorp into the synagogue’s void and at ground level, space was sacrificed to a function area. (The changes contributed to the downgrading of the building’s Auckland Council heritage rating.)

John Goldwater understood that form is not functional forever. He wasn’t precious about his design for the Synagogue and Community Centre and he himself designed alterations to the building before his death in 2000. The Auckland Hebrew Congregation and Kadimah School are resolved to leave Greys Avenue for a more suitable site, but for one member of the Jewish community, the impending move is especially poignant, and the irreconcilability of heritage importance and user ambition is keenly felt. Seth Schanzer is an architect, like his grandfather, John Goldwater. The existential circumstances of the Auckland Hebrew Congregation and Kadimah School necessitate leaving Greys Avenue, Schanzer says, but he hopes his grandfather’s fine building might serve the requirements of an empathetic new owner. Over to you, Auckland. 

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