For the Audrey Irmas Pavilion at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Rabbi Steve Leder, senior rabbi of the Los Angeles synagogue, commissioned Rem Koolhaas and Shohei Shigematsu to design a mezuzah to grace the doorways of the new 55,000-square-foot building, a cockeyed honeycomb caught between the historic temple and Brutalist St. Basil Church. As this was OMA’s first religious structure and first mezuzah, neither architect was particularly familiar with the ritual object: a reliclike enclosure for a small scroll inscribed with a prayer. They set about fabricating a design from colored resin and aluminum foam, a material familiar to the office and used to great effect at Fondazione Prada in Milan.
Jewish custom dictates that mezuzot (plural of mezuzah) should be placed at entryways and thresholds to honor a commandment from Deuteronomy: “Write the words of God on the gates and doorposts of your house.” Koolhaas and Shigematsu’s engagement with this rather architectural bit of Judaica suggests a project steeped in intimacy with cultural practices. Attention to the detail, however, begets a broader urbanistic question: Where is the front door?
Decorated with 1,230 hexagonal panels and confetti-like slit windows, the pavilion is designed to draw congregants and the public from across the county to the Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s Koreatown campus. Shigematsu describes it as a “machine for gathering,” yet there’s no direct entrance from one of Los Angeles’s major boulevards. A tall and substantial steel fence greets pedestrians. While the southern facade pitches dramatically toward Wilshire—to the traffic, a bus stop, and unhoused Angelenos tucked into other doorways—the building is decidedly off-limits.
The usual architectural gestures of openness pose an inherent tension for a religious institution that aims for wide welcome but, considering continued anti-Semitic violence, must institute security protocols. A topping-off ceremony took place at the pavilion just a month after the 2018 mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue, and according to crime-report data from the City of Los Angeles, hate crimes targeting Jewish people have doubled in the past three years.
Thresholds, then, are complicated. The roughly 350,000-square-foot campus simultaneously offers services and programs to the surrounding neighborhood while acting as a block-square enclave.
Visitors rarely enter through the ceremonial porch of the 1929 Byzantine Revival synagogue, which yawns open to the street for the annual High Holiday services. More likely, they pull into the parking garage at the rear of the block, get a pass from an attendant sporting a bulletproof vest under his polo shirt, and then find their way past the daycare playground to the new structure—a variation on Wilshire Boulevard’s reverse-mullet typology: party in the front, parking in the back.
Of course, OMA’s edifice has an actual front door—a portal recessed into the western flank of the trapezoidal prism (a respite from the bright, palm-lined courtyard between the existing and new buildings). And it has an oversize arched window (27 feet from floor to apex) facing the street. OMA claims the shape echoes the synagogue’s copper dome. If one were feeling particularly generous, the window could be read as a symbolic gateway peeking over the security fence. Its twin on the opposite side looks onto an existing internal courtyard.
The pavilion program is, in Shigematsu’s words, “not strictly religious.” More modish than the old sanctuary, which with its elaborate dome is primarily used for services, the new building assembles a grand event space, a chapel, a center for aging Angelenos, and a rooftop garden. Stacked together, all are given their own formal signifiers: arch, trapezoid, circle. From the outside, they manifest as “voids” in the facade—places where the hexagonal patterning of 6-foot-wide GFRC panels gives way to geometric shadow.
Inside, each space takes on a startlingly distinct character: ruddy terrazzo under a sassandra wood veneer vault for bar mitzvah parties and Hollywood set-and-repeat soirees; green chairs, green expanded metal mesh ceiling panels, and green SEFAR glass-laminated mesh windows to echo the verdigris of the copper dome framed by floor-to-ceiling windows. Such intense coloration in both the rosy ballroom and the viridian chapel immerses the visitor, woos with saturation. A world away from the white walls and polished natural woods that marked my own experiences in Reform Judaism, it’s an approach drawn more from the pages of OMA’s portfolio than from any midrash.
Blue defines the sunken garden on the top floor—ultramarine concrete made a bit powdery in the L.A. glare. The circular “void” cuts through the roof to create a deep skylight for the chapel; from the chapel floor to the garden is a whopping 61 feet. That move also brings daylight into the offices and community rooms of the Wallis Annenberg GenSpace, an initiative of the Annenberg Foundation to bring wellness and activity to L.A. seniors.
“The building creates a new energy to the campus,” said Shigematsu. Indeed, the chromatics dazzle. The architecture makes a handsome addition to Wilshire Boulevard’s growing assembly of notable structures, like Renzo Piano’s spherical Academy Museum and Peter Zumthor’s blobby bridge for LACMA. And yet, bound by the constraints of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple campus, it’s hermetic by programmatic nature, if not by design: a precious jewel box aching for a front door.