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Built to Last

God wants his people to build opulently, as he instructs Moses in this week’s parasha. While today they mostly don’t, there’s always Ralph Lauren, who built a new Beaux Arts mansion in New York.

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The new Ralph Lauren mansion. (Ralph Lauren)

This week’s parasha begins with an odd request.

“Speak to the children of Israel,” God instructs Moses, “and have them take for Me an offering; from every person whose heart inspires him to generosity, you shall take My offering. And this is the offering that you shall take from them: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson wool; linen and goat hair; ram skins dyed red, tachash skins, and acacia wood; oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the incense; shoham stones and filling stones for the ephod and for the choshen. And they shall make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell in their midst.”

If you vaguely remember the Israelite story, you may recall the bit about their 40-year sojourn in the Sinai desert, a patch of earth not celebrated for its abundance of gold, spices, and purple wool. Why not settle for something a bit more Arid Chic? Why not build something a bit easier to transport? Why all the opulence?

Because God knows that a people—especially a people stumbling through the wilderness—is in need not only of spiritual solace but also of a physical space where worship can become concrete and where God’s ephemeral greatness can be seen on earthly terms. He may not be fond of icons or graven images, but when it comes to dwellings, the Lord bequeaths his people a simple principle of design: More is more.

How strange, then, that so many of his people—at least those who, millennia later, pursued careers as architects—rejected his command and instead championed the spare and the unadorned. Some, trained in Berlin’s Bauhaus school in the 1920s, became pioneers of the International Style; when the Nazis rose to power, a number of these architects moved to Tel Aviv and worked to reshape a town of old houses tinted with arabesques and tanned by the Mediterranean sun into a modern metropolis of clean, straight lines and functional forms.

Eventually, when the time came to erect Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, it was the spirit of Germany, not of Jerusalem, that triumphed: Joseph Klarwein, trained in Munich’s Polytechnic, designed the low, approachable, modern edifice. The Knesset, some critics complained at the time of the building’s inauguration in 1966, was a thoroughly un-Israeli structure; its striking resemblance to the American embassy in Athens, designed five years earlier by Bauhaus oracle Walter Gropius, didn’t help much to alleviate the charges of foreign influence. The critics, however, were missing the point. If there was such a thing as Jewish architecture, it was, by the 1960s, far more likely to follow Gropius’ commands than God’s.

The biblical tradition of architecture, the one that holds that buildings that matter must be stately and lavish, hasn’t fared much better since then. It is nowhere in evidence in Frank Gehry’s functionless extravaganzas, nor in, say, Daniel Liebeskind’s angular abstractions. Indeed, looking at the past six decades, its safe to say that Jews design buildings either as wild ideas or as austere objects of utility, but rarely in the grand, rich tradition evident everywhere from the holy sanctuary to the palace at Versailles.

Historically, of course, one can find many reasons to explain this trend. No ethnic group removed for centuries from the centers of power and influence could be expected to develop a taste for grandeur. But herein lies the startling power of this week’s parasha: Even at their most powerless, without a state and without a clue, roaming the Egyptian dunes with the bitter taste of slavery still in their mouths, the Israelites, at God’s insistence, had a refuge of great luxury and elegance. Power and influence, the parasha teaches us, splendor and grandeur, all begin at home.

And while manifestations of this architectural logic are still uncommon in Jewish circles, at least one notable example may delight our eyes and hearts; it’s a sanctuary of an altogether different sort, the new Ralph Lauren store on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

A new building in the highly decorative Beaux Arts style, this four-story, 22,000-square-foot mansion houses the designer’s collections for women and the home. It is a complement to the Ralph Lauren men’s store across the street on 72nd Street and Madison Avenue, the historic Rhinelander Mansion that the designer purchased in 1986. The new building’s exterior is finished with lovely limestone with hand-carved flourishes, the entrance is a regal archway, the interior a bacchanalia of ornamentation, with wrought-iron railings and Persian rugs and intricate chandeliers everywhere.

Born in the Bronx as Ralph Liftshitz, Mr. Lauren attended a number of Jewish day schools before finding his way into the fashion business. Whether or not he paid particular attention to God’s musings on design is unknown; what is evident is that when it comes to buildings, Lauren is refreshingly unafraid of opulence. Not for him the austere, negative spaces, the glass and the steel, the angles and the emptiness and the big, bold ideas. Those belong to the theorists, to the intellectuals, not to the landed gentry, a class traditionally inclined toward unconflicted declarations of elegance and wealth, a class traditionally bereft of Jews.

Keeping in line with the designer’s general aesthetic of moneyed ease, Lauren’s new store is an important monument to an idea that Jews would do well to reclaim, the idea expressed in this week’s parasha: When you build, build gloriously.

Blessed Week Ever

Interior of Ralph Lauren Madison Avenue Mansion, New York.
Ralph Lauren

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JCarpenter says:

a stretch of logic to jump from the tabernacle/temple’s beauty to architecture for other purposes; Part Two, Liel, should look at some intriguingly beautiful temples/synagogues/houses of worship. “Sacred Spaces” project in Chicago is a beautiful interfaith study of such in that fair city; links found on PBS program of last fall, Religion in America.

Rachel says:

This is a nice reflection on the parsha and some of the more austere examples of Jewish architecture, and I love being directed to Ralph Lauren’s mansion. But talk of a lack in Jewish aesthetics is an old, false myth perpetuated by Hegel and repeated by both anti-Semites and well-meaning Jews throughout the centuries, and it’s time to retire that line. JCarpenter is right – there are hundreds of examples of lavish synagogues throughout the world, as well as other buildings. Synagogues in the Venice ghetto spring to mind, as does the Eldridge Street Syangogue on the Lower East Side, among many others. There are fabulous facades on the old YIVO building and other Jewish buildings in Vilna; there are inspiring Jewish museums throughout the world (beyond Liebeskind); there’s the Jewish Museum in New York in the old Warburg mansion; surely there are examples of department stores and hotels by American Jewish dynasties in the US. The list goes on.

dani levi says:

I always thought that the Ralph Lauren campaigns had a fascist aesthetic about them. Although they included the token black guy, the chiseled features and the clear cut proud arianish looking models ( shot from below ) in bright light with the ever present stars and stripes jumper was just a little too close to good old Leni for me. Looking back at the campaigns from a few years ago and comparing them to the Third Reich photo shoots of healthy athletes out in the fresh Baltic air, the proximity to Kraft durch Freude is hard to be dismissed. All that is missing is the discus thrower or the shot-putter in the Olympic stadium.

Lauren always seemed to appeal to the White middle class who longed to the upper class. Set in Mansions of the East coast stuffed with silver and Greco-Roman Statues and dense dark wooden desks. The crocket lawns and Royal county vistas between oaks planted centuries ago.
“Oh, if only I could belong…” you never will, BUT you can have the shirt that will get you into the Jew free country club. You CAN belong for $99.

dani levi says:

PS.
More Bauhaus, less ornamentation. The Jews who lived like Mr. Lifshitz in Berlin, either took a train East or ended up in Argentina. Leaving their heavy horse hair sofas in Charlottenburg and Schoneberg. I think I have seen it all before. The Bauhaus dudes built Tel Aviv, go figure.
That facade is like a gulasch followed by too much whipped cream on my strudel. One more over sized silver spoon of the whipped cream and my arm chair und Ich will brake through the oak parquet and crash land in the red salon down stairs.
But that’s all right because the Prussian maids will clean up the mess. Teufel, Teufel.

Brian Kaye says:

I find it truly strange that Mr Leibovitz would attempt to compare a commerical structure – whose sole purpose is to market and sell a designers products – with synagogues or the so-called command to design a richly appointed mishkan. The new Ralph Lauren store is based on Beaux Arts designs that seem wholly out of place in the 21st Century, except as being symbolic of WASPdom to create a selling space for that aesthetic. The 20th and 21st Centuries have produced numerous architects that have designed buildings of strong aesthetics and inherent ideas that seem more in keeping with Jewish tradtions of study and knowledge. While I think the Ralph Lauren store is a beautifu rendition of Beaux Arts architecture, its only idea is to mimic an exclusive society that his designs refer to – it helps sell his products even as it works well on the street. How exciting it might have been if Mr Lauren chose to construct an intriguing and thought provoking piece of architecture, thereby aligning his designs with a forward and thought provoking intelligence that would be more in line with Jewish thought and practice?

R. Miller says:

The linkage is a stretch and well. . . Lost on me. If referencing architecture, why not cite Frank Gehry, another prominent And influential Jew who is also an architect and a designer of amazing structures that are ‘opulent’ in their own way.

dani levi says:

Gehry does not build Temples of consumption for the middle classes. Mr Gehry is one of the worlds foremost architects of our time. I know that Ralph Lauren will not go down in history for having left any significant marks other than turn over and vast amounts of money.
He is the image of the image of the image.

Well put dani levi!!!!

R. Miller says:

Levi, exactly -you said what I was trying to convey . . . For the writer to cite Gehry and not someone (Lauren) who aspired to and for others, to emulate WASPs rather than design something unique and lasting. I am well aware who Frank Gehry is – it’s why I brought him up in the first place. . .

dani levi says:

R.Miller, I too am aware that you are aware.
Without your permission I ran with the thought. You inspired me.
Gehry is of course a perfect fit here. Although, at times builds with titanium coated panels and aluminium, Mr. Gehry is a Deconstructionist at heart. His first buildings were made of chain link fencing, corrugated iron and ply wood. Going from Mr. Lifshitz’s wedding-cake to Frank’s Truth is more than an apt train of thought. It puts in question Liel Liebovitz’s writing. The Jewish paradox is omni present, as we discover Bialik again : ” This dualism turns the soul of the nation into a battlefield where an incessant war rages. It is an impoverishing war. The two forces maul each other, thereby weakening the nation; but, on the other hand, we enrich our national content by not permitting us to drop of to sleep. Paradoxically enough, these opposing forces couple and are fruitful, so that the nation becomes many-sided and diversified.” From Jewish Dualism published by ibis editions.

dani levi says:

Deconstructivist , sorry.

R. Miller says:

dani, . . .speaking of Gehry and his amazing edifices – The NY Times (saw it online) did a great piece today (2/10/11) about his new (and first) skyscraper. Under their section: Architecture Review – entitled: ‘Downtown Skyscraper for the Digital Age’ – By NICOLAI OUROUSSOFF [Published: February 9, 2011]

I am not an Aerican,MY first time know about Ralph Lauren is when i saw the TV play “Friends” which Rachel work for.and now i found ralph lauren has become a huge brand!!,The ralph lauren shirts are very popular in my place!!

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Built to Last

God wants his people to build opulently, as he instructs Moses in this week’s parasha. While today they mostly don’t, there’s always Ralph Lauren, who built a new Beaux Arts mansion in New York.

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