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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.

Liel Leibovitz
February 04, 2011
The new Ralph Lauren mansion.(Ralph Lauren)
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.

Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.