Kabbalah in Art and Architecture

By Alexander Gorlin

Interiors / Architecture
October 2013
ISBN: 978-1-938461-07-1
192 Pages / Over 175 Illustrations

$60 USD

Architects have been known to weep upon viewing the open courtyard of Louis Kahn’s 1965 Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California. A fountain of water issues from the cube of stone in the foreground, cuts through the court, and seamlessly joins the Pacific Ocean. The folded walls of the two laboratories framing the space almost exactly match that of Newman’s Zim Zum sculpture. As the Tzimtzum creates a void into which flows the first ray of light, Kahn funnels the light into a vessel, recalling the first light of creation.

The Villa Malaparte, fitted into the treacherous cliffs of the Faraglioni rocks overlooking the Mediterranean Sea on the island of Capri, Italy, is the penultimate stairway to heaven. Built in the 1930s by Italian architect Adalberto Libera for the Italian poet Curzio Malaparte, the villa is less about interior space than about the grand triangular stair that rises to a roof terrace, floating between sea and sky—a villa of ascension to the heavenly realm.

Israeli architect Moshe Safdie designed the new 1997–2005 Yad Vashem, or Hand of God Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, Israel, with a 600-foot-long gash through Mount Herzl that organizes the experience of the exhibitions. On the right, relief comes in the form of an open view of the surrounding hills through angled walls that splay outwards at the far end of the space, after the dreadful memories of the Holocaust are revisited. As Safdie said: The idea is that “life prevailed. We prevailed.”

The first ray of light in the void of Tzimtzum is suggested in the evocative space of Japanese architect Tadao Ando’s 1989 Church of the Light in Osaka, Japan. On the right, Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto’s 1997 image of the interior of Ando’s Church of Light further intensifies the inherent duality of light and dark in the space, distilling the essence of the eerie immanence of the Holy Spirit.

Louis Kahn’s National Assembly Building at Dhaka, Bangladesh, 1962-1974, is the largest and most symbolic project of his career. It is a summation of Kahn’s thoughts on light and space, matter and construction, as well as the transcendent act of gathering them all together. The concrete volume of the Assembly Hall, with strips of
marble inset to create a gridded pattern on the exterior, rises surreally from a lake “between the waters below and the waters above” (Genesis).

Temple Beth Shalom, built in Elkin Park, Pennsylvania, in 1954, is the only synagogue designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. It was inspired by a theme from Mortimer J. Cohen, its rabbi and the architect’s client, of a “traveling Mount Sinai.” On the left, the triangular eternal light hovers over the interior of the synagogue, with colors glowing like the Sefirot. On the right, a collage depicts the plan of Beth Shalom as superimposed over Rabbi Cohen’s hands. It explored Wright’s concept of the experience of the synagogue as recreating the “feeling of being in the very hands of God.”

Designed by American architect Steven Holl, the 2007 Bloch Building at the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, is a vessel of light that glows alongside the original classical stone museum of 1933.

Le Corbusier’s 1955 Chapel of Nôtre-Dame-du-Haut, in Ronchamp, France, replaced a previous mountaintop pilgrimage chapel that was destroyed during World War II. Literally built out of the rubble, the chapel celebrated the survival of a statue of Mary that was untouched by the German bombs. Bursting with light, the interior of Ronchamp is an asymmetrical composition of large and small windows in a thick, fortress-like wall.

The Austrian architectural firm of Coop Himmelblau’s 2010 temporary mobile pavilion for the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, Germany, is composed of a series of acoustical “shards,” whose purpose, in the interior, is to enhance the sound, and on the exterior, to shield the noise of the street from the audience. In the Kabbalah, these metaphorical “shards” from the broken vessels would be hiding “sparks” of the original light that need to be returned to their divine source. On the right, German artist Caspar David Friedrich’s 1824 Das Eismeer, or Sea of Ice, is an evocative portrayal of the romantic notion of the malevolent forces of nature wreaking havoc on the puny creations and dreams of man.

Anselm Kiefer is a contemporary German artist who has explicitly acknowledged the Kabbalah as an inspiration for his work. Included in the 2011 exhibition Next Year in Jerusalem at the Gagosian Gallery in New York, the 2010 sculpture in a large glass case, entitled Sefiroth, is of a plaster cast of a wedding dress penetrated by broken glass shards. This striking image combines the theme of the Shekhinah, the female aspect of God, in her location exactly at the bottom of the tree of the Sefirot.


The Kabbalistic idea of creation, as expressed through light, space, and geometry, has left its unmistakeable mark on our civilization. Drawing upon a wide array of historical materials and stunning images of contemporary art, sculpture, and architecture, architect Alexander Gorlin explores the influence, whether actually acknowledged or not, of the Kabbalah on modern design in his unprecedented book Kabbalah in Art and Architecture. Comprising ten chapters that each outline key concepts of the Kabbalah and its representations, both in historic diagrams and the modern built environment, Kabbalah in Art and Architecture puts forth an unparalleled and compelling reinterpretation of art and architecture through the lens of the Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism. A chapter on the Golem, and an epilogue that discusses German artist Anselm Kiefer’s powerful interpretations of the Kabbalah, complete this unique book.

About the Author

Alexander Gorlin is a noted architect, design critic, author, and scholar. His internationally recognized firm Alexander Gorlin Architects specializes in design for religious institutions, along with high-end residential, affordable, and supportive housing for the homeless, as well as master planning. Principal Alexander Gorlin has taught at the Yale School of Architecture and was a Rome Prize Fellow at the American Academy in Rome.


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