How do you find spirituality on a tiny site shoehorned onto a frenetic, traffic-clogged corner in the megalopolis of Mexico City? This was the question that Cherem Arquitectos had to ponder when they took on the commission to build the Birkat Itzjak synagogue in the Lomas del Chamizal neighborhood on the city’s western periphery.
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In recent years, this enclave, home to low-rise residential buildings interspersed with dry cleaners, convenience stores, and other small businesses, has undergone a transformation as developers purchased lots to build luxury high-rise housing. The burgeoning population includes an Orthodox Sephardic Jewish community, named Maguén David, that, with all the growth, soon found itself in need of a new space to worship. Because driving a car is among the activities forbidden on Shabbat, the Sabbath, the group saw value in this 6,000-square-foot site, which, despite its awkwardness—atop a hill and hemmed in by streets on three sides—is within walking distance of the legions of residential towers. The funds to build were donated by a single family within the community.
Inside, as well as out, the building is its own island. “One of our first thoughts,” says principal Abraham Cherem, “was that, given the surroundings, which aren’t that nice, it was not a place to open views. We needed to make it introspective, its own shell.” And, adds partner José Antonio Aguilar, “we had to figure out how to bring in natural light without having conventional windows.” The steel-frame building, which is clad in travertine, is a simple rectangle in form and appears almost as a solid mass. (It has no sign or iconography, in part to “keep it quiet,” the architects say, and as a security measure.) Light enters through an arrangement of small rectangular apertures on the building’s long southern side, which are shaded by fixed, eyelid-like louvers made of the same travertine and hung at 21 degrees. On the front, east-facing facade, steel structural ribs rise the height of the building, framing thin sheets of cloudy white onyx that carry light into the synagogue on all levels (this strategy is mimicked at the back, with clear glazing in place of the stone). Acoustic laminated glass behind the onyx and elsewhere, and double layers of drywall sandwiched between the exterior and interior travertine walls, reduce noise transmittal.
In addition to the limited square footage, the site came with a height restriction of about 70 feet, presenting a challenge for packing in the all the spaces the institution desired for its congregation of about 2,000. The program is stacked neatly into the envelope. Three levels of below-grade parking accommodate cars on non-Sabbath days, necessary given the limited space on the surrounding narrow streets. On top of this, also below grade, is the midrash, or study room, a double-height space that can be viewed (as well as accessed by an open-tread travertine stair) from the entry vestibule above, which sits at ground level and is entered from the small side street to the south. A multifunction room for gatherings and celebrations, which opens onto a protected, travertine-enclosed courtyard, sits on top of that. The next level holds the sanctuary and men’s seating area of the temple, with the women’s section above in the mezzanine flanking the double-height space on three sides. At the top will be the women’s ritual baths, which have yet to be completed.
On the Sabbath, when the elevator is off limits, worshippers use a generous straight run of stairs off the front, main entry. Rising along the mostly opaque northern side, it connects all the floors and is drenched in light, entering through a strip of clear glass that extends the full height of the front facade as well as a skylight running the length of this slot-like zone. Throughout the interiors, travertine and walnut line the floors, walls, and ceilings, accented by inflections of brass. The tight material palette complements straightforward floor plans and the understated language of the architecture, contributing to a contemplative mood for prayer and the pursuit of wisdom.
The east-west axis of the site was serendipitous. Since synagogues must be oriented toward Jerusalem, the building fit the site nicely, with the short end of the rectilinear form facing east and, of course, the rising sun. Situated in this way, morning light streams through the wall of onyx, bathing the interiors—most notably the main sanctuary—with a honey glow. “If the east were in another position,” notes Cherem, “it would have complicated the design a lot.”
The team’s instincts for creating an inward-looking, light-filled space with carefully selected materials jibed well with the mystical aura they hoped to achieve. Scale also played an important role in evoking the sacred, say the architects (who did the work pro bono), pointing to the compression of the secondary and transition spaces relative to the expansive, more majestic sanctuary and, to a lesser extent, the midrash. “Here, introspection is important,” says Cherem, “but so is the feeling that there is something bigger than you—and scale can do that.” Other details underscore the notion. For example, the beamed walnut ceiling in the temple aligns with the vertical steel structure that holds the onyx, directing the gaze to the brass ark, the cabinet at the front of the sanctuary holding the Torah scrolls.
As the honking of horns and squealing of brakes persists outside against an equally cacophonous visual backdrop, inside the synagogue a soothing, even quality of light pervades, and all is silent, making Birkat Itzjak a little oasis for prayer, study, and community gathering.
Cherem Arquitectos — Abraham Cherem Cherem, principal; José Antonio Aguilar, partner; David Cherem, David Junco, Malena Martinez
Abraham Cherem Cassab, Abraham Cherem Dayan
Aguilar Consultore Ingenieros (structural)
Maguén David Jewish Community
44,000 square feet (including parking)
Stones Piedras Naturales
Brass ark & brass mesh
AlisMobile, Alexander Anderson, Pedro Ramirez Vazquez