The restoration of the Beit Midrash Morasha Synagogue
On a small Sea Point street near the natural marvels of Cape Town’s mountains, a monument of faith humbly presents itself to the suburb. Following many decades of service and an unfortunate event in 2018, the Beit Midrash Morasha Synagogue was awaiting restoration when the congregation found a solution in the expertise of Metropolis Design, the firm which would earn the rehabilitated synagogue a 2023 CIFA Award.
In good faith
Following a devastating fire in 2018, the opportunity for a fresh start presented itself for the richly significant synagogue on Arthur’s Road, Sea Point. The project posed a conservation challenge that Metropolis was confident to accept: innovate and shift the inherent meaning of a site without disturbing the layers of association embedded within its history. Metropolis proceeded by adopting a strategy to preserve and maintain the existing interior and exterior envelopes, as well as classic period details, while simultaneously adding new isolated contemporary design elements which would engage with what was being preserved.
A space for change
The Beit Midrash Morasha Synagogue building was constructed in 1925 as a Dutch Reformed Church, and by 1954 it was converted to a synagogue, maintaining the build but adding several new features in a Moderne/Art Deco style (as opposed to the original Cape Dutch Revival design that no longer suited the purpose of the space). Despite council regulations prohibiting any additions being made to the synagogue envelope and requiring that the new roof did not exceed the extent of the existing roof, there were several possibilities for change which would enhance the synagogue’s appearance and functionality. The scope of work consisted of a new sanctuary roof, preserving the façades, new interiors, a new staircase to link the ladies’ gallery to the foyer, and reducing the size of the ladies’ gallery to create a new youth room on the top floor.
A key opportunity for revival in the project was found in the work on the roof, where more specific Jewish symbolism could be incorporated into the synagogue. An octagonal roof, detached from the walls by a continuous band of fixed glazing, was placed over the original cruciform plan. As a result, a new geometry is enforced, providing much-needed natural light that entirely transforms the character of the sanctuary as a place of worship. The original silhouette of the sanctuary from the outside was not significantly altered, adhering to the requirements of the process. To cast a play on light and shadow from above, a simple lantern in the centre of the ceiling has a captivating floating Star of David motif.
The aron kodesh, a focus of a type of synagogue ritual, had a much-loved copper surround, which was damaged in the fire. After much negotiation regarding the Jewish halachic requirements, a design was decided upon with the kind of simplicity that befits an aniconic religion: two silvery marble tablets with artistic calligraphy representing the ten commandments were placed on either side of the ark. The memory of the old copper ark surrounds was preserved in two adjacent wall panels. Other abstract Jewish motifs were further applied onto screens, balustrades, and furniture. The mechitzah was interpreted as a vertically sliding device fixed to the seating, making it possible to obtain different congregation sizes depending on the occasion. One feature which was kept as found, on the advice of an acoustic engineer, was the timber flooring, as it contributes a resonant effect on amplifying communal singing. The shortening of the synagogue’s upper gallery and the addition of absorbent ceilings at the rear of the synagogue also reduced the echo for the individual voice.
Altogether a mixture of bold imagination, restraint, and sensitivity to diverse concerns was essential to give a dated heritage building timeless worth for both the present and future. Once witnessed, the spectacular synagogue offers its story for those around and within it, ensuring they will never be alone on their journey.