Texas Society of Architects 25-Year Award

This award recognizes a building of enduring significance that has withstood the test of time by retaining its central form, character, and overall architectural integrity. The accolade was presented during the Society’s convention in Austin on October 19.  Temple Emanu-El is only the seventh building recognized by the Society since 1997.  Last year, I.M. Pei’s Fountain Place, also in Dallas, was honored.

Members of the 25-Year Award jury were Craig Reynolds, FAIA, president of the Society; Tommy Cowan, FAIA, Lifetime Achievement medalist in 2011; President-Elect Lawrence Speck, FAIA; Brian Kuper, chair of the Design Awards Committee; Michael Malone, chair of the Publications Committee; and Larry Paul Fuller, guest editor of Texas Architect. The jury commented during the selection process that Temple Emanu-El was “an awe-inspiring modernist masterpiece that reflects an exquisite use of indigenous materials and contrasting illumination, and also represents one of the finest collaborations between art and architecture in the Southwest.”

In the 1950s and early 1960s, the northern frontier of Dallas’ rapid growth and post-war expansion was defined by Northwest Highway.  Along this corridor were built several of the city’s most important modernist residences and structures, by such luminary architects as Frank Lloyd Wright, George Dahl, O’Neil Ford, Harrell & Hamilton, and Philip Johnson. The city’s affluent Jewish population also shifted north during this period and with this move came the need for newer and larger ecclesiastical facilities to serve the growing congregations. 

After flirting with an earlier site for a new synagogue located on Turtle Creek (the current site of the Dallas Theater Center), along with a design by the renowned German architect Eric Mendelsohn, the congregation of Temple Emanu-El abandoned the project and purchased an 18-acre parcel on the city’s northern horizon.  Howard Meyer and Max Sandfield were hired as the architects at the new site and William W. Wurster, the noted California soft-modernist, was retained as a design consultant.

In its basic organization and form, the temple is a dogmatic, contemporary building. Meyer and Sandfield meticulously organized the programmatic components (sanctuary, multi-purpose hall and auditorium, chapel, offices, and classrooms) around a series of exceptional courtyards and gardens designed by the acclaimed landscape architects Arthur and Marie Berger. The materials employed by the architects to reinforce the Temple’s modern dialectic included exposed concrete and Mexican adobe brick throughout, augmented by copper, teakwood, and travertine inside. To assist with the realization of the cylindrical sanctuary, which featured lofty walls and a shallow-domed ceiling, Meyer sought the help of the artists Gyorgy Kepes and Anni Albers, who collaborated to produce a mystical place of worship remarkable for its darkly soaring volume and glittering artwork. In 1984, David Dillon described the sanctuary as a space that inspired “reverence and consciousness of sacred things.” He hailed the unpretentious building as “rigorous and logical without a trace of fashion or self-indulgence.”

Following its completion in 1957, Temple Emanu-El was widely acclaimed as a brilliant alliance of architecture and art. It was published extensively, including articles in LIFE magazine and Architectural Forum, and served as the national image of Dallas’ maturity as a modern city.  O’Neil Ford visited the temple and was moved to write a letter to the chairman of the building committee. The architect extolled the building as a “fine composition of clean, low lying wings that complement our prarie (sic) country and good, bold masses that rise in contrast and give the building quiet and definite identity.” He closed the letter with these words: “I am moved to say that I feel humble in the presence of this work….”

Willis Winters, FAIA, of Dallas, is a Texas Architect contributing editor.

Originally published in Texas Architect, November/December 2012