A Midtown Holy Land

Photo: © Marc Kushner/Workman Publishing (Excerpted from Unscrolled. Copyright © 2013 Roger Bennett)

In the book of Exodus, God gives the Israelites instructions for his tabernacle, a movable dwelling holding the Ark of the Covenant. The ultraspecific directions “basically read as an architecture plan, with God as the very, very specific client,” says Marc Kushner, an architect at Hollwich Kushner. “It’s like a model-building manual.” And an irresistible challenge: For the new book Unscrolled, in which artists and writers interpret sections of the Torah, his team drops the tabernacle into the middle of New York. The result is a sly take on modern worship, one in which city parkgoers walk their sacrificial goats.

The Plan
Kushner’s team multiplied the biblical dimensions by four so the tabernacle would span a city block. Then they tweaked the one detail not specified in the Torah—they made the building vertical, so it would be visible in the skyline.

The Location
“If you just plopped this in the middle of midtown, you’d never see the thing,” Kushner says. “Great public and civic buildings deserve a great public, civic plaza as a kind of entrée and gathering place.” The vibrancy of Bryant Park fit the bill.

The Gold Box
On the 55th floor is the Holy of Holies, where the Ark of the Covenant is stored. “God is very prescriptive but also kind of vague about how it would be clad, in things like sealskins and certain hides,” Kushner says. “We sort of figured gold would do.”

The Stairs
Instead of the prescribed open courtyard, this tabernacle is a “porous” skyscraper comprising a network of stairs. The stairs are “a circulation system and a way of packing in people for prayer.” They also convey animal sacrifices.

The Smoke
The tabernacle was used to give sacrifices to God. “There’s something kind of Brooklyn about it—you’re not just worshipping God, you’re getting a great barbecue out of it! Though the DOB would have a lot to say about an open fire pit on the fifteenth floor.”

The Congregants
Like the original, this tabernacle would be a place of pilgrimage, drawing Jews of various religious stripes. “Fashionable ladies can be observant Jews, too,” Kushner says. “Models, in this case, carrying lambs.”

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A Midtown Holy Land