The new B'nai Shalom synagogue in Olney is not the building it could have been, but no one involved in the process of getting it built need offer an apology -- neither its renowned architect, Arthur Erickson, nor the congregants who suffered through its long labor and difficult birth.
Nestled into a sloped clearing between a cornfield and a typical, new suburban development, the building is a modest victory over numerous, necessary cost cutbacks. The structure speaks with a quiet authority that augurs well for its future: it will age well and grow with the congregation and the community.
Erickson's design is the main consideration here, of course, but as the Damon Runyon tipster Hot Horse Herbie used to say, a story goes with it. To witness people banding together to build a house of worship is intrinsically elevating, but the venturesomeness of the young B'nai Shalom congregation, formed 10 years ago by a few families in the far northern suburbs, adds a lot to the tale.
Choosing Erickson was the audacious beginning of the story. A Canadian from the far western province of British Columbia, Erickson gradually emerged in the 1970s as one of the most passionate and imaginative architects in the world. Even if his most famous designs are in Canada (including two universities he designed in toto and a major revitalization of downtown Vancouver), his firm is involved in large-scale projects in the United States, Europe and the Middle East.
Still, the little synagogue in Olney is the first building he has designed anywhere near Washington. He did a good job with it, too. The building is a bit odd-looking at first view, which for most people will be from a car as they round a bend heading west on Route 108, not far from the main Olney intersection. But the more you look, the more you see.
The low, horizontal structure hugs the ground and seems to slice into the slope of the four-acre site. It looks partially buried by two mounds of soil covered with tan bark and dotted with low juniper bushes. To Erickson, earth mounds are a "signature" device, and he employed them here as integral parts of the facade, culminating at a narrow band of windows and framing a glassed entrance lobby. Behind the eastern half of this low facade and parallel to it rises a flat, windowless wall. The play of clean-lined horizontals, verticals and diagonals is simple and neat.
The building doesn't look like a synagogue, but it doesn't register as any other known building type, either. The fact that it is so simply there is intriguing and then, on the inside, one begins to sense a new and subtly symbolical geometry. That high flat wall actually is but one side of an equilateral triangle that does double duty as a social hall and sanctuary. The massive beams of laminated wood that support the roof of this room strongly suggest the shape of a Star of David. To drive the point home, and to satisfy the request of the congregation for "an interesting ceiling," Erickson placed a smaller, completed star atop these beams.
There is no mistaking the plainness of the materials used in constructing the building, and that too is an important part of the story. In the beginning the people of B'nai Shalom -- middle class with mainly mid-level jobs, by no means a congregation capable of supporting a multimillion-dollar architectural statement -- knew only that they wanted a place of their own but were having trouble raising money even for "a building with four walls," recalls Steve Malcom, chairman of the building committee.
So how did B'nai Shalom end up with a million-dollar genius like Erickson, and get a building that came in at an ordinary price? Partly by accident, partly by design, and partly due to the amazing determination of the congregation, once the decision to hire Erickson had been made. And also, in no small part, it is due to the shrewdness and vision of the architect himself.
The instigator of the idea was Carl M. Freeman, a developer and longtime resident of the Olney area, who told B'nai Shalom that, yes, he would provide a substantial donation under certain conditions. As Freeman says, he is thoroughly familiar with the "basic, pragmatic, pedestrian approach to building," but he also knows that nobody in the Olney area "has gone to the great architects and said, 'Design us a little gem.' "
That is precisely the condition he set for his donation. Erickson, from whom he had once commissioned a design for a house in the Caribbean, was one of the architects on the list Freeman proposed and the only one, it turns out, who treated the proposal with great seriousness. "We were talking about a budget of $250,000," Malcom remembers, "and Erickson responded with a design that met all of our needs." The price, however, was $600,000, and was underestimated at that. The final result, cutbacks and all, cost $458,000 to build.
What Erickson did, in contrast to the other architects on the list, was to supply a schedule of proposed reductions in the program that could, maybe, get them somewhere near their proposed budget. He also provided a design that in fact went way beyond the stated needs and modest expectations of the congregation. Erickson clearly had a vision for B'nai Shalom, and as Malcom says, "Maybe he knew the only way to get us there was to push us to it."
The ensuing game of push and tug between architect and client, and in the congregation itself, had a predictable fallout. At one point 40 families withdrew from the congregation protesting a mandatory financial levy and the nature of the design itself. "I'm surprised we only have one Jewish congregation in Olney, the way we fought," Malcom observes, adding that the secessionists have been replaced and then some by new members.
An oddity in the story is that according to the state of Maryland, Erickson is not the architect of the building. The state insisted that he sit for an architectural exam. He refused. Thus the "architect of record" for the building is the local firm of Komatsu/Brown, now Geier/Brown/Renfrow, which actually assisted the process in technical ways.
The building itself suffered grievously if not fatally from design cutbacks. The first thing to go was glass: a system of "eyebrow" skylights on the facade that would have brought an abundant play of natural light into the classrooms, offices and kitchen; the long, narrow skylights skirting the ceiling of the triangular social hall, and a glass wall at ground level along one side of this room. Next came this room's tongue-in-groove wooden ceiling. On the outside cheap plywood panels took the place of diagonal clapboards as the building's main surface. Mullions and flashing are standard low-cost metal, and they look it.
Even so, the congregation did not lose much in the way of functional space: Hallways were reduced in width, storage space shrank, a library was cut out and a temporary classroom was lost. The flock of B'nai Shalom got its temple and, furthermore, the basic strength of the design is such that it survives handsomely. "It is better to be simple," Erickson once wrote, a precept that is the secret to this modest structure.
And in Olney he did a little bit more. Not only does the plan envision additional classrooms and that library -- a "phase two" for which money already is being raised, according to Malcom -- but Erickson's vision includes a beautiful garden of paved courts and grass meadows planted with trees, bushes, flowers and herbs mentioned in the Bible. Most importantly, the architect foresaw a need for a triangular main sanctuary whose prow would tower behind the facade and whose presence would complete the building functionally, esthetically and symbolically.
By liberally interpreting his instruction that the building be "expandable," the architect created a design that is at once gift and challenge to the people in the B'nai Shalom congregation. It would be to their great honor to finish the building the way Erickson saw it.