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A famous L.A. synagogue added a strange new building — and they get along perfectly

The $95-million Audrey Irmas Pavilion is a bold, edgy space designed by the Office for Metropolitan Architecture

The new Audrey Irmas Pavilion in Los Angeles. Designed by the international firm Office for Metropolitan Architecture, the pavilion stands beside the older Romanesque-Byzantine-revival Jewish temple next door. (Jason O'Rear)

LOS ANGELES — The new building on Wilshire Boulevard seems to step back ceremoniously from its neighbor, as if in awe of the neo-Romanesque Jewish temple with its Byzantine-revival dome next door. The $95 million Audrey Irmas Pavilion, which opened earlier this year, is the latest addition to the campus that houses this city’s oldest Jewish congregation, and the first major building in Los Angeles designed by the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, an international firm that also designed Beijing’s monumental, megalithic-looking CCTV tower.

The new pavilion, which includes an event space and a home for a nonprofit that offers outreach to local seniors, manages a significant balancing act: It is architecturally bold and slightly retiring at the same time. It looks a bit like a cube pushed off the vertical axis, with its western face sloping away from the 1929 temple building. Covered in hexagonal panels with rectangular windows that glow at night, and perforated with giant voids that bring light and air into its interior, the new structure seems not just from another era, but another planet. But that striking gesture — the way its form mimics the idea of bending over backward for someone you care for — makes it a surprisingly companionable addition to the city block that houses the congregation’s buildings.

Designed by OMA’s Shohei Shigematsu, the Irmas pavilion includes a second-floor space that can be used for religious services. But the two buildings present profoundly different views of faith and its rituals. The 1929 temple is grand and dramatic but also closed off from the world, a place for interiority and collective reflection. The soaring dome above its richly decorated sanctuary is topped by a glowing, blue oculus, but this is theatrical light, used for dramatic effect. Next door the light is real, the connection between inner and outer space fluid and open. In the old building, you could be anywhere your imagination takes you; in the new one, you could only be in California.

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OMA has built its reputation on architecture that is imposing, not just because it has designed gargantuan and aggressive structures like the CCTV tower, but because its founder, Rem Koolhaas, has championed the idea of monumentality in urban design. Cities need foci, and his buildings are meant to keep you looking, slightly in awe, even a little aghast at their bravado. But Shigematsu softens this idea, achieving monumentality without the alpha domination.

On a visit late last year, security was tight, which is, unfortunately, the usual state of affairs for this prominent synagogue whose members over the past century have included some of the leading figures in Hollywood (Louis B. Mayer, co-founder of MGM, and Carl Laemmle, founder of Universal Pictures, were benefactors of the temple). But the Irmas pavilion feels open and engaged with its surroundings, despite the security. The lower-floor space, suitable for receptions and large gatherings, is an arched, column-free hall clad in wood and open at both ends to the light outside. The second-floor gathering space, which can host services, flows from indoors to an outdoor terrace that creates one of the large voids in the cube. It also frames a dramatic view of the older building. An enclosed garden on the third floor creates connections between the smaller spaces above, and rooftop terrace offers dramatic views of the Hollywood hills and the larger urban landscape. Despite the complexity of the building, the progression of its spaces is simple and logical.

So too, its connection to the older building. Faith is both public and private, an inner journey and a form of communal bonding. One senses the priority of the public and collective aspects of religion in the pavilion, so that the two buildings present a logical division of spiritual practice into its constituent parts.

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Of course, with something as complex as religion, there are no neat dichotomies. The older building, with its giant rose window, arched entrance and robust dome, harks back to the Pantheon in Rome, and is more obviously religious or sacred in its architectural profile. The OMA building could house almost anything. If seen independent of its neighbor, first guesses would include tech incubator or high-end retail. That may be intentional. The 1929 building says, “this is a synagogue.” The new building adds, “and what goes on here is still relevant.”

It also addresses the street in a way that almost all large Los Angeles buildings are obliged to do. It can be registered in a glance, a flitting, distracted, traffic-addled glance. You may not know what it is, or what goes on inside. But you definitely notice it, and its presence defines the space all around it.

OMA is also designing the 11th Street Bridge project in Washington, an urban park that will be built on the disused pylons of an old highway bridge that connects Capitol Hill to Anacostia. The goal of that project, beyond offering park space to local residents, is to connect two neighborhoods with very different economic and demographic profiles.

Looking at the new Wilshire Boulevard pavilion next to its predecessor reminds one of how basic the idea of connection is, in design and urban thinking. At the atomic level, urban design is about placing things next to each other, and allowing them to be both individual and related. It is about the double-sided nature of civic life, which helps individuals flourish while creating rituals of respect among disparate actors.

The Irmas pavilion is a very different building, but it expresses the same fundamental idea.