A Building That's Also a Book

John Hill
9. November 2021
Photo: Iwan Baan

The recently completed Babyn Yar Synagogue in Kyiv, Ukraine, commemorates the massacre of approximately 35,000 Jews over two days in September 1941. The building was designed by Manuel Herz Architects to literally open like a book, echoing the congregation's act of coming together to read from a book of prayers.

Babyn Yar is not the first synagogue for Basel-based architect Manuel Herz. A decade ago his studio completed Synagogue Mainz, a striking tile-covered building with a silhouette that acts as an abstraction of the five Hebrew characters used in the word "blessing," and with interior surfaces shaped by densely packed Hebrew letters. This early expression of Jewish people as "People of the Book" continues with Babyn Yar Synagogue, which is located west of Kyiv in a wooded area whose deep ravine — Babyn Yar — lends the building its name. This ravine was exploited by the German SS officers eighty years ago, in their "holocaust by bullets" that reshaped the topography by turning it into a mass grave. The soil of Babyn Yar is now considered sacred, so Herz opted for a design that is light rather than monumental, lifted above the ground rather than embedded within it, and movable rather than static. Below is a visual tour through Babyn Yar Synagogue.

Wood from oak trees more than a hundred years old, all sourced from across Ukraine, covers the synagogue, giving it metaphorical roots that are older than the 1941 massacre. (Photo: Iwan Baan)
Changing the building from a closed wooden box to an open synagogue is "a new collective ritual," as Herz describes it, that is fully manual and therefore a physical act of transformation. (Photo: Iwan Baan)
Watch the opening up of the building in this video by Iwan Baan.
While the wooden building covers a modern, internal steel frame that enables one side of the 11-meter-tall building to pivot open and closed, the interior surfaces of the synagogue — the "pages" of the "book" — were inspired by historic synagogues from Western Ukraine. (Photo: Iwan Baan)
Herz was fascinated by the use of ornament and writing on the walls of old synagogues, so the new synagogue does the same, decorating its walls with prayers and blessings. (Photo: Iwan Baan)
Just above the Aron ha’Kodesh (Torah Ark) on the main wall is a blessing for "turning nightmares into good dreams," based on a historic photograph of a synagogue in Gwozdziec that Herz studied while designing the building. (Photo: Iwan Baan)
Like the walls, the ceiling is painted with symbols from historic synagogues in Ukraine dating back centuries. (Photo: Iwan Baan)
Specifically, the ceiling recreates the star constellation that was visible over Kyiv on the night of September 29, 1941, as a means of "[creating] a link to the night that the massacre started." (Image: Manuel Herz Architects)
With its smaller size, a working model of the movable Babyn Yar Synagogue, reinforces the link between building and book... (Image: Manuel Herz Architects)
...something furthered by a new two-volume book, How Beautiful Are Your Dwelling Places, Jacob / An Atlas of Jewish Space and a Synagogue for Babyn Yar, published by Park Books. (Photo: Nick Axel)
A special edition of the book, made by the Babyn Yar Foundation, features a miniature version of Herz's building that's also a book. (Photo: Nick Axel)

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