Photo © Bruce T. Martin

Temple Beth Elohim

William Rawn Associates; HLB Lighting Design

Wellesley, Massachusetts

By Allison Craig

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Awe is a concept central to Judaism, and awe is the feeling you get as you enter Temple Beth Elohim, a Reform synagogue in Wellesley, Massachusetts. Dubbed “the best new house of worship to have been built in the Boston area in decades” by Boston Globe architecture critic Robert Campbell, Temple Beth Elohim is an inspiring example of how architecture can articulate spirituality and lighting design can create wonder.

This 42,000-square-foot space is the devotional home to more than 1,000 families. Completed in 2011, it was designed by William Rawn Associates, with lighting by Horton Lees Brogden Lighting Design (HLB). The most striking feature of the synagogue, whether viewed from the street, the tree-lined courtyard, or the doorway, is its soaring sanctuary. The space features two 36-foot-high window walls, facing north and east. While architecturally stunning, this expansive glass created significant lighting challenges. HLB had to conduct extensive daylighting studies at every hour to figure out how to maintain the desired visual transparency and connection to the outdoors, while ensuring that the congregants do not experience glare and the rabbi doesn't appear in silhouette. It also had to achieve the unusually high foot-candle levels (30 to 35, compared with 15 to 20 in a typical church) necessary for this congregation's participatory religious practice.

The first step was to place a custom maple-wood screen wall in the east-facing window, behind the ark. According to Carrie Hawley, associate design principal at HLB, “We worked with the architects to determine the ideal configuration, size, spacing, and angles.” With the delicacy of a bamboo shade, the screen delivers a subtle, filtered light during the day and solidifies the room as darkness falls. For evening hours, HLB achieved an ethereal glow with a sophisticated layering of lighting techniques. It arranged energy-saving 83-watt, long-life halogen accent lights in a concentric (dimmable) ring over the congregants. Then it aimed ceramic metal-halide wallwashers at the screen and focused halogen accent lighting on the ark. In a lighting sleight of hand, HLB aimed linear LEDs at the room's focal point, a 47-foot-wide circular mesh cylinder designed by the architects, which suspends 10 feet from the ceiling. Finally, it installed LED cove lighting to give the illusion that the entire ceiling is floating.

“We take advantage of lighting in every form to create different moods, personal and communal,” says Judith Cannon, the temple's director of administration and operations. Light sources were chosen for their warm color characteristics, creating a seamless marriage of natural and electric light. During the day, you are hardly aware that there are any fixtures at all. But at night, the glowing circle of light tells passersby that this is a special place.

Allison Craig, a regular contributor to RECORD'S sister publication SNAP, writes about architectural products and projects.

November 2012
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