On the Transformation of Urban Space

by Bonnie Roche

If we have been created to endure the same suffering, to be doomed to the same pre- arranged death, why give us lips, why eyes and voices, why souls and languages all different?1  —Edmond Jabes

At the center of steel and stone in our modern cities stands the same individual that once stood in the shadows of the ancient desert. This individual yearns for the same spiritual rootedness to a universe larger than oneself. This cry for a glimpse of the ineffable is becoming increasingly audible as a public voice in the canyons of our urban environments.

Can we by way of an ancient metaphor, the Mishkan, the Tabernacle of the Hebrew Bible, create a sacred moment in a secular city? And, can we achieve this by re-mapping the factors integral to the world’s cities in such a way that the spiritual and cultural capital that lies latent within these cities be manifested in real time and real space, thus beginning a journey back to the roots of the generative source of the creation and continuity of great cities?

We cannot look at the cities of the world as the literal material of their urban landscape, some more compelling than others in their obvious organizations of great cathedrals and gathering places. We must look at urban environments as an architecture that had a genesis, a reason for becoming, a universe “that did not come about by necessity but as a result of freedom,”2 a freedom of ideas that began with the individual and formed by the collective.

What we once knew in the ancient world, more than ever, has relevance today; that the ancient Mishkan, the tent assembled and disassembled for forty years throughout the journey of the People of Israel, was critical to creating and holding a newly formed community from a nomadic people in a land that was ownerless and free. The Mishkan became a vehicle for spiritual rootedness within nomadism, within mobility.

We began as nomads, free and limitless in a land not sown. It was all earth and sky, a land and a light of exquisite contrasts, with a wind and a people moving across its endless space. The choreography of our movement was vivid. Our stopping to rest in our journey had significance. It was an existence based on time with no physical points.

When we began planting, for the first time, we produced the artificial. According to Spengler3, the peasant found a rootedness in the planting. He himself became the plant, no longer nomadic, limitless or free. And the marketplace of the peasant was one of individuals, rooted to their crop.

But we went further, leaving the rootedness of the peasant life of the earth. We imagined, through the abstract life of the mind, a built world manifesting a universe greater than oneself. The intellectual construct of the collective, which we know as urban landscape, freed us, made us limitless and again nomadic.

The fact that almost the entire Book of Exodus is dedicated to the most intricate and detailed descriptions of the building, contents, materials, assemblage, and even timing of the assemblage of the Mishkan along this journey, indicates an enduring importance to the People of Israel that is significant beyond its literal physical attributes. The Mishkan became the vehicle that strengthened the bonds between individuals assisting greatly in their evolution as a People.

It is held in the Jewish text that God created this physical world as a dwelling place for man. And in turn, man created the Mishkan as a dwelling place for God. Just as the world that God created needed man to complete it, the dwelling place that man created was not complete without God. This reciprocal act of “making” signifies the partnership established between God and man.

The act of “making,”4 the very construction of the sanctuary, became evidence of the contract between God and humanity. It was a conscious reciprocal exchange, an act of will and a mirroring of dwelling places between the spiritual and the human realms. Periodically a sign of the hovering cloud came to rest, indicating to the People of Israel that their journey was to stop. “The cloud covered the Tent of Meeting. When the cloud was raised up from the Tabernacle, the Children of Israel would embark on all their journeys. If the cloud did not raise up, they would not embark until the day it rose” (Exodus 40:34–37). With each movement of the cloud, the Tabernacle was disassembled and transported in parts until the cloud rested once again. Even in our dwelling place there is always the reminder that the “holiness” was in the act and not in the thing.

This “arrest” along a nomadic journey, was determined by a force outside the people. The Mishkan took on a life separate from human activity, a life choreographed by God, a pause, “so that he may dwell among them.” What a wonderful theatrical device this was. Individuals in the infancy of forming a community are told when to stop, to organize in a collective effort that which they developed a growing passion to do, and which they repeated over and over, each time as if for the first time.

Finally, “what we see described as the agent of the building is not individual builders but the community.”5 With every act of assembling and disassembling the Mishkan, their sense of community was strengthened. With every gathering, their dwelling place held them in time to experience a heightened sense of collective intimacy, both among themselves and with the ineffable.

The significance of the Mishkan’s presence is so strong in Exodus, that there is an interpretation that, the People of Israel were not carrying the parts of the Mishkan, but the Mishkan was “carrying” the people.

The fact of the carrying of the parts of the Mishkan on their journey became the constant reminder of their pausing for breath, replayed again and again. By this living rhythm of anticipation, experience and memory, individual bonds grew to become a collective, made increasingly more real on the human plane and more palpable on the spiritual plane.

Many interpret the Mishkan to have been the metaphor for the Sabbath itself, a time-oriented event, occurring from dusk to dusk, where space had meaning only as it relates to time and to the continuous present of those who inhabit it. Horizontal time became vertical time. And vertical time became a people that knew no separation between the physical and sacred dimensions. The Mishkan was a metaphor for moving from motion to stillness, from measured time to timelessness, from the six days of the week to the Sabbath.

Today, as nomads in the desert of our cities, we need to stop, to gather, to rest. Our cities are sinuous constructions of constant reminders of the things of space. But we are in desperate need of the sense of a collective. We ache for the mysterious ineffable of Heschel’s “radical amazement,”6 for the original idea of a world greater than ourselves, greater than the intellectual constructs of our built urban wilderness, for an idea inclusive of and with deep regard for the individual.

The Tabernacle and Court in the Wilderness
Nineteenth-century reconstruction. Meek, H.A. 
The Synagogue. (London, 1995.)

We are in danger of losing our individual soul and collective souls. But the soul is not a singular idea. It has memory, anticipation, engagement, imagination. The soul has a relationship with time that is complex, requiring both an immediacy of encounter and a meaning beyond the immediate.

“Traditional cultures held the notion of a congruent layering of reality from the material to the spiritual planes, mirroring one another through a chain of relationships between the macrocosm to the microcosm. Living in this matrix of the sacred implies that sacred sites cannot and should not be disassociated from their more mundane environments. They are in fact the places in which the world manifests itself in its most real and concentrated form. . . .Establishing permanent connections between the visible and the invisible, quantifiable and the qualitative, the ephemeral and the timeless, was one of the basic concerns of traditional civilizations.”7

In the prologue “Architecture of Time” Abraham Joshua Heschel states that “Technical civilization is man’s conquest of space. The danger begins when in gaining power in the realm of space we forfeit all aspirations in the realm of time, where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord.” Heschel’s admonition is that “life goes wrong when the control of space, the acquisition of things of space, becomes our sole concern.”8

Our cities, although intricately layered, have become a singular idea, a space-oriented world devoid of the distinctions of time. The great urban environments of the world are formed by a critical mass of diversity, a life force in the continuous encounter with the stranger, a speed of movement for the urban dweller that makes all time like any other time. Its spaces are static, its architecture is immutable. Our urban complexities are losing the living dynamic, the constant dialogue between space and time.

And yet, in re-imagining, re-mapping the urban landscape, the very qualities that appear to suffocate the soul, may, when reassembled, free it.

Assume one is in the desert, where the light joins us to the landscape and no time is like any other time, where our stopping to rest has significance, where we are individuals forming a collective, in which the mundane and the spiritual is irreducible because of the very nature of our beings.

Proposal for Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, New York City. 
Architectural design by Bonnie Roche Architects. 
Tent engineered by FTL/Happold.
What if we reversed the modern equation in our space-oriented world? What if for a moment—a day, a week, two weeks—we, as a civilization in all of our cultural and social diversity, experienced in a time-oriented world. What if we analyzed our urban landscape, looked at the mundane static places that could be temporarily transformed into sanctified gatherings? What if the architecture of the steel and stone temporarily became mutable, impermanent and nonmaterial in their meaning? And what if we, in our cacophony of voices, paused for a breath, as the ancients once did, publicly as one body with one voice of many tones? What if we experienced our different cultures, religions, ethnicities, not in an intellectual way, but by authentic shared experience in one time and in one place? What if the urban landscape was transformed to receive us as a collective and that we, by the act of creating such a transformation, became transformed ourselves by living as one populous in a time-oriented world, face to face, experiencing the ineffable within our shared humanity, finally rendering inseparable the physical and spiritual worlds that once were so fundamental in the formation of our cities?

Few architects and urban planners are able to articulate or even capture the essence of the spiritual dimension in their work. Recently a student at Harvard’s Divinity School asked the question, “As architects you are the ministers of our built environments. If you are not building dwelling places for the soul, what are you building?”

We have prided ourselves in the measurable, the objective and the limitless freedoms of modern life. However, we have lived private lives in a public setting without giving authentic life to that setting and to the civic responsibilities that our freedoms require.

Yet, recently, as the built environment revealed its fragility, our collective human spirit revealed its strength. Although our collective memory will forever be changed, we cannot slide backwards into narrow thinking. As all professionals, finally, and without warning, the debate has begun regarding our contributions to the most sacred canons of our civilization.

There is no longer time to build without rebirth. Every creative act must now be, by its intrinsic nature, an act of regeneration. I believe the question to be explored now, is: do we, as architects understand what is required of us in

both the measurable and the seen and in the immeasurable and the unseen, as we work to create the intricate dwelling places for the soul?

View through proposed forecourt at Damrosch Park.

The Mishkan Project

Several years ago, my congregation, for the first time, was faced with the necessity of separating into several spaces for the Jewish High Holidays. To compound this separation, we had, for many years, been unable to assemble in a place of our own making. It is an ancient story in modern times. We were a nomadic community in a nomadic culture, a people in search of a way to create a place to rest in holy assembly.

The Mishkan was proposed, a metaphor deep within our tradition. A site was chosen, an architectural scheme was developed, the technology and costs were researched. With modern state-of-the-art engineering, a tensile structure became a practical and possible solution for our “Tent of Meeting.”9

Almost immediately, when we evaluated our relationship to a project of this magnitude on public land, one community's need transformed into an idea for the city at large and beyond. It became an opportunity to open our tent to all religions and all cultures in the days between our holiest of days in ecumenical reconciliation, celebration, and sanctity.10

The “Mishkan Project” is specific to New York, but it is an idea that is universally relevant to all great cities, each with their unique geographies, social and cultural diversities. The project is built on the principles found in the Hebrew Bible, with parallels in other cultures,11 and erected for all people.

The initial project was conceived for Damrosch Park at Lincoln Center because of its existing site features; the location within the city, the articulated urban geometry, the natural landscaping against its empty plaza and the various setbacks from the street. One moves from the speed of the street into the vastness of the main plaza, then between two buildings into the grove of larger trees. Here one enters the threshold of moving into increased stillness and communal intimacy. The semi-enclosed forecourt is created by a perimeter tent surrounding the grove of smaller trees, becoming the final moment of transition into the sanctuary itself. The sanctuary now spacious, ownerless, and open, once a naked plaza, is transformed by temporary risers into three-dimensional geography sheltered by a roof of soaring weightlessness. The sequence and qualities of spaces experienced allows the public to move deeper and more intimately into the realm of time, emotionally far from the realm of space.

View of existing site for proposed sanctuary.  

Therefore the Mishkan would remain separate from the concrete commercialism of the urban environment, ownerless and open in which no one would be walled in or walled out. Like music, it would represent an idealness in time, not signifying but simply existing not as a single anonymous object, but as geography, public and open; an urban landscape that is uncovered deep within its center, from stone that resists the pressure of density pulled upward away from the earth. The metaphor of the Mishkan implies “beginning,” and like music carries a “memory space”12 that is universal, for the transformation of souls past, present and future, soaring limitlessly through space.

It is essential that a proposed site be a co-creator of a “living” space, carrying a physical template deep within its built urban form, from which a series of transitions can be created. We must scan our built landscapes as a “seers of the invisible,” looking for latent resources on which to choreograph our journeys inward. In unearthing the mundane and the explicit in our cityscapes, we discover possible starting points for the transformation of found space, with the humanizing potential for expansion and metamorphosis on public life.

Plan view of Mishkan model. 
Designed by Bonnie Roche Architects. 
Photographed by John M. Hall.

One might ask why a large open space such as a landscaped park might not be preferable to moving deeply into a densely built environment? It is the contrast of the inorganic quality of the built environment with the organic quality of human movement, and mutable structures that creates a living dynamic, in which the life of each enhanced. Let us use the analogy of a successful theater space. It is built geography, a sloped hillside, where the three-dimensional quality is essential. The relationship among its participants is triangular, audience to audience, audience to actor. The frontal layouts of the sixties have failed despite their perfect sight lines. Theater is relational, face to face. The life force comes not from its architectural perfection, but from its ability to hold people in relationship to one another.

It is not surprising that the technological advances that have contributed to our modern nomadism, are also those that allow the properties of the ancient Mishkan to be relived, in a place and a time that is once again nomadic. State- of-the-art tensile structures, that appear fragile are, in fact, engineered from lightweight materials for great structural stability, large spans, easy transportation, quick assemblage and dismantling and adaptability to most site conditions. The qualities of the ancient Mishkan are those of impermanence, mutability, and openness in which the good is everywhere and beyond.

By nurturing the diverse cultural and spiritual identities, we can succeed through reconciling the lives of individual and communities in the deeper layers of primordial human realities. This reality is all encompassing in that it connects past, present and future. It is predicated on our belief of the possible and attainable harmony between our material and spiritual worlds coming together; its realization to be meaningful is contingent to and through individual realization of a collective aspiration in a given place and time.

Today, the “Tent of Meeting,” the Mishkan Project, is a project that would bring collective expression to the spiritual emergence we are beginning to experience. In New York, particularly, we have seen such an outpouring our diversified population in these recent times, with an energy to save our city emotionally during the day. But that great population runs to their houses of worship, privately, for sustenance at night, leaving that great swell of the public collective behind. What if that same collective, that has gathered to labor through the day, had the chance to face one another, not in action, but in sanctity, to hear the voices and see the soul’s expressions of individual worship, shared in one open dwelling? It is immediacy, encounter, dialogue, shared time. It is an invitation to gather. And in that we could experience the inner lives of the collective, the original generative life-force of the very fact of our urban metropolis.

Overall site drawing showing sequence of spaces

The debates concerning the rebuilding of Ground Zero has brought to light the discordance we feel between the sacred and the physical realms with a force that was unimaginable. The inner time of our soul has demanded a time to heal. The commercial pressures of the realm of space are rushing to build. These distinctions have never been so present, so public and so urgent in their need for serious mutual recognition and solution. Our public response to this tragedy will continue to change over time. Perhaps the Mishkan/The Tent of Meeting, erected in different locations throughout the years in our “Day of Remembrance,” can embrace the inevitable changes we will see in our need for public expression—existing always as living experience in form and “anti-form.”

We need to establish vehicles that can hold us in sacred time in our cities as we move forward in our journey, to energize and unite us as a community in our inner lives. It is my belief that we, like the ancients, must renew our contract with one another and with the ineffable, by constructing places that have a continuous presence in the collective consciousness, with forms that remain silent, incomplete, waiting for human beings to enter. And in these places uncovered and transformed in the center of our urban terrain, we must, as the ancients did, cease and pause for breath after we have constructed our reciprocal dwelling places on earth in genuine gratitude for the beauty that has been bestowed upon us. This dialectic tension in the context of our urban built environment is the reconciliation between souls and forms.


1. Jabes, Edmond. The Book of Questions: Volume I. (Hanover: University of Wesleyan Press,  
2. Heschel, Abraham J. God and Man. 150.  
3. Spengler, Oswald. "The Soul of the City," 64, in Sennett, Richard (Ed.), Classic Essays on the Culture of Cities. (New York: Meredith Corp., 1969).  
4. Rosenzweig, Franz. "Scripture and Luther," 63, in Buber, Martin and Rosenzweig, Franz. Scripture and Translation. (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1994).  
5. Buber, Martin. "People Today and the Jewish Bible," 19, in Buber and Rosenzweig. Scripture and Translation.  
6. Heschel, Abraham J. The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man (New York: Noonday Press,  
7. Bianca, Stefano. "Resources for Sustaining Cultural Identity." 18, in Serageldin, Ismail; Shluger, Ephim; and Martin-Brown, Joan (Eds.). Historic Cities and Sacred Sites: Cultural Roots for Urban Futures. (Washington, D.C.: The World Bank, 2001).  
8. Heschel, The Sabbath:Its Meaning for Modern Man, 3.  
9. Members of the B’nai Jeshurhun committee were: M. Abomowitz, Rabbi M. Bronstein, J. Love, Rabbi R. Matalon, J. Peck, B. Roche. Originally the project was conceived on the following basis: that we, as Jews, are alive and free in the beginning of this century, in this country and in this city, and because we no longer must hide or assimilate, our claiming ground for a moment in time, to embrace all people and all cultures by welcoming them into our tent to worship in all languages. The poignancy of this idea represents a shift from the documentation and remembrance of the recent past to the strength of openness of universal reconciliation.  
10. The committee was expanded to include members from the ecumenical, cultural and architectural communities. The following individuals made the informal group of advisors: J. Chanes, National Foundation for Jewish Culture; P. Harrington, The Interfaith Center of New York; Marnie Imhoff, Rockefeller University; M. Kahan, American Jewish Congress, Political Science Department, Brooklyn College; B. Roche, Bonnie Roche Architects PC; K. Sanders, Jewish Community Center of the Upper Westside; L. Shaw, Esq., Stroock & Stroock & Lavan LLP, Dr. A. Stern; E. Weiner, United Jewish Appeal Federation.  11. The Grand Shrine of Ise in Japan is rebuilt every twenty years. This Shinto tradition has been maintained for 1,300 years. The craft of the reconstruction is passed on through generations as a primary value; forests are built by one generation knowing that the trees will mature in 200 years for the repeated rebuilding of the shrine. Tokoro, Isao. "The Grand Shrine of Ise: Preservation by Removal and Removal," in Serageldin, Shluger and Martin-Brown, Historic Cities and Sacred Sites: Cultural Roots for Urban Futures.  
12. Adams, John. "Notes on the Program: John Adams speaks about the work." The New York Philharmonic. (Playbill, Inc.: New York) 2002. John Adams was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic to produce a work dedicated to 9/11, "On the Transmigration of Souls." According to the composer, "transmigration" means "the movement from one place to another" or "the transition from one state of being to another."

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Source: Cross Currents, Fall 2002, Vol. 52,  No 3.