Ukraine’s moving Babyn Yar Synagogue by Manuel Herz

Ukraine’s moving Babyn Yar Synagogue by Manuel Herz

Swiss-based architect Manuel Herz designs the new Babyn Yar Synagogue in Ukraine as part of the local Holocaust Memorial Foundation initiative. Opening like a book, the building is at once poignant and engaging

The new Babyn Yar Synagogue has just been inaugurated in Ukraine. Designed by Switzerland-based architect Manuel Herz and part of the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Foundation initiative, this innovative and powerful building not only serves as a temple, helping to re-establish the current, local Jewish community, but also acts as a reminder of the site’s history. Herz drew on both elements for his design and created a striking, moveable structure that references the notion of a book – a central feature in the Jewish religious service. 

Babyn Yar, a wooded area west of Kyiv, was the tragic site of one of the worst massacres of the Second World War. In 1941, German troops shot and killed approximately 35,000 Jewish people there in the space of two days. A further 100,000 people met the same fate in Babyn Yar in the coming months. The landscape of the area has since changed, from forest to city park. This memorial is an important reminder of the events that took place there in the 1940s. 

The idea of the book being an important tool, symbol and source of knowledge within the Jewish religion was mixed with a sense of playfulness and the concept of the pop-up book, says the architect. As a result, the Babyn Yar Synagogue mechanically moves to open (an architectural approach Herz has experimented with before), becoming a generous, sheltered space; then it can close, into a flat, vertical form approximately 8m wide and 11m high. 

close up of the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial showing the mechanism that allows it to move

‘The pop-up book is a magic book that unfolds into three dimensions,’ says Herz. ‘From a flat object, when we open it, new worlds unfold that we could not imagine before. In a sense, the pop-up book can act as a metaphor for the synagogue. Furthermore, the pop-up book triggers fascination: no one can resist the temptation of opening up these books of wonders, and exploring them. This quality of a “cabinet of wonder” and a new universe that unfolds is what I wanted to create in the location of Babyn Yar.’

The Babyn Yar Synagogue sits on a wooden platform, so as not to have deep foundations that disturb the natural context. The structure is made using a wooden and steel framework. The interior is decorated with symbols and iconography related to the Jewish faith and previous synagogues on site, which have since been destroyed. The wood is old oak, sourced from within the country, thus keeping a sense of place, history and patina to the forefront.

Meanwhile, the operation of the structure is as important as its function. ‘The building is manually opened, and then unfolds into the three-dimensional space of the synagogue,’ says Herz. ‘The opening process is a collective ritual, performed by the congregation, as a manual and physical task, intentionally without the support of a motor. The unfolding space, with the bimah (reading platform for the Torah) in the centre, with its benches and balcony, is this new universe that has opened by reading the book together.’ §

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