Internationally recognized architect and artist Ken Treister’s touch can be found all over his hometown of Miami, but until recently his soaring, daring designs had not been collected in a book to do them justice.
Now a long-awaited volume highlights some of Treister’s most notable works in a gorgeous art book with short essays by the architect and photos by architectural photographer Laszlo Regos. The Fusion of Architecture and Art: The Judaic Work of Kenneth Treister (Books & Books Press, $30) presents six of his projects spanning four decades, five of them immediately recognizable to even the most recent Miamian.
“Up until this book, all of my other ones were about other architects and other cultures,” said Treister, a lifetime Floridian who now lives in Winter Haven. “This is the beginning of a series of three books on my own work.”
Treister, 85, has authored four documentaries and nine books, including three that were published in 2013 and one, Havana Forever: A Pictorial and Cultural History of an Unforgettable City, that focuses on a capital with strong ties to South Florida. His art has been exhibited in museums and galleries, and he has lectured at universities around the world.
But The Fusion of Architecture and Art focuses on five Miami iconic structures or interiors and another Treister work at the University of Florida, his alma mater: the Sophie and Nathan Gumenick Chapel at Temple Israel (1967), The Dove of Peace sculpture and remodeled interiors of Temple Emanuel-El of Greater Miami (2001-09), A Sculpture of Love & Anguish, Miami Beach Holocaust memorial (1990), the hand-carved wall murals at Beth David Congregation (1988), The Jacob Rechtschaffer Synagogue in the Miami Jewish Home for the Aged (2000) and the Judaic Suite, Smathers Libraries at the University of Florida (2014).
“These,” he explained, “were the ones that I thought were outstanding in expressing my vision.”
In these works, Treister attempted “to give understanding to the symbols of Judaism,” using the Bible as his inspiration. So, for instance, while working on Temple Israel’s Gumenick Chapel, he wanted to make sure the chapel would “raise sensitivity and increase the awareness of the relationship of God to the Jewish people.” His goal, he added, was to create a space that was large enough to accommodate groups but also offer a sense of intimacy. Instead of following the European auditorium model, where the congregation tends to be seated father back from the bimah (an elevated platform used for Torah readings), Treister designed a half theater-in-the-round where congregants sit no more than nine rows away.
In the chapter on Miami Beach’s Temple Emanu-El, Treister explains how he restored the Art Deco synagogue built in 1948, tracing the evolution of Jewish sanctuaries over time. “When entering Temple Emanu-El, a powerful silence should be sensed,” he writes, “a whisper that you are entering a holy space.”
Laszlo’s stunning photographs capture Treister’s obsessive attention to detail. Among the pieces the architect designed as part of the restoration are the Art Deco stone lanterns that flank the entrance, the stands for prayers books and prayer shawls, the six carved mahogany “Tree of Life Doors,” the mosaic glass floor medallion and the polished bronze menorahs.
When working on a project, Treister tries to design everything before allowing artisans to do the physical work. “It’s similar to an orchestra,” he explains. As a conductor, “you want every instrument to play well.”
Perhaps the most recognizable of Treister’s local works is his sculpture at the Holocaust Memorial in Miami Beach, a 50-foot-high, bronze outstretched arm with 130 tormented human figures clinging to it. He worked on it for five years, creating a memorial that is both a large environmental sculpture and a series of outdoor spaces.
“I tried to portray something that is impossible to portray — a horrific event in human history,” Treister said. “It was very difficult.”
Treister hopes that both serious readers and the occasional browser will recognize the symbolism and spirituality in his work. But he’d also like to bring back the concept of art as an integral part of society and not just a commercial product to be sold and collected by the wealthy. He points out that before the 20th Century, art and architecture were intertwined and inseparable.
One doesn’t need to be an art historian to appreciate beauty, he added, and he encourages people to visit the places and sanctuaries captured in Laszlo’s photographs. “The most important part of a piece of art,” he said, “is how you feel, how it makes you feel.”