PORTRÄT: Geometry in the Negev Desert

 by Rudolf Klein (zur deutschen Zusammenfassung) (Heft 15/1)

Negev, Synagoge, Zvi Hecker (Copyright: Zvi Hecker)
Negev Desert, Synagogue, Zvi Hecker, 1970 (Copyright: Zvi Hecker)

In the new Israeli military camp in the Negev Desert, which consists of four long buildings placed around a cen­tral square, the Synagogue (Zvi Hecker, 1969-70) is the most radical implementation of Hecker’s non-orthogonal geometry. This synagogue is set apart from the complex, positioned on its diagonal axis. While the architecture and layout of army buildings express the strict spirit of military life with their orthogonal forms, repetitiveness, the synagogue’s architectural language – forms, colours – contrast the former sharply.


Complex, crystalline, three-dimensional

Negev, Synagoge, Zvi Hecker (Copyright: Zvi Hecker)
Negev Desert, Synagogue, Zvi Hecker, 1970 (Copyright: Zvi Hecker)

The synagogue with a floor area of approximately 100 m2 seating at least 100 people represents the highest complexity in Zvi Hecker’s early opus in creating space by assembling complex, crystalline, three-dimensional bodies.

Its solitary, multi-faceted volume, surrounded by a desert with sparse vegetation, appears to be without scale be­cause of its precise geometrical shape and absence of conventional openings. The construction consists of the com­bination of three spatial geometrical cells: the octahedron, the tetrahedron and the cuboctahedron. The three so­lid elements make up a truncated octa­hedron. The union is not fortuitous, but it seems rather to be the result of successive germinations emanating from a central pole.


Centrally orientated, two spatial foci

Negev, Synagoge, Zvi Hecker (Copyright: Moshe Gross)
Negev Desert, Synagogue, Zvi Hecker , 1970 (Copyright: Moshe Gross)

The plan is centrally orien­tated, but reflects the double focus arrangement of traditional synago­gues – with two important poles: the Bimah, an elevated central plat­form, for the reading the Torah, and the Ark, at the eastern end, consisting of a niche, which houses the Torah Scrolls, accessible by means of a ramp. The entrance is placed on the same axis that points towards Jerusa­lem. Seats for the worshippers are placed along the sides of the axis, and they are inclined so that both the Bimah and the Ark can be seen simultaneously.

Two thirds of the total volume re­present the synagogue, the remaining third is underground and contains a water reservoir which supplies the whole military camp. The space of the synagogue, divided into horizontal sections at different levels, varies and progressively narrows down towards the top. The central symmetry has been kept, however maintaining the importance of the two spatial foci through­out.


With warm yellow light

Negev, Synagoge, Zvi Hecker (Copyright: Zvi Hecker)
Negev Desert, Synagogue, Zvi Hecker, 1970 (Copyright: Zvi Hecker)

A special skylight supplies the interior with warm yellow light; it consists of two superimposed cuboctahedrons, with one side in common. Light and air penetrate through the triangular facets of the upper cuboctahedron and they then enter the synagogue from the top through the facets of the lower cu­boctahedron. Light is also admitted through other openings in the enclo­sing surface. These are triangular facets of component volumes, which are left open. Consequently the light ne­ver penetrates directly into the inte­rior but skims over the geometrical facets from which it is reflected.

The structure is cast in-situ con­crete, 14 cm thick, except of the roofing, where due to inclination changes were needed for draining Water. Shuttering was manufactured in a manner that highlighted the timber’s imprint on the concrete, in- and outside alike.


The spatial search of Zvi Hecker

Bat Yam, Town Hall, 1969 (Bild: Ori~)
Bat Yam, Town Hall, Zvi Hecker, 1969 (Image: Ori~)

The synagogue is a further manife­station of the spatial research to be found in the Town Hall of Bat Yam (Zvi Hecker, 1969) and in Dubiner House (Zvi Hecker, 1964). The geometrical patterns of the octahedron are already evident in the Town Hall, but there it is more a decorative element, repeated and emphasized at all its possible configurations within an already organized space.

In Dubiner house space consists of the combination of geome­trical modules. However, while there the combination of the cells is limited to the floor plan and the elevation maintains the traditional vertical di­rection – though with some dislocations –, in the synagogue the entire space is made up of geometrical mo­dules differing in all three dimensions.


The abstraction of the geometrical theme

Synagogenmodell (Bild: Institut für Mathematik und Informatik, Ernst-Moritz-Arndt-Universität Greifswald)
Academic project to calculate and build a paper model of Zvi Hecker’s Synagogue – a plan can be downloaded (Copyright: Institut für Mathematik und Informatik, Universität Greifswald)

In the synagogue it is not so much the component module but the total re­sulting volume, which is important in the combination of the geometrical cells. Rossella Foschi emphasises that “the prominence, the author wants to give to the process of the geometrical composition is not clear, so much so that he paints the outside of the geometrical solids forming the total volume in different colours (green, yellow and natural concrete).”

After thirty years has elapsed, we do not ask for such principles any more, but appreciate more the integrity of artistic creation. Zvi Hecker’s abstraction of this geometrical theme refers to some earlier spaces of 19th and early 20th century synagogues that tried to depart from the orthogonal scheme in order to adopt the place of Jewish worship to its ancient symbol, the star of David and its cosmological meanings. But in this case, geometry is carried further into a real three dimensional pattern.



A small selection of the work of Zvi Hecker …



Klein, Rudolf, Zvi Hecker – Oltre il riconoscibile, Torino 2004

Foschi, Rossella, Una Sinagoga nel deserto del Negev, in: L’Industria Italiana del Cemento 1981, 12, p. 963-972