“When I heard that my design for the synagogue in Ulm had been chosen as the winning entry, I was over the moon, but I was also concerned,” Professor Susanne Gross recalls. “The competition was anonymous, and I wasn’t sure how the contractors, the Israelitische Religionsgemeinschaft Württembergs (the Israelite Religious Community of Württemberg or IRGW), would react when they found out a non-Jewish female architect would be working on the project. Some of my friends also told me, ‘Hopefully you can build this, because you are not part of this world, and it might be difficult for you.’” It was a great relief to Gross when she realised that the contractors were only interested in seeing her qualifications and were not at all fazed by the fact that she was a German Catholic woman.
“One big source of inspiration while working on this project was the Jewish-American architect Louis Kahn. For me, he is one of the most important architects of the twentieth century,” Gross remarks. “One thing that really encouraged me was that he once designed a Dominican Motherhouse for Catholic nuns in Media, Pennsylvania.” Although this design was never built due to the dwindling number of Dominican sisters and their lack of funds, the project itself instilled Gross with a sense of hope for her own endeavours. “I thought if he managed to do that for Christians, then I can also do this for the Jewish community.”
The new synagogue, which stands in the Weinhof, one of Ulm’s central squares, at a stone’s throw from its original site, will celebrate its tenth anniversary on 9th November 2022. The original synagogue was destroyed 84 years ago in the events of the Kristallnacht on 9th November 1938. While it was not possible to construct the synagogue in the exact place where it had originally been built, as a bank now occupies that spot, it was important to Gross to place the new building as close as possible to its former location. “The original synagogue was 20 to 30 metres away from the site we were given. That was a real source of motivation for me. I wanted it to seem as if this object had fallen out of the sky and very nearly landed on the spot where it belonged. That idea was very important to my design. That is why I didn’t include a surrounding wall or a garden in my proposal. My design also has the smallest floor space of all the competition entries. For that reason, the synagogue is a relatively tall building that has something almost sculptural about it.”
The construction of the new synagogue took around 20 months, which was surprisingly fast for an architectural project of this scale. “The former mayor of Ulm, Ivo Gönner, really supported the project,” Gross comments. “In Germany, when you submit a planning application, it usually takes 4 to 6 months to even get a reply. In this case, we had no barriers. We had barely even submitted the documents, and our request was accepted. This happened throughout the whole project, which really sped up the process.”
Although Gross is not Jewish, she had entered other synagogue design competitions with her friend and fellow architect Professor Alfred Jacoby before submitting her design for the new synagogue in Ulm. Having designed several synagogues, Jacoby is renowned for his contribution to post-war Jewish architecture in Germany. For Gross, Jacoby’s knowledge and advice proved to be invaluable. Their collaboration on previous synagogue designs for other competitions gave Gross the confidence to enter the competition in Ulm by herself with her own design.
Winning the competition turned out to be just the beginning of the journey, though, as several changes were applied to Gross’s original design following numerous conversations with Rabbi Trebnik about the ideal requirements for the building. “The rabbi told me he would prefer the sacred space in my design to be south-east facing rather than east-facing because that is the direction of Jerusalem, which is both the cultural and spiritual centre of the Jewish community.” This request led Gross back to the drawing board, as she had to change the floor plan of the entire building. Despite initial concerns, she then realised that if she altered the axis of the building to ensure the alignment of the sacred space with Jerusalem, then the corner of the building would become the focal point. Inspired by the words of a Jewish friend, who had told her that she needed to open the building up to the public, rather than creating an enclosed space, Gross decided to place the windows, which bear the motif of the Star of David, in this corner. The new design allowed light to flood into the building during the daytime, and also allowed the light from within the synagogue to illuminate the square at night. “I am really grateful to Rabbi Trebnik for his request because I think that corner is one of the key parts of the building,” Gross says.
Rabbi Trebnik was also keen to be involved in the synagogue’s interior design choices. Gross and Trebnik travelled to Israel together and visited several synagogues prior to the completion of the synagogue in Ulm. “It was easier for Rabbi Trebnik to get access to these synagogues than it would have been for me as a German tourist. He told me that he wanted the wooden elements of the interior design to be made in Israel and transported back to Germany in a container. Initially, I didn’t think this would be very practical, and I thought it would be a lot cheaper to get these elements made in Germany. But I think it was an emotional request. He wanted it to come from Israel. And I thought to myself, I am not Jewish, and I will not be spending time in the synagogue. It is the Jewish community of Ulm who will be there every week. So I agreed, and I even found out that this is not that unusual. Many synagogues around the world have had their parts made in Israel.”
For Gross, as a member of the second generation of Germans after the Holocaust, this project was particularly meaningful. “It was always a topic that was important to me, but then when I studied architecture, it became even more important to me because I found out about the destruction of so many buildings due to the Kristallnacht. There was a gigantic cultural loss, aside from the much worse humanitarian catastrophe. After 1945, there were no Jewish lobby groups in Germany anymore. Nobody was able to fight for the sites to be reacquired by the Jewish community.”
For Gross, the willingness of the Jewish community to put their trust in her, as a German architect, was particularly touching. “It makes me grateful and it makes me want to work on similar projects again,” she comments. Gross is currently working on a Jewish community centre in Bayreuth, a project which is due to be completed in September 2022.