Malibu gets a new temple in a garden


The leading edge of NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia has been the U.S. Air Force’s F-117 and B-2, otherwise known as the “stealth” fighter and bomber. In a year or so, construction will start in Malibu on a project that its designers, local architects Ed Niles and Mike Barsocchini, refer to as a “stealth” building.

Although architecturally daring and located on a prime, five-acre site on PCH when it is finished in a few years, most people will probably never see it. But for members of the congregation or those lucky enough to happen by, the new Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue certainly will be recognized as one of the most rewarding additions to Malibu’s built environment.

In Niles’ office in the sylvan Point Dume office complex he designed a couple of decades ago, both architects, chosen from six design finalists, enthusiastically display renderings of the multimillion dollar project and talk about its challenges. “The concept is driven by the idea of nature as a means of architecture,” says Niles.

“Both Mike and I grew up in the modernist world with the images of Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe. But the temple is really a reflection of the Malibu surroundings. The way it’s designed and the way it fits the site and the weather, you probably couldn’t build this anywhere else but in here. It’s not an urban fortress like many churches, but a temple in a garden,” Niles adds of the glass-and-copper, barrel-vaulted edifice, which, with the removal of some soil, will be sunken into the site’s naturally rolling topography.

“We really wanted to reflect the sensitivity of congregation to the community,” George Greenberg, president of the synagogue, adds of the project, which has been in the works for seven years. “We all live in Malibu for specific reasons, including wanting to be out in nature. So we wanted it to be open to allow the elements of ocean, sky and greenery to be present in open areas but also in the buildings themselves.

“We also have an ESHA (a Coastal Commission-protected Environmentaly Sensitive Habitat Area) at the bottom of property, which we can use but where we can’t put permanent structures,” Greenberg adds. “We view it not as a limitation but a place to enjoy nature or meditate. Niles and Barsocchini were able to develop this notion of integrated architecture brilliantly,” he says.

One example cited by all parties will be the creation of natural berms with the soil removed for construction that will reduce the noise from PCH, using topography rather than concrete to insure a tranquil ambiance.

There is more to the project than the temple, though. Far more. Sheltered under that glass vault will be space for what Greenberg felicitously describes as “life-cycle events”: weddings, bar- and bat mitzvahs. There will also be a community center (Greenberg eschews the architects’ more grandiose term “Hall of Humanities”), a meeting and gathering space that will also include a teen center, a small performance space and a kosher kitchen that will be able to prepare dinners for 300. Nearby, an educational/ administrative center will be built, into which the three temporary structures presently on the site will be integrated. “It will truly be a multi-use, dedicated religious space that can be expanded and reconfigured to accommodate the religious, as well as social, aspects of life-cycle events,” Greenberg adds.

The first phase of the project, planned to commence in about a year and cost about half the estimated final tab of $5 million to $6 million, will include the synagogue and the space for the life-cycle events. It will also include a temple court, which will accommodate up to 1000 worshippers for outdoor High Holy Day services. “The temple has a tradition of putting up a tent for these services,” says Niles, “and we have integrated a structure into the design over which tent material can be placed to recreate the feeling.” The second phase will include the community center and the education/administration complex.

Greenberg adds that the current capital funds campaign is “going very well.” In fact, over the past three years, the congregation has doubled its membership to 225 families, a success story he credits to the “dynamic leadership” of Rabbi Judith Ha’Levy, as well as the temple’s inclusive, “reconstructionist” philosophy.

“What it really amounts to,” Niles adds, modestly but enormously simplifying the challenges, “is finding a beautiful garden and putting a roof over it. And you put in some glass where you need to protect everything from the elements, and that’s it.”