Spir­i­tu­al­i­ty embed­ded in built form.

The Emanuel Syn­a­gogue in Ocean Street, Wool­lahra, belongs to one of the most pro­gres­sive reli­gious con­gre­ga­tions in Australia.

Estab­lished by lib­er­al pro­gres­sive Jews in the late 1930s as the out­break of the Sec­ond World War was near­ing, its his­to­ry and lega­cy can be appre­ci­at­ed in the first reli­gious build­ing it built. Designed by archi­tect Samuel Lip­son and com­plet­ed in 1940, this, now her­itage list­ed build­ing, was joined by anoth­er sanc­tu­ary in the front court­yard designed by archi­tect Aaron Bolot in the 1960’s. By the 21st-cen­tu­ry, the Emanuel com­mu­ni­ty had become the fastest grow­ing reli­gious con­gre­ga­tion in the south­ern hemi­sphere and a third sanc­tu­ary was required.

Ed Lipp­mann inher­it­ed the com­mis­sion for the third sanc­tu­ary after a pre­vi­ous design by anoth­er archi­tect proved well beyond the client bud­get. The new sanc­tu­ary need­ed to accom­mo­date anoth­er 800 con­gre­gants. Lippmann‘s brief includ­ed weav­ing” into the site the kinder­garten and out­door play area designed in the 1960s. Lipp­mann deliv­ered an afford­able, build­able rec­tan­gu­lar form as a pro­gres­sion or jour­ney through the front fore­court and main sanc­tu­ary lob­by space. The size of the con­gre­ga­tion fluc­tu­ates because full atten­dance only occurs on the three high hol­i­days in the year, so the new sanc­tu­ary need­ed to pro­vide for a vari­ety of sizes as well as flex­i­bil­i­ty of uses — from tra­di­tion­al Hebrew ser­vices to new age gath­er­ings led by acoustic gui­tarists and singers, lec­tures, films, func­tions and con­certs. The Aus­tralian Cham­ber Orches­tra led by emi­nent vio­lin­ist Richard Tognetti per­form in the space reg­u­lar­ly and require high stan­dards of acoustic per­for­mance. The need for flex­i­bil­i­ty and oper­abil­i­ty of the space came with high expec­ta­tions from the congregation.

As with all of Lippmann’s build­ings, there’s an hon­esty in the way mate­ri­als and struc­ture is con­ceived and expressed.

The sim­ple steel roof frame on a con­crete base is com­bined with ply­wood and glass and takes the form of a dia­grid” reflect­ing Buck­min­ster Fuller‘s math­e­mat­i­cal prin­ci­ples and phi­los­o­phy of light­weight struc­tur­al effi­cien­cy. Although not appar­ent at first glance, the dia­grid struc­ture also makes ref­er­ence to the Star of David with the detail­ing of the tri­an­gu­lat­ed tim­ber ceil­ing fur­ther rein­forc­ing the sub­lim­i­nal message.

There’s also a con­cern for nat­ur­al ven­ti­la­tion and light­ing with high and low lev­el open­ings induc­ing nat­ur­al ven­ti­la­tion. Care­ful­ly posi­tioned glaz­ing cre­ates a rich ambi­ent light­ing with­out glare most of the time with indi­rect led light­ing cre­at­ing anoth­er expe­ri­ence at night. Although air con­di­tion­ing is rarely required, it’s inte­grat­ed with the perime­ter bulk­head that sup­plies air through qui­et, low veloc­i­ty, cir­cu­lar grilles.

Lippmann‘s approach to the project was embed­ded in the mas­ter plan and the inter­sti­tial spaces between build­ings, the court­yards and the orig­i­nal sanc­tu­ar­ies which are light­ly touched. The bold choice of colour for the beams is a com­mon remark but as Lipp­mann says the oth­er build­ings on the site were con­struct­ed with ter­ra­cot­ta coloured bricks, so the colour of the new struc­ture makes ref­er­ence to them with­out imi­tat­ing them too literally”.

Although the mate­r­i­al selec­tion is rel­a­tive­ly sim­ple and unpre­ten­tious, there’s a dec­o­ra­tive over­lay with quo­ta­tions from the old Tes­ta­ment sten­cilled into the ply­wood walls.

The tim­ber arc/​tabernacle and read­ers desk, also designed by Lipp­mann, are on wheels allow­ing the space to be rearranged to suit the ser­vice, occa­sion or event.

Emi­nent artist Janet Lawrence was com­mis­sioned to cre­ate an art­work in the old sanc­tu­ary lob­by enti­tled Cre­ation” while Lipp­mann was invit­ed to extend this with two more glazed art­works in the fore­court and front façade, com­plet­ed in col­lab­o­ra­tion with graph­ic design­ers Deuce.

Lipp­mann sums up his expe­ri­ence on the project: It’s always a plea­sure to work with a client who has aspi­ra­tional val­ues. I felt very close to this com­mu­ni­ty that’s at the fore­front of social equal­i­ty, envi­ron­men­tal respon­si­bil­i­ty and reli­gious, human­is­tic thinking”.

By Stephen Crafti


  • 2020 Com­men­da­tion for Inte­ri­or Design
    Aus­tralian Insti­tute of Archi­tects NSW
  • 2020 Com­men­da­tion for Her­itage
    Aus­tralian Insti­tute of Archi­tects NSW
  • 2019 Excel­lence in Engi­neer­ing
    Asso­ci­a­tion of Con­sult­ing Struc­tur­al Engineers
  • 2018 Excel­lence in Con­struc­tion for Pub­lic Build­ings
    Mas­ter Builders Asso­ci­a­tion of NSW
  • 2018 Inte­ri­or Design Pub­lic Build­ings
    Syd­ney Design Awards

Project details

  • Loca­tion
    Ocean Street, Wool­lahra, Sydney
  • Client
    Emanuel Syn­a­gogue
  • Key con­sul­tants
    TTW, Engi­neer­ing Part­ners, PKA Acoustic, Light Prac­tice, Deuce Design
  • Builder
  • Pho­tog­ra­phy
    Brett Board­man, Willem Rethmeier