Professor Joseph Siry is the chair of the Art and Art History Department, as well as a professor of modern architectural history. This semester, he is teaching Architecture of the 20th century. Outside of his role as a professor, he has published several books on modern architecture, including his most recent “Beth Sholom: Frank Lloyd Wright and Modern Religious Architecture.” Professor Siry sat down with The Argus to discuss his colossal collection and the research presented in his new book.
The Argus: So, what’s on your bookshelf?
Professor Joseph Siry: Virtually everything on this bookshelf has to do with the history of architecture, almost entirely European and American topics from Greek antiquity to the present. This is a set of books that I’ve put together over 30 or 35 years. I even still have some of my high school textbooks—history, physics.
A: Your department just moved from the Davison Art Center to 41 Wyllys Avenue—were you able to bring all of your books with you?
JS: Everything that is of even the remotest utility is now over here. I brought over a lot of student theses. I have my notebooks from my undergraduate and graduate courses, journals that I subscribe to, art bulletins, and the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians.
A: Which books do you always find yourself returning to?
JS: There are so many excellent authors and studies represented on these shelves. It depends on which course I’m teaching and what topic I’m working on. If I’m teaching the general introductory course on European architecture, I’m thinking of a book like “Architecture and Meaning on the Athenian Acropolis” by Robin Francis Rhodes, or William McDonald’s book on the Pantheon. For someone in a very early stage or first course in the field, these are stimulating, and very beautifully written.
In my mind, there are so many authors here who are models, who wrote books that represent just the very best work in the field. Their lucidity, their depth of learning, their level of insight—it’s that set of qualities that you want to emulate in your own work.
A: Do you ever use your own writing in your classes?
JS: Oh, yes, sure. I particularly use my writing on Frank Lloyd Wright in my courses on American architecture.
A: You just published a new book on Frank Lloyd Wright. Could you talk about what you address in the text?
JS: Basically, it’s a book about the history of his involvement with religious architecture. I published an earlier book on his first major church building, Unity Temple. He was a Unitarian. He had a very broad engagement with comparative study of religion, because that is an emphasis in Unitarian denominational culture.
This [new work] is a book that deals with the history of his development as an architect for worshipping communities, but mainly focuses on his one synagogue, which was designed from 1953 to 1959: the Beth Sholom congregation in Elkins Park, Pa. He had a very close working relationship with the rabbi. They had a rich exchange of ideas about the history of Judaism, its symbolism, and the appropriate architectural space for a modern Jewish community.
The building itself is a wonderful space for worship. It’s a tall, glass-enclosed tetrahedron, with about 1,200 seats with a focus on the arc. The communal self-awareness in the room is very strong, and metaphorically it’s supposed to allude to Mount Sinai—to represent Mount Sinai as the source of the Ten Commandments. This is a very self-consciously modern and American synagogue for the period. It’s not at all traditional.
A: What sort of research did you conduct for this book?
JS: Oh, there were a number of sources. The rabbi’s papers and correspondence are partially at the synagogue and partially at the Jewish theological seminary in New York. Frank Lloyd Wright’s drawings and correspondence are at his archives, outside of Scottsdale, Ariz. The other chapters deal with churches in Florida, Kansas City, and Wisconsin. I went to all of those places—and a number of others—where there were records of these institutions, their clerical leaders, and the urban and historical context.
A: You visited all of these sites? How long did that take?
JS: This project started in 2003. I started working on the Pfeiffer Chapel at Florida Southern College. I went down there in 2003, and the book came out in December 2011. The work on Beth Sholom started in 2005.
A: What draws you to Frank Lloyd Wright’s work?
JS: Well, he is very well known, but the more you study his work, the more exceptional it is. He had an extraordinary mind, particularly in terms of the geometric and structural forms of architecture. These are very unusual spaces in terms of their geometry and construction. There is no other building, so far as I know in the world, that is really like Beth Sholom, and that’s true of a number of his other well-known buildings, such as the Guggenheim Museum. He had this capacity to imagine highly original possibilities for different types of buildings.
A: Do you have a favorite building of Wright’s?
JS: I’ve been very involved with Beth Sholom. Unity Temple is another that seems very meaningful. These are worshipping communities, and the strength and continuity of the religious traditions really comes through. It’s partially a question of social history and religious history, and how he’s able to create forms with modern materials that speak to the people who are commissioning and using them.
A: What about Wesleyan’s architecture? Are there any buildings here that you especially admire?
JS: I really like Olin library, particularly the original part of the library. I love its material details and its monumental presence in that part of the campus. Over the years, I’ve really also come to admire the Center for the Arts. In fact, I recently wrote a letter to Kevin Roche (the architect of the CFA) telling him how much I like it. He wrote back right away.