On a grey autumn afternoon, a group of journalists congregate on a sheltered tree-lined piazza, waiting to tour a building whose presence might well alter London’s Jewish cultural and communal identity. Before entering JW3 — the city’s new Jewish community centre — there is an attempt to find the spot where, several months ago, a time capsule was buried. Then, JW3 was very much a building site and not the gleaming, glass-fronted place that it is today. Eventually someone locates the bronze coin-sized shape in an unmarked spot, camouflaged within the paved granite and gravel floor. However, the significance of the capsule is not lost. On September 29 the centre’s doors will open to the public, offering 1,300 events and activities. Only time will tell what impact the institution will have.
JW3 aims to bring an added confidence to British Jewry and this desire is reflected in the design of the four-story, 35,000-square foot building. It cannot be missed from the busy Finchley Road thoroughfare, and it presides over the crossroads of Jewish north London and the centre of the city. The main access to JW3 is via a bridge, which spans the elegant piazza. This outdoor space will also be used, with plans for an ice rink in the winter, a food market and perhaps a mock beach in the summer.
Alex Lifschutz, Director of Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands and architect of JW3, explains that they tried to create a very open building. Not only does natural light flood through the vast glass windows and doors, JW3 is about opening up — as a community — as well as opening out, says Raymond Simonson, CEO. Likening it to the hospitality of Abraham’s tent, he says that JW3’s vision is about creating a home for all, a centre for everyone. Simonson wants to “increase the quality, variety and volume of Jewish conversation in London,” by providing a diverse and inspiring range of programming which appeals to all sections of the community, Jews and non-Jews. Its future ambition is to be an arts and cultural destination on par with the Southbank Centre and The Barbican.
Equipped with a 60-seat cinema, dance and drama studios, a demonstration kitchen and a 268-seat auditorium where, at the flick of a button, the seats retract to allow the room to transform into a hall, JW3 is awash with creative possibility. Several rooms, varying in size, will be used for meetings, lectures and classes. Zest, the centre’s café/restaurant, has an audiovisual system and projector installed. And at the top of the building is a nursery. JW3’s versatile space — a key design feature — ensures its multi-purpose use.
There is also an acknowledgement of what existed here before. Displayed around the building are spaces for lightbox artworks, which have been created from photographs that artist Catherine Yass took of the car showroom and dance studios that used to stand on the site. She placed these transparencies around the demolition site and then retrieved them a few weeks later, once they had been transformed by the work going on around them. The resulting images will be placed in the lightboxes.
Based on the theme of “In the Beginning,” Willow Winston’s tall commissioned book sculpture stands in the main foyer. Even before the building takes on a life of its own, it seems obvious that this is, as Alex Lifschutz suggests, a place where culture will be made and not just consumed.