Looking at Buildings

Building Types

Architectural Form

Synagogue architecture is a rich concoction, taking inspiration from local tastes and fashion, reflecting the diverse places where Jews have lived in their long history of wandering.

Solomon's Temple is described in the Book of Kings 1. It has long been thought that the façade of the Second Temple (destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE) was of a tripartite design and in a classicalGlossary Term style. This has been much imitated in later synagogue design. The Temple was built of the lightGlossary Term gold limestone, "Jerusalem stone" found in the surrounding Judean hills, hewn in huge blocks with ridged edges, so-called Herodian stones, and was liberally decoratedGlossary Term with gold and marble.

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Altneuschul, Prague

Jewish law (Halakhah) sets out only very general guidelines for the form or style of the synagogue. The synagogue must contain windows, as did the Temple, and it must rise higher than the surrounding houses - although this was often difficult when Jews lived in unsympathetic surroundings. Very often the local ruler insisted that the spireGlossary Term of the church or the minaret of the mosque be the tallest structure around. Sometimes the Jews lowered the floor of the synagogue internally in orderGlossary Term to ensure that their prayers did indeed rise "from out of the depths." (Psalm 130). The most famous example is Prague's GothicGlossary Term Altneuschul.

Religious and political persecution and economic deprivation historically kept synagogues discreet and often modest in scale and off the public street, until the era of Jewish emancipation in Europe in the 19th century. Consequently, effort was concentrated on the interior decoration, in accordance with the rabbinic injunction of Hiddur Mitzvot or the "beautification of the commandments".



A term used for the architecture of Ancient Greece and Rome, revived at the Renaissance and subsequently imitated around the Western world. It uses a range of conventional forms, the roots of which are the orders, or types of column each with its fixed proportions and ornaments (especially Doric, Ionic and Corinthian). Classical buildings tend also to be symmetrical, both externally and on plan. Classical architecture in England began c. 1530 with applied ornamental motifs, followed within a few decades by fully-fledged new buildings.


A distinctive phase of English Gothic which developed at the end of the 13th century and continued into the later 14th; sometimes abbreviated to Dec. Named from its elaborate window tracery, which abandoned the simple circular forms of Geometric in favour of more varied patterns based on segments of circles. Dec tracery makes much use of ogee or reversed curves, which were combined in the 14th century to produce reticulated and flowing tracery composed of trefoils, quatrefoils and dagger shapes. Similar inventiveness is seen in the patterns produced by the lierne and tierceron vaults of the period, in the three-dimensional handling of wall surfaces broken up by canopy work and sculpture and in imaginative spatial planning making use of diagonal axes.


The style of the Middle Ages from the later 12th century to the Renaissance, with which it co-existed in certain forms into the 17th century. Characterized in its full development by the pointed arch, the rib-vault and an often skeletal masonry structure for churches, combined with large glazed windows. The term was originally associated with the concept of the barbarian Goths as assailants of classical civilization.


Compartment of a window defined by the uprights or mullions.


One of a series of recessed arches and jambs forming a splayed medieval opening, e.g. a doorway or arcade arch. Also, an upright structural member used in series, especially in classical architecture: see Orders.


Tall pyramidal or conical feature crowning a tower or turret. Broach: starting from a square base, then carried into an octagonal section by means of triangular faces. Splayed-foot: variation of the broach form, found in England principally in the south-east, in which the four cardinal faces are splayed out near their bases, to cover the corners, while oblique (or intermediate) faces taper away to a point. Needle spire: thin spire rising from the centre of a tower roof, well inside the parapet.