Wandel Hoefer Lorch & Hirsch's synagogue and community centre bring architectural inspiration to an urban wasteland
A monolithic tower of twisting stone that sits beside the bank of Dresden's river Elbe is the unlikely form taken by Wandel Hoefer Lorch & Hirsch's newly completed synagogue. It is the latest addition to a city still trying to reclaim the identity it lost during the 1930s and the terrible firebombing of the Second World War.

The building rests on the site of a previous synagogue, one of the thousand destroyed in the Kristallnacht pogrom of November 1938, in an area that has become a grey wasteland of urban motorways and blank concrete towers. On a thin island in this no-man's land, two new blocks face each other, one providing a place of worship and the other a much-needed community centre.

At the riverside end stands the synagogue. Its 3000 sandstone-based blocks are arranged in straight lines, but the bricks are cantilevered at each corner so that the walls appear to curve as they rise. "It creates an uncertain process of perception," says architect Nikolaus Hirsch. "You don't understand how it works."

He says that the idea for the shell combines two architectural paradigms of ancient synagogue design. "We looked at temples, with their solidity and heavy use of materials, and then at tabernacles – tent-like structures that are flexible and temporary." The result of combining them is a monumental structure that feels alive with movement.

Inside the building, two contrasting spaces again merge the ideas of temple and tabernacle. A ceremonial area is set within an informal lobby, but kept separate by hanging screens of woven brass. This web-like textile, supplied by the firm behind Paco Rabanne's metal dresses of the 1970s, is made of thousands of Stars of David. These reflect the light that pours through the central glass roof and give the inner room an ethereal atmosphere.

The second building in the complex is the community centre, which responds to the synagogue and reinterprets its architecture for its own – more friendly – purposes. It is made of the same materials, but one facade is cut away to welcome visitors, giving the entrance a stage-like effect. This side is made up of timber and glass panels arranged across the front like a Mondrian painting.