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Libeskind Museum Strikes a Balance Between Old and New

June 30, 2008

By Esther Hecht

On June 8, the Daniel Libeskind-designed Contemporary Jewish Museum, in San Francisco, opened its doors after two years of construction. While the building failed to impress a critic for The New York Times, it mostly has garnered favorable reviews.

Contemporary Jewish Museum, in San Francisco
Hebrew word "chai"
Daniel Libeskind designed the new Contemporary Jewish Museum, in San Francisco (top). The $47.5 million project entailed the conversion of a century-old, red brick power station and the creation of a striking addition: an abstract, geometrical volume wrapped in sleek, blue steel. The shape of the addition was inspired by the Hebrew word “chai” (above).

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The $47.5 million project entailed the conversion of a century-old, red brick power station and the creation of a striking addition that juts out from the building’s west side: an abstract, geometrical volume wrapped in sleek, blue steel. The unusual coupling of cladding materials—red brick and steel—is emblematic of the museum’s mission: using contemporary art and programs to explore the Jewish experience, rooted deep in history.

Founded in 1984, the museum formerly was located on the fringe of downtown. Its new home is in the burgeoning Yerba Buenaarts quarter in the city’s core. In addition to cultural institutions, the museum sits among high-rise hotels and is adjacent to an historic church. For the refurbishment of the power station—designed by Willis Polk in the Classical Revival style and completed in 1907—Libeskind retained many of the building’s original features, from the gray-painted catwalks on the inside to the terra cotta cherubs adorning the exterior. In designing the overall project, the architect says his greatest challenge was “to work in a space where everything seems predetermined—behind a church, behind a wall, under a hotel.” This, he says, reflects a quintessentially Jewish idea: “to be caught in all the givens” and yet assert one’s identity.

The Polish-born Libeskind infused the 63,000-square-foot project with Jewish symbolism. The shape of the 5,500-square-foot steel-clad addition, for instance, was inspired by the Hebrew letters chet and yud, which together form the word chai, which means “alive” or “living.” The elongated “chet” portion comprises exhibition space and activity rooms, while the “yud” portion—shaped like a titled cube—contains a gift shop and special events gallery. On a wall inside the lobby, a permanent lighting installation forms the four letters of the Hebrew word “pardes.” This word generally refers to the four approaches to interpreting holy scripture.

In a June 9 article in The New York Times, Edward Rothstein undermined these symbolic moments (“Lines in the ceiling of an auditorium are apparently based on paths to the Holy Land on a 15th-century map—a purely private conceit,” he writes.) He also found fault with the building’s “skewed geometries,” which he says create an “effect that is more vertiginous than harmonious.” Other critics, however, have liked the building. In The Architects’ Newspaper, Mitchell Schwarzer, a professor and architectural historian, says it “works.” “Because of its small size, its mix of old and new elements, and its rhythms that oscillate between the restless and restful,” he writes, “Libeskind’s CJM presents a nuanced and enlightened architectural experience.” Christopher Hawthorne, architecture critic for the Los Angeles Times, says the “calm, elegant presence” of the old power station offers a nice counterpoint to the off-kilter, steel-clad addition. “And inside,” he writes, “the frenetic quality that marks some of Libeskind’s work has been replaced by a complex but self-assured series of spaces.”

Museum director Connie Wolf said they selected Libeskind for the project based on his design of the Felix Nussbaum Museum (1998) in northern Germany. He also designed the Jewish Museum Berlin (1999), Danish Jewish Museum (2003) and the Denver Art Museum (2006)—all of which contain his signature angled walls.

For the San Francisco project, Libeskind worked with the local firms WRNS Studio and Architectural Resources; Handel Architects designed the 38,000-square-foot public plaza that fronts the museum.

Jenna M. McKnight contributed additional reporting for this story.

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