A leap of faith paid off when the Contemporary Jewish Museum of San Francisco opened in June. A fledgling institution with 400 square meters of borrowed exhibition space had taken responsibility for a historic city landmark and, in 1998, given Daniel Libeskind a free hand to transform it. At that time the architect had barely completed one building - Felix Nussbaum Haus in Osnabrück, Germany - and this was his first American commission. The client’s gamble was doubly bold since it had just broken off an engagement with the iconoclastic Peter Eisenman, and San Francisco was still deeply suspicious of adventurous architecture. But the Contemporary Jewish Museum board was impressed by Libeskind’s spirit and vision and, though the program was later scaled back (from 11,000 to 6,300 square meters) and construction delayed, the essentials of his design were realized. A dynamic director, Connie Wolf, realized her dream to “create a new kind of landmark, where old and new are always in conversation, and where the boundaries between art and history, past and future, museum and civic space, begin to blur”.
A century ago, San Francisco made a rapid recovery from a devastating earthquake and fire, recreating itself in Beaux-Arts style, as an examplar of the City Beautiful. Willis Polk rebuilt the Jessie Street Power Substation as a refined brick block with classical moldings of white terracotta; a utilitarian structure dressed up as a civic ornament. When the surrounding area was leveled in the 1970s to create the Yerba Buena Conference and Arts Center, the substation - now decommissioned and designated as a landmark - was assigned a cultural role. Contemporary Jewish Museum valued the symbolism of breathing new life into a building that once generated power for the whole city, while creating a virtual bridge between the commercial axis of Market Street and museums by Fumihiko Maki and Mario Botta.
For Libeskind, the son of Polish Holocaust survivors, this commission was a radical departure from his Jewish museums in Osnabrück and Berlin. There, new structures stand apart from the old, and they memorialize the barbarous extinction of a people who strove for assimilation. The jagged plan, slashed facades and interior voids of the Berlin museum are testimony to rupture and loss. In contrast, Jewish immigrants were swiftly absorbed into the civic life of California, and they even created an empire of their own in the movie industry of Hollywood. “I realized we could create a building that celebrated a life of possibilities, of beauty, of openness,” declared the architect, “a beacon radiating the Jewish imagination and creativity underlying a culture of freedom, curiosity, and possibility.”
Inspired by the Hebrew phrase L’Chaim (To Life), and the shape of the characters “chet” and “yud” that combine to spell “chai” (life) Libeskind designed a steel structure that would slice diagonally through the empty shell of the old building, emerging from the roof and jutting boldly from the east end. The frame is clad in diagonal panels of brushed stainless steel in a tone of blue that changes from bright to dark with every shift of light. To meet the city’s tough seismic code, the brick walls were disassembled and re-erected on a new structural frame of steel columns rising from the underground parking. Tightly hemmed in by a church and three high-rise hotels, the museum has a pent-up energy that might be lost on an open site. The long south façade with its row of seven gridded windows and two imposing entries opens onto the plaza; the other sides are blank or confined. The juxtaposition of brick and steel, abstract and classical forms expresses the contradictions of a dynamic volume embedded within a rectilinear container. The south façade was originally conceived as a polite disguise; now it is enhanced and challenged by the shimmering steel bolt that bursts out like a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis.
The tension between two architectural languages is intensified in the extended lobby. The exposed brick of the façade and the grid of steel beams that supports the wall, roof trusses and skylights suggest found art. An angled inner wall of white plaster tilts forwards, compressing the space. Stylized Hebrew letters spelling the word “pardes” (a garden beyond), are incised into this blank canvas and backlit. Every Hebrew word has multiple meanings, and pardes also implies “paradise” and a set of paths, physical and spiritual, from which one can explore Judaism and the museum. By day the inset glass reflects buildings around the plaza; at night the letters shine out through the entry doors. The angularity of the cuts and the tilted cube that hovers over the east end of the lobby build anticipation for the paths beyond.
The lobby flows into the museum shop to the west and the café to the east, and walls in these areas are clad in tiles or galvanized metal to mediate between the expanses of brick and plaster. The boardroom and a classroom are located within the bar of space behind the tilted wall and a multi-purpose hall with retractable seating opens off a long wedge of open space that’s used for educational activities. There is one small gallery at ground level, and a second, larger exhibit space upstairs. The Contemporary Jewish Museum has no collection of its own and it scaled back its galleries to reduce the cost of construction and also to focus more resources on an eclectic program of cultural activities. Connie Wolf had seen the plans for Berlin, and insisted that Libeskind provide vertical walls and column-free spaces for the display of art.
At the top of the stairs is the Yud special events gallery: a pyramidal volume with 36 diagonal windows that are flush with the exterior cladding and deep-set within. They provide a constellation of natural light, and were carefully positioned to avoid colliding with the diagonal bracing and beams. To avoid the visual noise of floorboards in an angled space, the floor is composed of end-grain blocks. When it is not being used for receptions or recitals, the room serves as a decompression chamber for visitors who can sit and cherish the fusion of space, light and sound compositions by eleven different composers and musicians.