The Contemporary Jewish Museum (CJM), which opened June 7 in downtown San Francisco, has been a long time coming. Daniel Libeskind took over the project in 1998 after the CJM and its first architect, Peter Eisenman, parted ways. Due to the dot-com bust and a merger/de-merger with the Magnes Museum of Berkeley, the CJM’s first freestanding building took a decade to complete. It belongs, therefore, to the same phase of the architect’s work as the Jewish Museum Berlin. And like the German museum, the California museum resembles an iceberg come to rest in the midst of a metropolis. Beyond that formal resonance, though, Libeskind sees the two buildings as representing divergent aspects of the Jewish experience. If the German museum casts the tragic figure of the Holocaust on Berlin, the California museum, according to the architect, “is all about celebration, about living history, about making connections.” In designing the 63,000 square foot museum Libeskind based the plan and massing on the forms of the two Hebrew letters–chet and yud–that make up the Hebrew word for life–chai.
Libeskind’s ode to life is crammed into a busy block of skyscraper hotels just south of Market Street, and its chai-shape rises out of the remains of an electric power station designed by Willis Polk shortly after the Great 1906 Earthquake. The result is a clash of old and new, of red brick and blue steel, of creamy terra cotta ornament and razor-sharp angles, a clash that’s intended to comment on the life of architectural ideas. Not by accident, the one spot the restless yud touches ground is alongside the apse of adjacent St. Patrick’s Church, yet another earthquake survivor. Here Libeskind provokes a clash of shapes in order to evoke the loftiness of human aspiration. At the eastern end of the church, the apse is a faceted projection toward holiness. Libeskind’s precariously balanced polyhedron is also a spiritual probe of sorts, a metaphor for the museum’s mission of exploring the culture, art, and history of Jews in Northern California as well as the meaning of Judaism in the contemporary era.
The dialectical pairings continue inside, where the spacious entrance lobby is framed by Polk’s brick wall and the chet part of Libeskind’s chai. Here the brick wall sheds ornament for structure, a gigantic frame of steel I-beams that supported it during construction and now provides seismic bracing. Along with other reconstructed remnants, such as steel catwalks and trusses, the wall conjures up the might of San Francisco’s industrial past. Across the lobby, Libeskind’s otherwise unassuming white drywall connotes a lengthier past. Illuminated Hebrew letters spell Pardes, the word for a garden beyond that also speaks to the journeys into Judaism that await museum visitors.
On two levels, the museum’s principal spaces—the lobby, café, and store, three galleries, a multi-purpose room, an educational wing—spill out of the circulation core, where the main staircase and elevator are located, and where the chet and yud embrace one another. Unlike Libeskind’s Denver Art Museum, where slanted walls intrude into practically every gallery, the two principal CJM galleries are relaxingly rectilinear. The third gallery, however, located on the second floor of the yud, combats right angles at every turn. The overwrought space is further destabilized by thirty-six diamond shaped windows that allude to a masterpiece of the Soviet avant garde–the house that Konstantin Melnikov, in 1927, designed for himself in Moscow.
In spite of the architect’s by-now familiar dissonant shapes, the Contemporary Jewish Museum works. Because of its small size, its mix of old and new elements, and its rhythms that oscillate between the restless and restful, Libeskind’s CJM presents a nuanced and enlightened architectural experience. Visitors will doubtless require considerable education on the geometry and meaning of the chai. But encouraging curiosity about a building to blossom alongside its exhibitions is certainly a positive tack to take in contemporary museum design. Given the museum’s mission, to connect the millennial traditions of Judaism with the contemporary culture of California, what better place to start than in a word that’s imbued, to paraphrase German playwright and poet Friedrich Schiller, with the beautiful spark of God.