Some of the greatest architects happen to be Jewish, such as Frank Gehry, Louis Kahn, and Robert A.M. Stern. Some are unabashedly so, and none more than Daniel Libeskind. The Polish-born accordion prodigy of two Holocaust survivors, Libeskind made his name designing for the Chosen People, beginning with his first and arguably best work, the Jewish Museum Berlin. Others have followed, such as the Felix Nussbaum Haus, the Danish Jewish Museum, the Wohl Center at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, and, most recently, the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. As if that weren’t enough, Liebeskind has now designed a mezuzah for that same museum.
It was probably only a matter of time before this happened. (For the Goyim and non-New Yorkers out there, here’s a handy explanation of what, exactly, mezuzot are.) Michael Graves designs toasters for Target, Daniel Libeskind judaica for the synagogue gift shop. It’s important and good work, too, if you can get it, and probably pretty fulfilling. After all, Kahn’s most meaningful project, at least to the architect himself, was his unrealized Hurva Synagogue in Jerusalem.
After the initial eye-roll induced by the thought of a Libeskind mezuzah, the true disappointment sets in. This was an opportunity for one of our (the world’s and Jews’) better architects to have made a really nice mezuzah. Instead, we get a glorified tchotchke no better than a Guggenheim-shaped coffee mug, another piece of pewter junk lying around the museum gift shop enticing foolhardy tourists.
The problem is that Libeskind gives in to his worst habits with the mezuzah. While his work strives for poetry, looking to embody words, phrases, and ideas in concrete and steel, he too often has a tendency to take such metaphors too far. In the case of the Contemporary, “l’chaim,” meaning “too life,” is said to be the inspiration, and the form of the museum comes from the Jewish word/symbol/expression chai, a move that constrained the building as much as it enabled it.
Instead of taking his inspiration for the mezuzah from mezuzot or some other Jewish source and creating a truly unique and worthy piece, Liebeskind clings too literally to the museum itself. It looks as though he just grabbed the nearest massing model and nailed it to the doorpost. Which is perhaps the one thing that makes this mezuzah quintessentially Libeskind’s: Just like his architecture, it’s impossible to tell which way is up.