October 13, 2006

Libeskind’s New Jewish Museum Breaks Ground in San Francisco
by Heather Livingston
Contributing Editor

Summary: Amid the fanfare surrounding the opening of Daniel Libeskind’s Denver Art Museum on October 7, San Francisco has proudly begun construction on its own Libeskind building, the first on the West coast. The Contemporary Jewish Museum broke ground in mid-July in the Yerba Buena cultural district in the trendy SoMA (South of Market) neighborhood. With three floors and 63,000 square feet, the new building will allow the 20-year-old museum to expand its exhibits and educational programs. “This design really is about the celebration of life,” says Libeskind. “It’s about the openness of America, of the Jewish culture, of a kinetic sense of the museum that speaks to everyone.”

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In 1990, the museum recognized that it soon needed a larger facility to accommodate its growing size and importance in the community. At the time, the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency was working on revitalizing the neglected neighborhood of Yerba Buena and infusing it with a combination of housing, entertainment, business, and cultural institutions. The Redevelopment Agency contributed the historic Jessie Street Substation site to the museum. Connie Wolf, executive director and CEO of the museum says, “In the early ’90s, we were in the process of looking for a place to expand. In a sense, the sequence was perfect because they were looking to [create] a home for cultural institutions, and we were looking for a new location, so this site became available, and we were granted this opportunity. Then we went searching for an architect.”

Honoring the past
Libeskind’s design juxtaposes the historic brick and terra cotta Jessie Street Power Substation, originally constructed in 1881 and remodeled by architect Willis Polk after the 1906 earthquake fires, with a striking blue metallic structure. His adaptive reuse preserves the character of the landmark structure, including the southern brick façade, trusses, skylights, and open space, while also giving the neighborhood a “metal-clad jewel [that] beacons the future.” Designed as part of the City Beautiful movement, this is the first time the public will have access to the building. “Of course, the challenge was how to reuse the power station,” says Libeskind. “Not just reuse it as a hollow building, but infuse it with a spirit of industrial architecture, and how to transform the space for a contemporary Jewish museum and create not just adjacency, but true accessibility of the building [while] making it visible in a tight site. It was never really meant to be accessible to the public.”

Embracing the present
Characteristic of Libeskind’s designs for Jewish organizations, his addition is rife with allusions to Judaica. Wolf says, “When Daniel started thinking about our mission and the building site, he really focused on Jewish life and the word ‘life.’”

According to the architect, “The museum building is based in the Hebrew word l’chaim, which means ‘to life.’ The two Hebrew letters of chai, the chet and the yud, with all their symbolic, mathematical, and emblematic structure, are literally the life source and the form of the museum. In the Jewish tradition, letters are not mere signs but are substantial participants in the story they create.”

“It is a building created from the Jewish spirit in which language and symbol are intertwined with the story that they communicate,” notes Libeskind. “L’chaim, life, is the central theme of the architecture as well as of the program. Of course, using the chet and yud, which are not just letters, but which themselves are part of the story of life, and organizing the spaces, which are not just graphic representations of letters, but really embody the spirit and substance of a movement of the letter, is part of the story of the building. For example, the yud, the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet, it’s that explosive form right on the connector and then the chet is the fields within the power station. The dialogue between the two letters tells part of the story of life.”

Imagining the future
Space-constrained for most of their existence, the new building will give the museum a greatly enhanced capability to host original and traveling exhibits and collaborative exhibitions with other cultural institutions. The ground floor will feature a grand lobby in the historic building, a 2,500-square-foot exhibition gallery, an auditorium and meeting room, café, museum shop, catering kitchen, and an education center. Located at the core of the building, the 3,500-square-foot education center is a prominent representation of the important role of education in Judaism. The second floor will host a special events gallery, a 7,000-square-foot exhibition gallery, and administrative offices. The lower level will house a loading dock, art and exhibition storage facilities, building storage, HVAC, and maintenance and security offices.

The building is slated to open in the spring of 2008.

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