Libeskind’s £40m new angle

By Gita Conn, March 20, 2008
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Leading architect Daniel Libeskind has now designed a Jewish museum in San Francisco

Daniel Libeskind has done it again. The architect promised that his design for the new £40 million Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco would result in “a metal-clad jewel, like a beacon glowing into the future”. He was not exaggerating.

Due to open on June 8, the museum — all 63,000 square feet of it — is, as yet, devoid of artworks. But, like Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin, which attracted hordes of visitors while still empty, the building itself is the exhibit.

Inspired by Jewish symbolism, Libeskind has based the design on the Hebrew words l’chaim (to life), with the Hebrew letters chet and yud which spell chai determining the building’s shape and interior features. The letters, calculated on the kabbalistic gematria principle, add up to 18, considered a lucky number in Jewish tradition.

More symbolism prevails in the grand lobby. Spanning the length of this 2,500 square-foot space is the “PaRDeS” wall, an architectural installation based on the Hebrew word for orchard. Each letter is embedded and illuminated in the wall.

The building itself, in the city’s Yerba Buena district, is embedded into an old power station, donated to the project by the San Francisco authorities.

Museum director Connie Wolf explains that the power station, defunct since the 1960s, helped give life back to the city after the catastrophic 1906 earthquake.

“We want to bring Jewish life back to the city,” she says. “So many, particularly Jewish, museums reflect on the past. Daniel has designed a building about the present and looking forward. Our programme is based on contemporary Jewish life where history informs the present. The old is integrated with the new.”

Inaugural exhibitions have been commissioned from seven modern-day artists.

The main one, entitled, In the Beginning: Artists Respond to Genesis, will examine the contemporary relevance of Jewish texts from a variety of artistic, cultural and literary perspectives. “It will,” promises Wolf, “look at Jewish tradition through a contemporary lens.”

The new building was first mooted 10 years ago, when plans to merge the existing Contemporary Jewish Museum — then housed in the cramped lobby of the Jewish Community Federation — with a small Jewish museum in Berkeley fell through.

But how did the planners manage to capture Daniel Libeskind, the international architectural mega-star? “Although he was known by savvy architects and critics, he was not yet a public figure,” says Wolf. “We didn’t hire a star architect; we hired an architect who matched the spirit and vision.”

And, it seems, one who matches the dynamism of a team that has raised $80m to fund the project. Not an easy task. The burst of the dot.com bubble and the financial insecurities in the aftermath of 9/11 caused a 40 per cent cutback of the building budget.

“But we didn’t have to reduce our programme,” insists Wolf. “We made flexible spaces in close proximities.”

Only one of those spaces was completed a full six months before opening day — and that room was possibly the most important place in any Jewish institution… the kitchen.

Last updated: 2:02pm, August 28 2014