Thursday, June 26, 2008

Daniel Libeskind Opens A Jewish Museum for All

The brick power-station wall adorned with cherubs that is now the façade of the Contemporary Jewish Museum here was rebuilt after the earthquake and fires of 1906 had leveled most of the city. By then, a Jewish community -- more assimilated than most -- had already lived in the Bay Area for more than 50 years.

Given this melting-pot context, the $47.5 million new home of the Contemporary Jewish Museum, designed by Daniel Libeskind, seems logical -- blending civic beauty with an arcane geometry that passersby would never know to be Jewish, and pitching the museum's secular orientation to anyone in diversity-sensitive San Francisco.

Hebrew calligraphy is Mr. Libeskind's point of departure in fusing a slanted blue steel cube to the shell of the utility hub. The architect's two modern exterior forms -- the cube and a slanting rectangle that protrude from the landmark brick façade -- are intended to form the expression l'chaim, to life, affirming that the museum's focus is on the present and future -- not a history filled with tragedy. "'Being Jewish': A Bay Area Portrait," a glass-covered photo-montage of pictures that flowed over the transom once word from the museum went out, could not be more inclusive. Spelled out in the museum's lobby is the Hebrew word pardes, which means orchard, garden or paradise, an affirmation that this building, unlike many Jewish museums, is not intended to be a memorial. (Mr. Libeskind was born in Poland in 1946 to Holocaust survivors.)

There is a lightness to this project that is rare in the architect's work, from the brick façade's terra-cotta cherubs that decorate the power-station wall to the blue steel that shifts in tone as the light changes and relieves the surrounding district's glass and steel tourist-mall monotony.

Inside, a bright narrow two-story lobby runs the length of the 200-foot power-station wall, supported by the building's exposed original trusses and columns. The 1907 structure is more appropriated than preserved, but it's an airy contrast to Libeskind's signature building, the Jewish Museum Berlin, which has an ominous feel in its jagged exterior and galleries stuffed with relics from an exterminated population.

Past the CJM's gift shop with Libeskindian angularity and jagged windows that double as product displays, and up a shimmering white staircase that will test the nimbleness of aged donors, the feel gets lighter. Underneath the upward pointing tip of the tilted cube is what the museum calls the yud space -- named for the Hebrew letter it resembles. Inside, the white conical volume's 36 diamond-shaped windows are arrayed like stars in a mythological sky. Their shadow-play on the sloping walls as light passes through is beguiling. "Flat objects" -- CJM talk for painting and sculpture -- will not be exhibited there. It's a wise decision, given the struggles in Mr. Libeskind's Denver Art Museum and his Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto to show paintings in galleries built with his branded tilt. So far, the yud space will be used for readings and sound installations and for rental events.

Symbolic logic: The two forms featured here -- a cube and a rectangle that protrude from the landmark brick -- are intended to show that the focus is on the present and future, and not on a tragic past.

In larger second-floor galleries, curators have made do in spite of the architecture, hanging or projecting work on rectilinear partitions. The museum has no collection of its own, and in the themed inaugural exhibition, "In the Beginning: Artists Respond to Genesis," Jewish and non-Jewish artists were invited to riff on a subject as broad as one can find in the Bible, with results as varied as the ecumenical constituency the museum seeks. Matthew Ritchie's video projections of swirling shapes could be a pre-creation miasma or an apocalyptic storm, and Trent Doyle Hancock's new chapter to his grand hand-drawn creation myth brings a psychedelic dimension to the Cosmology of Henry Darger (1892-1973), the Chicago recluse who painted young girls fighting interplanetary wars. Filmmaker Alan Berliner weighs chance against divine agency in "Playing God," a row of seven screens that are activated, like a slot machine, to score a jackpot if the contestant chances upon the right sequence of words.

In a tiny space, curator Fred Wasserman has assembled a room of drawings and manuscripts -- a wondrous minimal Adam and Eve drawing by William Blake, a Bible illustrated by Gustave Doré, and other delights -- to remind visitors that creation didn't begin with an Andy Warhol silk-screen.

A ground-floor gallery partitioned for paintings and drawings holds a retrospective devoted to the Methuselah of New Yorker cartoonists, William Steig (1907-2003), which premiered at the Jewish Museum in New York last year. Steig, the son of immigrants from Lvov, began cartooning for money when his family needed cash in the Depression. It's a march from warm-hearted depictions of gritty tenement life to spoofs of suburban comforts. Not to mention the character Shrek (Yiddish for "fear"), whom DreamWorks would turn into an animated star.

Enterprising curators took Steig's untitled (and undated) page of dyspeptic and anxious faces from the exhibition catalog's cover and installed it at floor-to-ceiling size inside a gallery window for passersby to see -- a wry echo of the earnest community-mounted scrapbook inside. While it's scrapped the notion of a collection, the CJM has preserved its sense of humor.

Steig's frustrated faces reflect the museum's last 15 years as much as the blithe diversity of "Being Jewish." Founded in 1984 as the Jewish Community Museum, and later called the Jewish Museum San Francisco, the new museum had ambitions that outgrew its small gallery in the financial district. In 1994, the museum decided to construct a building and paid a dollar for its site on Mission Street across from the Yerba Buena Cultural Center, a park of performance and exhibition spaces in a formerly decaying neighborhood, now clogged with museums and entertainment venues in the shadows of massive hotels. A cold plan from its first architect, Peter Eisenman, offended trustees and neighbors. Next came Mr. Libeskind, with a gold bronze shape and a four-story museum. An 18-month marriage with the Judah P. Magnes Museum in Berkeley was severed just as the local dot-com boom went bust. CJM's home was scaled down in size, cost and color. Its gold section shrank and turned blue. Construction on the current building, part of which is cut into the Four Seasons Hotel that rises 40 floors above, began in 2006.

The new CJM can't help but wear that austerity in places. Its "multi-purpose space" is as generic as its name suggests. Along with the photomontage, it gives off the feel of a community center. All that's missing are the basketball hoops.

The CJM's education center compounds this impression. The flexible space behind the wall of the lobby is an attempt to find a spatial metaphor for one of the museum's central missions, with its womb-like placement in the building's first-floor core and windows for parents to monitor their youngsters' progress in the most ordinary of smallish classrooms. The well-meaning conceit is architecturally clumsy.

The CJM is a pardes in progress. Yet scaling it down brought unexpected benefits. There is a harmony between the soft brick façade of the old power station, with its blue protuberances, and the city-owned plaza in front of it. Created by Handel Architects, a local firm, atop a parking garage excavated by the city for the museum and its neighbors, the square opens up a dense urban snarl and forms an approach that flatters the new CJM and its calligraphic wordplay. Mr. Libeskind may not have remade or even rethought creation in San Francisco, but he did help part the urban waters.

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