The Arts : Defining a Jewish Space
A daring Jewish cultural institution has opened in the City by the Bay, one that pays tribute to tradition while reflecting the multicultural tastes of local Jews.
San Francisco’s new Contemporary Jewish Museum is an eye-popper in a city that has recently embraced architectural conservatism. In this building that was once a power station, architect Daniel Libeskind has joined the new with the old, juxtaposing sleek blue steel with the original red brick, and his signature angled walls with the symmetries of Classical Revival design.
This marriage of opposites works surprisingly well and makes passersby stop and linger, their curiosity piqued by the tilted blue cube bursting out of the red brick façade.
The $47.5-million museum is the latest gem to sparkle in the growing cultural quarter that has revived the South of Market (SoMa) district and is already home to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of the African Diaspora and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.
The jewish museum, founded in 1984, was formerly located on an obscure side street off Market Street. In its new Mission Street location, the museum is fully integrated into the city’s cultural scene, as the local Jewish community has always aspired to be.
In designing the building, Libeskind worked in a complex urban site with tight constraints: construction within the walls of an existing structure, proximity to the apse of the historic St. Patrick’s Catholic Church and height limitations imposed by the Four Seasons Hotel’s large balcony.
The architect’s greatest challenge was “to work in a space where everything seems predetermined—behind a church, behind a wall, under a hotel,” he said. He also had to take into account how the roof would appear to people in nearby high-rises. Overcoming these constraints, he said, reflects a quintessentially Jewish idea: “to be caught in all the givens” and yet assert one’s identity.
The power station that was one of those “givens” was actually the second one built on the site. The first, a plant erected in 1881, was severely damaged in 1906 by fire and then by earthquake. The station was soon rebuilt with a Classical Revival style by Willis Polk. As an adherent of the City Beautiful Movement (whose members believed that beautifying a city would lead its residents to moral and civic virtue), Polk felt that public buildings should add to the aesthetics of the city. Ironically, the station’s good looks were hidden for decades by the surrounding buildings, until they were torn down to make way for the SoMa district. Now Polk’s brick façade adorned with cream-colored terracotta garlands and cherubic putti is fronted by a large plaza, Jessie Square, and visitors to the Jewish museum enter through Polk’s monumental archway.
For Polish-born Libeskind, this museum was a departure and “a lot of fun to create.” Unlike his three Jewish museums in Europe, which he described as being under the irreversible shadow of the Holocaust, he said his newest creation “celebrates Jewish life, the glory of imagination and activity.”
The museum itself, in its goals and content, is a departure from Jewish museums around the world, mainly because it has no permanent collection; instead, it exhibits commissioned works or loaned art and objects. And, eschewing a focus on Judaica and the Holocaust, it chooses to explore contemporary “Jewish perspectives on culture, history, art and ideas [and to] reach out to people of all cultural and religious backgrounds,” according to Connie Wolf, museum director and chief executive officer. The buzzword is relevance. The board members, some in their thirties, hope this approach will attract younger visitors—particularly since the museum offers a Jewish experience that does not require affiliation with a synagogue or organization.
Nevertheless, the architect said his design of the two-story museum incorporates distinctly Jewish motifs. Libeskind was inspired by the Hebrew letters het and yud that make up hai, meaning “alive,” and which in Jewish numerology add up to lucky 18.
The elongated het space, to the right of the grand stairwell, comprises roughly two-thirds of the building and includes exhibition areas and activity rooms. The tilted blue steel cube that juts out of the remaining third of the building, with 36 (twice 18) diamond-shaped windows and skylights, is the smaller yud space; it houses the gift shop and a special events gallery.
The lobby, tapering as it rises to a lofty 35 feet and running the length of the building, is an intriguing space, enclosed between the brick outer wall and a typically Libeskind angled white wall. The brick is partially obscured by tile as it was in the original power station. Overhead are the station’s original catwalks, which have been painted gray. They symbolize continuity with the past, the architect said.
In another typical Libeskind design move, the angled lobby wall has inset slashes of light that may at first seem random but actually form the four letters of the Hebrew word pardes (garden, orchard), representing the four levels at which Torah can be interpreted.
Kabbala assigns mystical meanings to letters, but Libeskind, who has lived in Israel and Germany and now lives in New York, said his use of letters in the design “is not kabbalistic [though] I come from a Hasidic family; I have relatives in Mea Shearim. It’s just part of my background that letters are sacred.”
The importance of letters and the written word in Jewish tradition is evident in the main inaugural exhibition, “In the Beginning: Artists Respond to Genesis,” which runs through January 4. The show follows the established pattern of the museum—inviting artists, not necessarily Jews, to create works on a particular theme. Here the works of seven contemporary artists, including Texas-based painter and installation artist Trenton Doyle Hancock and Israeli-born Shirley Shor, are exhibited side by side with 34 historically important objects, among them illuminated manuscripts; art by William Blake (The Creation of Eve) and Marc Chagall (The Creation of Man); and others, including a series of silkscreen prints titled Eight Studies for the Book of Genesis by the African-American artist Jacob Lawrence, reflecting his childhood experience of hearing his minister preach on Creation.
Letters and words are particularly important in the contemporary artists’ works. Shor’s installation, The Well, consists of a dark, round pedestal, the top of which is a screen on which text in various colors appears at the outer edge and gradually shrinks as it spirals toward the center. To show how we use biblical language in everyday communication, Shor mined the Web for English and Hebrew sentences beginning with the phrases “In the beginning” and “Thou shalt not.” The results can be amusing: “In the beginning, there was the Web,” or, in Hebrew, “In the beginning, God created me and then regretted it.”
Alan Berliner’s Playing God is another multimedia installation that relies heavily on text and was inspired by the building’s design. On seven screens arranged in a row, the 837 English words of the Creation story flash in random succession. Interspersed are film and video images—from sunsets to Holocaust scenes—reflecting the artist’s questions about divine agency in human lives. By pressing a button, visitors activate a program that arranges seven of the words into thought-provoking, often poetic, sentences. On the museum’s opening day, this game-like interactive aspect proved attractive to children old enough to read.
Matthew Ritchie’s Day One combines his signature lacy wall drawings with film animations of primordial chaos. “The great part of working with the Libeskind building is that it is not just a new space, but a new kind of space,” he said. “This in turn encouraged me to think about the meaning and potential of space itself—perfect for ‘In the Beginning.’”
Rounding out the exhibition is a 30-minute documentary by Pamela Rorke Levy in which scientists, theologians and others offer insights into the Creation story. About the origin of the story, for example, physicist Saul Perlmutter of the University of California, Berkeley, says: “People were looking for [a] kind of owner’s manual. Genesis is an owner’s manual to the universe.”
The second exhibition, on loan from New York’s Jewish Museum, is “From The New Yorker to Shrek: The Art of William Steig.” Steig drew 1,600 cartoons as well as 120 covers over 73 years for The New Yorker, was the first at the magazine to illustrate his own ideas and inaugurated that publication’s color era. He also created over a dozen children’s picture books and novels, from Doctor De Soto toSylvester and the Magic Pebble to Shrek! The exhibit (through September 7) includes a true child-pleaser: a room decorated to represent several of the books.
On the CJM’s opening day in June, Palo Alto resident and Jewish activist Betty Denenberg Adler, 66, said she was already planning to return with her grandchildren. Nathaniel Haynes, 27, who works in a San Francisco architectural firm, said he came primarily to see the building but was captivated by the Steig exhibition.
Despite Libeskind’s predilection for angled walls, the exhibition spaces have straight walls that serve the display of art. In the special events gallery, however, not a single wall is perpendicular to the floor; it is to be used for musical performances and sound installations. In the gallery’s inaugural work, visitors can hear composer John Zorn’s “Aleph-Bet Sound Project,” a series of original pieces, each based on a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, by musicians such as Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson and Chris Brown (through January 4).
Upcoming exhibitions include “Andy Warhol’s Jews: Ten Portraits Reconsidered” (October 12, 2008-January 25, 2009), “Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Theater, 1919-1949” (April 19, 2009-September 7, 2009) and “Seeing Gertrude Stein” (October 2010-March 2011).
Complementing the galleries are an auditorium and activity rooms for programs geared to various age groups. Lectures and presentations of literary awards are planned for the fall. The museum also hopes to attract young adults through a monthly salon, which will feature discussions about art, culture and community, facilitated by writer-in-residence Daniel Schifrin.
On opening day in an activity room, both adults and children took part in creating a community-faces mural, inspired by the illustration of a multitude of faces on the cover of the Steig exhibition catalog.
Despite the massive advance publicity and media coverage of the museum’s opening, many visitors expected to see history-related exhibitions and displays of Judaica. Israeli-born Noga Kessler, 42, a social worker and now full-time mother, was disappointed. “I was hoping to show my kids more Jewish things,” she said. “It’s hard to find more traditional things in the Bay Area.”
But Yves Yarborox, 48, a nurse, who said he had expected “a lot of old Judaica,” was pleased not to find it.
Edward Rothstein, an arts critic for The New York Times, opined in a June 2008 article that the museum’s emphasis “not on the substance of Judaism, its laws, or history or ritual objects, but on perceptions of them” reflects the highly assimilated style of Judaism in America’s West. And, indeed, that local touch is evident in an exhibition in the museum’s education center titled “Being Jewish: A Bay Area Portrait.” Arrayed against a backdrop of photos contributed by local residents are Judaica items with a twist on Jewish traditions: for example, a denim kippa with the Levi’s label, a tribute to the blue jeans empire founded by San Francisco-based Levi Strauss; a spice box in the shape of the Transamerica Pyramid, the tallest and most recognizable skyscraper in the city—a modern version of Central European spice boxes in the shape of flag-topped turrets; and a T-shirt emblazoned with fir trees and the greeting “YO SEMITE.”
That very local style of Judaica is also evident in the gift shop, where items range from silk prayer shawls to Hanukka menoras, including some mounted on the backs of elephants and tigers, made of twisted wire. Also on sale are books, jewelry and toys.
For all the museum’s apparent success with critics and early visitors, the new building had a long and difficult birth. The design was first entrusted to architect Peter Eisenman, a post-Modernist theorist known for his Berlin Holocaust memorial, a forest of 2,711 concrete pillars of uneven heights, completed in 2005. But when Eisenman presented his plan for the museum and the adjacent plaza in 1997, representatives of neighboring institutions, including St. Patrick’s, complained they were never consulted about the plaza, and critics faulted it for being both aesthetically cold and inaccessible to the elderly and disabled. The museum and Eisenman parted ways, and in 1998, Libeskind was engaged. It was his first North American commission.
Libeskind’s many credits include the 2003 master plan for New York’s World Trade Center site and the 2006 Denver Art Museum. His Jewish museums are the Felix Nussbaum Museum in Osnabrueck, northern Germany; the Jewish Museum Berlin; and the Danish Jewish Museum in Copenhagen. CJM director Wolf said Libeskind was chosen on the basis of his first completed building, the Nussbaum museum, even before his acclaimed Berlin museum was finished.
The CJM story was complicated further by a rocky, short-lived merger of the San Francisco Jewish Museum, as the CJM was then called, with the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley, California. The Magnes is a collecting museum with the country’s third-largest collection of Judaica and the largest history center relating to Jews of the American West. Each museum was to have a new building, and Libeskind’s original design was 50 percent larger than the current one.
In February 2003, the combined board voted to undo the 13-month-old merger, and the design was scaled down to its current 63,000 square feet.
Raising money for the project presented challenges, too, in a city in which Jews have always given generously to non-Jewish cultural projects.
“We have a predictable base [of philanthropists who are] also called on for other projects,” said Roselyne Swig, chair of the board. “We had to be certain that we were providing a project that would catch their attention and the board could be proud of.”
And in planning the museum, they had the style of the community in mind. “You’ve got to listen to your constituency,” many of whom are intermarried, Swig said. “People who have converted, people who are disaffected—[they all need a place] to feel comfortable.”
So the café, in the eastern end of the lobby, offers vegetarian matza ball soup, but the rest of the menu consists of a range of Bay Area-style dishes, such as heirloom rice and quinoa salad with seaweed, avocado, tomatoes, pickled cucumbers and garden cress.
Most important, of course, is that the new building continues to inspire, as it did inaugural-exhibition artist Alan Berliner, who said, “When many of the hidden significances and layered meanings of its design were pointed out to me, [it] inspired me to make something that would also resonate at the mysterious intersection of cultural tradition and contemporary relevance.”
Come and Visit
The Contemporary Jewish Museum, at 736 Mission Street in San Francisco, California (415-655-7800; www.thecjm.org),
is open daily except Wednesdays, 11 A.M. to 5:30 P.M.,
Thursdays 1 to 8:30 P.M.