Daring architect will draw up Jewish Museum plans

A cutting-edge, world-renowned architect who designed the new Jewish Museum in Berlin will be the man who molds the future space for the Jewish Museum San Francisco.

Daniel Libeskind's appointment became public this week when he visited San Francisco to survey the $30 million building project, which is already two years behind schedule, double its original price tag, and on its second architect.

Generally, a building's architect wouldn't garner much attention. But Libeskind, who lives in Berlin, is known for his avant-garde work — for example, buildings that resemble lightning bolts or interlocking cubes.

"He is a big deal, no ifs, ands or buts," said Rabbi Brian Lurie, president and CEO of the Jewish Museum San Francisco.

Libeskind has been an architectural theory professor at Harvard, Yale and UCLA. Since turning from theorist to practitioner 11 years ago, he has won numerous public design competitions. They include plans for the Felix Nussbaum Museum in Germany; the Imperial War Museum of the North in Manchester, England; and an extension to the world-class Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

The 51-year-old Poland native, former Israeli resident and son of Holocaust refugees netted a long profile in the New York Times this spring.

Stephen Leavitt, chairman of the museum's board, said Libeskind will do more than design a building.

"Because of him, the architecture won't be a box in which things occur," Leavitt said. "It will be part of the experience."

Though Libeskind's Jewish-related work so far has focused on the heavy, tragic past — the Jewish Museum in Berlin covers history since the start of the Holocaust — he believes he fits this project to a T-square.

"It's a wonderful thing to be able to tackle because it's a different realm. It's optimistic and goes into the future," said Libeskind, whose enthusiasm and friendliness belie his all-black attire.

"It's about the identity of Jewish people, about the relevance of Jewish culture to other people, the contribution Jews have made to society at large and to the world — and the vitality and beauty of Jewish culture, which transcends parochial, religious and narrow definitions of what is Jewish…It's really a dream come true."

Acknowledging that some may wonder why a San Francisco museum looked to Europe to find an architect, Lurie said he would have gone to Hong Kong or Israel to hire the right person.

Both he and Leavitt noted that the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art used a Swiss architect.

"We were fortunate to have found this person. It just happens that he was in Berlin," Leavitt said.

The Jewish museum, which now occupies the first floor and basement of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, will expand in space and concept when it eventually moves into a long-vacant building across from Yerba Buena Gardens.

Lurie envisions an interactive, multimedia exploration of the "Jewish imagination" with art, film, dance, theater and music. He wants it to be the "positive" equivalent to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

"This is a project that will have broad implications well beyond the confines of the city of San Francisco," Lurie said.

Leavitt sees the future site as a Jewish combination of the S.F. Museum of Modern Art, the Exploratorium and the Smithsonian.

"One can more aptly call it a cultural center, but the fact is that many museums are moving from being simply a storehouse of items," he said.

The Jewish museum will move into the historic Jesse Street substation, formerly used by Pacific Gas & Electric but vacant for decades. It's set to open just over three years from now.

Libeskind will renovate the current 16,000 square-foot building and design a new addition to the north and west. The total space will grow to 70,000 square feet.

The price tag is growing too. Originally conceived as a $15 million construction project, it is now estimated at $30 million for the building — plus another $30 million for an endowment.

Leavitt said the price tag has shot up because of plans to expand the site. It was originally conceived at 38,000 square feet.

The official fund-raising campaign has not begun yet, although Lurie said he has been working with private donors.

Lurie won't divulge the price tag for Libeskind's work.

Libeskind, who sees the new museum as "unique in the world" and "a paradigm of a new Jewish institution in the 21st century," has been labeled as daring and deconstructionist.

The Jewish Museum in Berlin, which is set to open this summer, resembles a stark zigzag with slashes instead of traditional windows. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London is meant to look like falling blocks.

Libeskind simply calls his buildings "contemporary."

"They are not nostalgic in any way. They don't look backward and reuse old elements."

When he speaks about the future San Francisco museum, it's obvious he isn't traditional in any sense of the word. And he won't get more specific when asked how his ideas will play out in glass and brick.

"There is no such thing as Jewish architecture but there is an intuition about what makes spaces have a Jewish character. Usually, it's something that is different," he said, meaning that it's different from Christian or Greek concepts of architecture.

Though he will continue to live in Berlin, Libeskind will send three or four of his firm's staff members to San Francisco.

The museum originally was slated for completion in 1999. At this point, only the groundbreaking is set for 1999 — with the museum's doors scheduled to open in late 2001.

This delay is due, in part, to changing of the guard.

Peter Eisenman, the first architect, was hired before Lurie joined the staff two years ago. Eisenman "parted ways" with the museum last May, Lurie said.

The event occurred four months after a public relations disaster for the museum.

In early 1997, Eisenman presented a design proposal to the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency. City officials and the Jewish museum's future neighbors were outraged because Eisenman had redesigned the public plaza in front of the museum. Lurie asserted the whole situation was blown out of proportion by the local media.

Lurie won't say whether Eisenman was forced out because of that debacle. He will only say that Eisenman's style didn't match his own.

"We didn't have the same vision," Lurie said. Libeskind, on the other hand, "knows exactly what I'm trying to accomplish."

This time around, Lurie plans to avoid any problems with the redevelopment agency and his museum's neighbors, the future Mexican Museum and historic St. Patrick's Church.

Though the focus on Libeskind has primarily to do with his architectural skills, his life is unusual for reasons beyond that talent.

His parents fled to Russia after the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939. They ended up in Siberian labor camps for three years. Libeskind was born in 1946 in Poland after his parents returned home and found nearly every relative had been murdered.

His family couldn't get out of suddenly Communist Poland, so his first 11 years were spent in the devastated postwar city of Lodz.

"My parents were stuck there," he said.

The Jewish community in Poland was a "pathetic remnant," he recalled, and anti-Semitism was pervasive.

His family made it to Israel on the first immigration allowed out of Poland in the late 1950s. They lived there for four years before moving to New York to be near his father's remaining sister, who survived Auschwitz.

Despite the pain that surrounded him, Libeskind doesn't see his youth as tragic. "We never felt like victims," said Libeskind, who has American citizenship.

His extended family includes a long line of rabbis. His uncle was one of the fighters in the Warsaw ghetto. His parents raised the family as Yiddish-speaking secular Jews — but not assimilated.

Libeskind, his wife and three children have lived in Berlin since he won the competition to design the Jewish Museum there in 1989.

"We were almost disowned by our families," he said.

The Jewish Museum in Berlin, which is an extension of the Berlin Museum, will open this summer. It will actually be Libeskind's first completed building.

He also has designed the Nussbaum Museum in Germany, which is dedicated to its namesake, Felix Nussbaum, a Jewish artist who died in the Holocaust. And Libeskind has fought German plans to build 8,000 to 10,000 housing units outside of Sachsenhausen, a former Nazi labor camp near Berlin.

Today, he said, "I see myself as a Jew, but to be Jewish is more than just to be affiliated with organizations and with societies. It's to carry on the spark of Jewish life. And to transmit it to your family, to the society around you and to be involved in Jewish causes. That's indeed why I'm in Germany. I'm not there because of the good weather."