Architect Libeskind steels the show at Jewish museum site

The hardhat clashed a bit with his trademark black-on-black couture, but architect Daniel Libeskind was in his element as he toured the new Contemporary Jewish Museum. Midway through construction of the $80 million project he designed, Libeskind is like a kid in a candy shop when visiting the three-storey 63,000-square-foot site.

That is, if steel girders and acetylene torches can be considered candy.

Libeskind was in town Monday, May 14 to speak at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, to meet with museum staff and to celebrate a milestone in the construction: the unveiling of the first of 3,000 oxidized blue steel panels that will cover the museum’s exterior.

“This is a momentous day,” Libeskind said of the unveiling, as rooftop workmen removed layers of protective plastic sheathing from the rhomboid-shaped panels. “The blue is a carefully considered choice, signifying the right relationship with the red of the [Jessie Street power station] brickwork. It’s the color of Israel, the color of the Mediterranean, even the color of the tallit.”

The Contemporary Jewish Museum’s new downtown San Francisco facility is slated to open in the spring of 2008.

One of the most admired architects in the world, Libeskind is known for such landmark projects as the Ground Zero master plan at the site of New York’s World Trade Center, the Jewish Museum in Berlin and the new Denver Art Museum. Ten years into his San Francisco sojourn, he now calls the Contemporary Jewish Museum the “grandmother of projects” for his firm.

Looks like grandma will soon give birth. With the dramatically angled steel skeleton nearly complete and the steel panels now being installed, the museum’s long gestation is winding up. Libeskind is satisfied with what he sees, especially in light of the drawn-out struggle to bring the museum to life.

“The budget was cut 40 percent,” he recalled of that struggle. “It didn’t faze me for a minute. I believed in [the museum] and so did [board chair] Cissy Swig and [museum director] Connie Wolf. It’s a testament to the true faith of this group of people, who really worked hard.”

As for the modified design after that 40 percent cut, Libeskind added, “There’s no fat in it. It’s more fantastic.”

Though a world-class cosmopolitan, the Polish-born, New York-based Libeskind has a soft spot in his heart for his Jewish-themed projects. He understandably views facilities like the Contemporary Jewish Museum as central storehouses of Jewish life and culture.

“[The museum] celebrates Jewish values,” he said. “It affirms America in its radiance. It enhances life. I don’t believe a Jewish project is just putting the word ‘Jewish’ on it. It has to have a Jewish essence. Yiddishkeit has to be built into the structure.”

Libeskind endeavored to do just that, designing the new structures based on the Hebrew letters chet and yud, which form the word “chai” or “life.” He also placed 36 skylights over the blue steel exterior, a double “chai,” which has a certain kabbalistic resonance.

A former music and philosophy student, Libeskind waxes rhapsodic when talking about his profession. On one hand, he affirms that architecture is as much a science as an art, and that “every angle is shaped by science.” But he quickly added that “imagination is the key to architecture, because it transcends all technical issues. It isn’t just about the hand. It doesn’t just come from the earth. It’s about the mind and spirit.”

Unlike, say, a motion picture project, in which the screenwriter often recedes from the day-to-day shooting and editing, the architect remains the point man when making last minute decisions. Libeskind is still on call. But he doesn’t mind. At least not when it comes to the Contemporary Jewish Museum.

“Jewish history is not just a figure in the background,” he said. “It’s true of this building: You will feel that history is not over.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.