Birth of a building: Architect moved at seeing his vision come to life

Because a competent architect is rarely surprised by the final outcome of one of his projects, Daniel Libeskind wasn’t about to cop to being startled by how things have turned out at the Contemporary Jewish Museum.

“If you build something you don’t expect, you’re not really a good architect,” Libeskind said in a phone interview from Paris last month. “You have to build what you plan.

“I’m not a hit-or-miss architect. You have to be very, very sure of what you’re doing. Buildings cost money. This is not an experiment.”

That said, Libeskind did admit to being pleasantly unsurprised at how things have turned out with the museum.

Take the museum’s striking blue exterior. That color didn’t come out of a bottle: The British firm Rimex Metals soaked the panels in a chemical bath that results in the steel reflecting some colors and absorbing others; depending upon San Francisco’s lighting and where you stand, the building’s color will vary.

Designing, in essence, a giant mood ring was a tall order from Libeskind. And, again, the architect is not

surprised at how well it has turned out.

“To really produce the blue within a certain range, this is an industrial process. It is very difficult — so difficult that they’ll never do it again,” said Libeskind.

“I wanted a color that would harmonize with the brick on the [old PG&E] power station.”

“And there’s also the symbolism. It has to be the right deep blue like the Mediterranean, like the color of mystery. I was a painter and color is an extremely important element of my architecture. These are not just grey steel buildings. There’s a feeling of color and also how color has changed.

“Think about it: Every plane of this building is at a different angle, so each angle reflects a different light and creates a harmony of all of these surfaces. So the unity of that blue, it was very, very important for me.”

Libeskind also singled out the craftsmen who “restored the power station skylight and recreated the ceramic tiles and trusses” in the museum’s blending of the old and new for particular praise.

Libeskind might have been a bit surprised in this regard: After a tour of the museum two weeks ago, he said the 1907 power station — cleaned up and terra cotta beaming, its ornate windows and doorways playing perfectly into the grand design — looks better than even he expected.

During the museum’s 2006 groundbreaking, Libeskind told j. that the moment was like the birth of a child. When asked if the grand opening is then the bar mitzvah, he demurred. No, this is also like a birth.

“It’s the birth of a building that, you know, begins its life as the public comes into it. It’s not built for itself, but for the activities. This is a thrilling moment that it’s finally becoming a part of San Francisco.”

Not that he ever doubted this day would come. Despite the museum’s travails and monetary shortfalls, Libeskind always figured that the longer the wait, the tastier the meal.

“You know, I always said that architecture is not a sprint. It is a marathon. You have to be committed to the idea. It is not just a job. You have to be passionate about it,” he said.

“You have to have faith in a building for it to happen.”

So, for the record — no, Daniel Libeskind is not surprised.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.