Chai times: Design from above reveals layers of symbolism

With his trademark black wardrobe, cowboy boots and sleek wraparound eyeglasses, architect Daniel Libeskind isn’t likely to place a gold chai charm around his neck.

Instead, he placed a 63,000-square-foot chai around the neck of San Francisco.

The newly built Contemporary Jewish Museum is drawing as much attention for its architecture as for the art contained within. Being a Libeskind original, that’s understandable.

The award-winning, Polish-born architect has emerged as a leader in his field, with projects like Berlin’s Jewish Museum, the Danish Jewish Museum and a recent extension to the Denver Art Museum to his credit.

The CJM — Libeskind’s first commission in North America — has been a pet project of his since he took it on in 1998, in part because of the Jewish symbolism embedded in the structure’s design.

Basically, the big blue building on Jessie Square takes the shape of a giant chai — or more specifically, the Hebrew letters chet and yud, which together spell the word chai (meaning “life”).

Moreover, the diamond-shaped yud wing features 36 skylight windows, composing a triple-chai (a kabbalistic good luck sign).

“The two Hebrew letters are literally the life sources and the form of the museum,” wrote Libeskind in his artist’s statement. “In the Jewish tradition, letters are not mere signs, but are substantial participants in the stories they create.”

The interior wall of the chet forms the Pardes Wall, which greets visitors entering from Jessie Square. Pardes means orchard in Hebrew, and the Pardes Wall will feature newly commissioned sculptures, along with Hebrew letters (spelling “pardes”) embedded in the wall itself.

Then there is the museum’s exterior blue metallic “skin,” which changes hue depending on the vantage point or time of day.

The CJM stands on the site of the old Jessie Street PG&E power substation, built in 1907. Much of that original structure remains, though it has been extensively remodeled.

Still, the collision of old and new gives the museum much of is architectural panache.

That, and the countless Libeskind touches.

“The spaces and programs,” he says, “will delve into the depths of the Jewish spirit and celebrate the relevance of Jewish culture for all.”

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.