Slash and yearn

Times Architecture Critic

Anyone looking for signs that Daniel Libeskind’s work might deepen profoundly over time, or shift in some surprising direction, has mostly been doing so in vain. After winning the master-plan competition at the ground zero site in New York in 2003, and subsequently landing commissions all over the world, he seemed content to stamp the same jagged, mournful aesthetic on each of his new buildings, whether it was a museum in Copenhagen or Denver or a condominium tower in Covington, Ky.

Even as the World Trade Center rebuilding effort collapsed around him, he smiled his Hillary smile and told everybody nothing was wrong, that he was moving forward, still thrilled to have the opportunity. He had developed a brand -- powerful if somewhat contradictory, turning tragedy and loss into soaring forms and feel-good PR -- and he wasn’t about to mess with it by taking a stand for architectural principle.

The news from San Francisco, where his Contemporary Jewish Museum is set to open Sunday, won’t change that story -- edgy theoretical architect gets famous, works to stay that way -- in any drastic manner. The CJM’s new home is dedicated to using contemporary art to illuminate and explore Jewish culture and history. (Founded in 1984, the museum has no permanent collection.) That means Libeskind’s trademark slashing forms and off-kilter geometries, while as recognizable as ever, have been employed to rich metaphorical effect, rather than simply decorating the living room of a seventh-floor three bedroom.


And yet the project also shows Libeskind working in a more restrained, even muted, mode than ever before. In part this is due to various delays and budget problems that have plagued the project, which got its start in 1998, well before Libeskind prevailed in Lower Manhattan. (The San Francisco commission was his first in North America.) In part it’s due to the tight urban site occupied by the museum, which opens onto a new public plaza across the street from Yerba Buena Gardens and down the block from Mario Botta’s San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Whatever the explanation, the generally happy architectural results are not just surprising but encouraging. At ground zero, Libeskind’s designs were crippled and eventually rendered meaningless by compromise. Here they’ve been enriched by it.

The museum occupies a low-slung, brick-wrapped power company substation from 1907, which the architect, working with the local firms WRNS Studio and Architectural Resources Group, has carefully hollowed out and extended. The main gesture of the addition is classic Libeskind: a two-story torqued cube wrapped in dark-blue metal panels and turned on its side. A smaller, similarly hard-edged form protrudes from the roof.

But the calm, elegant presence of the 1907 building, designed by Willis Polk, keeps the sharp new forms in balance. And inside, the frenetic quality that marks some of Libeskind’s work has been replaced by a complex but self-assured series of spaces.

At 63,000 square feet, with only 9,500 square feet of dedicated exhibition galleries, the museum is a far cry from the grand statement the architect made with his 2006 addition to the Denver Art Museum. That project, covering 146,000 square feet in all, infamously includes galleries with canted walls, a vertigo-inducing 120-foot-high lobby and an approach to circulation that is by turns exhilarating, bewildering and maddening.

In San Francisco, a museum planned at 110,000 square feet was ultimately trimmed back substantially. If the ratio of permanent exhibition space to ancillary space seems a bit low, it is not just because of the trend of turning museums into gift shops and educational facilities first and venues for showing art second; it also has something to do with an effort, on the part of the museum’s leadership, to render the Libeskind aesthetic more practical and less self-indulgent.


Inside the top of the cube, for instance, the walls tilt and skew nearly as dramatically as they do in the Denver museum. But Connie Wolf, who took over as director of the CJM in 1999 after eight years at the Whitney Museum in New York, wisely decided with her curators to use the space not to hang paintings but for sound-based art and for music and spoken-word performances. On the ground floor, a bookshop will fill the cube’s lower half.

That leaves only two galleries, one on each floor, permanently dedicated to showing painting and sculpture -- and all the other media that work to greatest effect on walls that meet the floor at 90 degrees. But each one is generously sized and thoughtfully proportioned. It’s amazing what a little clarity from a client can produce.

“We wanted exhibition spaces that were open and flexible -- and didn’t have slanted walls,” Wolf told me on a tour of the building. “And that’s what we got.”

The lobby, where the Polk building, seen from the inside, reveals itself as little more than a shell, and where Libeskind slides a series of canted walls into a rectangular box of space, also benefits from the careful balance of explosive and well-behaved forms. When visitors enter from Jessie Square outside, they will see illuminated letters that spell out the word for “orchard” in Hebrew -- as well as suggesting other meanings on a letter by letter basis -- embedded in the wall opposite them. It is one of the building’s many exercises in linguistic symbolism designed into the building, some of them more strained than others, and all of them quintessential Libeskind. Toward the back of the building, museum offices are tucked into the lower floors of an adjacent Four Seasons hotel tower.

The question is what all the elements add up to -- whether the result is an example of a maturing architect, one now better equipped to adapt to setbacks to his architectural vision, or simply a low-cost version of Libeskind Lite. Watching the progress of the project from afar, I was inclined to believe the latter. Walking through the finished building, though, I’ve fairly quickly changed my mind. I’ve also become convinced that Libeskind’s work benefits hugely from a dense, even constricted urban context.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the museum is that it manages to feel spatially ambitious and architecturally resolved at the same time. James E. Young, one of the contributors to a book the CJM published to mark the opening, calls it a “self-effacing” building. That term would probably have struck me as ridiculous before I toured the building. Now it seems surprisingly apt.