New developments on the Daniel Libeskind designed Jewish Museum in San Francisco:
A museum dedicated to life
New scaled-down design keeps Jewish art edifice on 2007 target
- John King, Chronicle Urban Design Writer
Wednesday, February 2, 2005
Stripped down but still ambitious, the new design for San Francisco's Contemporary Jewish Museum by acclaimed architect Daniel Libeskind is nearly complete -- and the long-awaited complex could open by the end of 2007.
The current plan for the project, which was presented Tuesday to the San Francisco Redevelopment Commission, would transform the shell of a 1907 power substation in the city's Yerba Buena district into a $43 million, 60,000- square-foot museum. Construction is scheduled to begin in spring 2006, with a target opening date late in 2007.
The new approach scales back a larger and costlier design that was unveiled with fanfare in 2000 only to spend the next years in limbo. But what hasn't changed is the exuberant nature of the design - and the participation of Libeskind, who has become one of the world's best-known architects in the years since his selection by the museum in 1998.
"It's like an old friend, the San Francisco project. We've known it for six years," Libeskind said last month in New York, where he relocated his office from Berlin in 2003 after being selected to craft a master plan for renewing the World Trade Center site in New York. "We've got at least 20 models of it in our office."
The refined design of the museum features the jagged, tumbling energy that is Libeskind's trademark. A 60-foot-high cube, clad in blue metal, twists out sharply from the west side of the old substation, jutting toward a public walkway being built between Mission and Market streets.
The cube in turn rests against another new piece of the building -- a long, thin rectangle that angles upward as it runs nearly the entire length of the substation, filled with gallery space poised above the brick shell of the original landmark.
Viewed from above, the two shapes are an abstraction of the Hebrew phrase "L'Chaim" -- "To life." This fundamentally joyous message is at the heart of the museum's vision, officials say.
The idea of life "reflects the museum's commitment to providing contemporary perspectives on Jewish culture, history, art, and ideas," said Connie Wolf, the museum's director.
For all its drama, the new design is restrained, compared to what was approved in 2000 after Libeskind was selected for the job.
The first design called for the new spaces to be clad in gold rather than blue, with a more elaborate set of shapes careering up and out from the shell. But that design also contained 100,000 square feet and was tailored to a $60 million budget -- numbers that stalled progress in the aftermath of the 2001 recession and a failed merger with the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley.
The reduced size posed no real problem, said Libeskind, who also stressed that "L'Chaim" has guided the design all along.
"The building has become more delicate," he said. "The older design coped with a lot of space requirements. It's more elegant now, more organic, and it's the right scale for the power station."
Libeskind, 58, also has museums under construction in Denver and Toronto. He won critical acclaim for his Jewish Museum Berlin, with its slanted floors and dead-end corridors, which were designed to convey the dread of the Holocaust. For the San Francisco project he is working with local firm Chong Partners in a joint venture.
The San Francisco design has not sparked controversy, unlike other high- profile designs here by international architects. But preservationists are upset with the recent addition of a parking garage below the site.
The garage was added to provide additional parking for the adjacent Four Seasons Hotel -- a garage that also extends below a new public square and a proposed Mexican Museum. During construction, the Redevelopment Agency allowed the southern wall of the power station that faces Mission Street to be suspended in air and propped up while a hole was dug underneath.
This also meant removing many of the bricks and all the interior trusses from the long-vacant power station, which is a national landmark. They are to be restored as part of the museum's construction, officials say, but critics say the landmark shouldn't have been taken apart so drastically to begin with.
Tuesday's visit to the Redevelopment Commission -- as well as a community presentation planned for next week -- in part aims to counter skepticism that the plans will become real. Both the Contemporary Jewish Museum and the Mexican Museum were given sites along Mission Street across from Yerba Buena Gardens as part of the city's effort to create a full-fledged arts district downtown. They would join the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art as well a city-owned gallery and theater.
While the Mexican Museum remains stalled, the Jewish Museum efforts revived last year. The board of trustees is chaired by Roselyne Swig, a well- regarded philanthropist and community leader; the museum itself was founded in 1984, and continues to present exhibits in its small space at 121 Steuart St.
The new schedule calls for Libeskind and the museum to finish design work this year. Construction should start within 14 months and be complete by the end of 2007. The museum will include a gallery space, classrooms and an auditorium as well as the two staples of new museums: a book shop and cafe.