Contemporary Jewish Museum

San Francisco | The architecture of the Contemporary Jewish Museum by Daniel Libeskind

The Contemporary Jewish Museum (CJM) in San Francisco presents a very original approach to what a “Jewish Museum” could be. It is indeed not a “classic” museum focusing about history, traditions, heritage and culture mostly dating to a more or less recent past, but a non-collecting institution dedicated instead to the creativity of Jewish artists in the 21st century.

This dynamic vision to the relationship between tradition and innovation, between legacy and invention, is perfectly embodied in the CJM building itself, one of the most intriguing designs by the studio led by Daniel Libeskind.

Indeed, the home of the CJM in downtown San Francisco is composed of both an early-20h century listed building, a former power substation, and a clearly contemporary addition. As common for many projects by Libeskind, the CJM building architecture is strongly linked to symbolic meanings and references.

Image above: The Contemporary Jewish Museum San Francisco, exterior view at night from Yerba Buena Lane, photo © Bitterbredt, courtesy of CJM

The CJM museum entrance viewed from Jessie Square, photo © Bruce Damonte, courtesy of CJM

The “yud”, exterior view from Yerba Buena Lane, photo © Bruce Damonte, courtesy of CJM

“Chai, chet, and yud”
Thus, the design of the museum is based on a precise Hebrew world; a world made by letters that, for the Jewish tradition, are not mere signs but actual creative forces. The world chosen by Libeskind as conceptual and formal reference is “L’ Chaim“, a traditional Hebrew drinking toast meaning “To Life”.
“To life” both refers to the key role of the original powerstation in providing energy to the city after the 1906 earthquake, but also to the mission of the museum of developing and pushing forward the Jewish culture in the context of the new millenium.

The Hebrew word “Chaim”, composed by the two letters chet and yud

Libeskind himself explains how he used the world Chai (Life), which is composed by the letters chet” (ח) and yud ( י), to give significance and shape to museum building: “ the “chet” provides an overall continuity for the exhibition and educational spaces, and the “yud” with its 36 windows, serves as special exhibition, performance and event space”. In essence, Libeskind’s design is a constant celebration of the dialogue between two elements: old and new, tradition and innovation, life and art.

The architecture of the CJM: creating a dialogue
As mentioned earlier, the 63,000 square-foot museum building, inaugurated in 2008, is composed of two visually distinct architectural bodies. The former powerstation is a rectangular building made in red bricks which accommodates the entrance lobby, a cafeteria and an education center; an exhibition gallery and the auditorium are located in an adjacent wing at the ground floor.
The addition is an articulated geometry clad in blue stainless steel housing offices and activity rooms at the ground floor and special exhibition galleries at the level above.

The Contemporary Jewish Museum, aerial view; photo © Bitterbredt, courtesy of A. Zahner Company

 Contemporary Jewish Museum San Francisco – ground floor plan

Contemporary Jewish Museum San Francisco –  second floor level plan

Contemporary Jewish Museum San Francisco –  longitudinal section

Again, dialogue is the keyword. The shining-blue addition is encased in the brick building like a crystal in rock; its aspect changes constantly, “reacting” to different light and weather conditions, as well as to the observer’s point of view. The museum interior alternates bright rooms filled with light like the entrance lobby with more intimate and dim-lighted spaces as for the auditorium.

The entrance lobby is a double-height hall where Libeskind’s distinctive touch is clearly visible in the faceted volumes that reveal the intersection of old building and the new addition.

The Shensen Welcome Center at the CJM, photo © Bruce Damonte, Courtesy of CJM

The Gran Lobby at the CJM, photos: left ©2008 Mark Darley, right © Bruce Damonte

Sala Webb Education Center at the CJM, photo © Bruce Damonte, courtesy of CJM

The Goldman Auditorium, photo ©2008 Mark Darley, Courtesy of CJM

The special exhibition gallery at the first floor of the “yud” is certainly one of the most enthralling spaces of the Contemporary Jewish Museum: a tilted white box inside marked by 36 rhomboidal windows that, outside, stud the cross-hatching steel cladding. 36 is again a number with many references to Jewish culture, and probably Libeskind chose it as a multiple of 18, the number connected to Chai/Life in the Kabbalah.

Yud special exhibition Galllery, interior views, photos: left ©2008 Mark Darley; right © Bruce Damonte

Detail of the blue stainless steel facade, photo © Bruce Damonte, courtesy of the CJM


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