March 31, 2009
San Francisco at the End of the First Decade of the 21st Century
The Contemporary Jewish Museum by Daniel Libeskind
On Saturday night, my first evening in San Francisco in almost two years, I had dinner with a group of friends, all architects, or designers, or players in the design world. And a couple of them started talking about the Daniel Libeskind designed Contemporary Jewish Museum which opened for business last June in its new home, an old power station designed by Willis Polk, renovated and wed to a couple of attention-getting crystalline thingamajigs. Basically, my friends were saying that this building was the last hurrah, a symbol of the end of the age of architectural excess. It was over. No more Zaha. No more Daniel. No more Greg Lynn designed amorphous blobs. It would be all right angles and straight-edged Modernism from here on out.
I’m not sure if that’s entirely true. I expect that there are countless geometrically complex show-stopper buildings still in the pipeline. What is true is that this particular building seems uncommonly dated. Not the 1907 Willis Polk portion, which is pretty much timeless, but the big hunk of overblown Libeskindian symbolism that looks as if it fell off the back of a truck and got too tightly wedged to remove (see photo below).
I remember back in the late 1990s being very impressed with the way Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin incorporated a whole menu of symbolic gestures. I thought of it as a building that was designed as an essay. (I only saw it before it opened, empty, so I never found out to what extent the architect’s work enhanced or detracted from the work of the museum’s curators.) And back late 2002 and early 2003, when Libeskind’s talk of symbolically charged architecture helped him win the master builder crown for the World Trade Center site, there seemed to be some emotional truth to his language and approach.
But now, as the first action-packed decade of the 21st century draws to a close, I find that I don’t much care that his additions to the Jesse Power Station, the big crystalline chunk and a skinnier volume up on the roof, allude to the Hebrew letters that spell “chai” — not a kind of tea, but the Hebrew word for life. The big, irregularly shaped chunk that Libeskind dropped into the plaza simply looks dated. Like the Mighty Wurlitzer Marriott directly behind it, evocative of late 1980s fruitiness, the Contemporary Jewish Museum looks like a souvenir of a place we’ve visited and to which we’ll not be returning any time soon.
The Contemporary Jewish Museum with the 1989 Marriott in the background.