Contemporary Jewish Museum: An angular, modern annex designed by Daniel Libeskind joins the older brick building. (Photo/Courtesy CJM)
Contemporary Jewish Museum: An angular, modern annex designed by Daniel Libeskind joins the older brick building. (Photo/Courtesy CJM)

Architect Daniel Libeskind digs for meaning in his designs

If Daniel Libeskind had owned a piano, his life might have turned out differently. But his parents gave him an instrument with a more limited range.

“I would never have been an architect if I was not doomed to the accordion,” Libeskind told a packed house at the Contemporary Jewish Museum on Sunday. “How beautiful is life!”

The musical prodigy that was the young Libeskind did switch to architecture, to the benefit of the San Francisco downtown landscape, and the designer of the CJM was back at his masterpiece to talk about his new book, “Edge of Order.”

The 72-year-old architect also spoke about his life, from his birth in Poland to his childhood years in Israel — where he played Bach on the accordion for famed violinist Isaac Stern — to a career in architecture in which he weaves symbolism into the concrete fabric of his remarkable buildings.

“Buildings that have a meaning — whether it’s old or new — bring you into some relationship with the world,” he said.

Libeskind gained international attention when he won the competition to build the Jewish Museum Berlin in 1989. He’s known for the Felix Nussbaum Haus in Germany, the UK’s Imperial War Museum North, the Denver Art Museum and the Danish Jewish Museum. He also won a 2002 commission to redevelop the World Trade Center in New York City.

The CJM, which opened in 2009, was a tricky project, requiring him to remodel an old power substation and combine it with a new annex. It was sited in a tight space partly behind a church and under the looming tower of a high-rise hotel. Libeskind said he relished the challenge when it was put to him in 1998.

“I think it was actually a Talmudic commentary, because it was all in the margins,” he said.

Libeskind signs copies of his new book at the Contemporary Jewish Museum on Jan. 20, 2019. (Photo/Maya Mirsky)
Libeskind signs copies of his new book at the Contemporary Jewish Museum on Jan. 20, 2019. (Photo/Maya Mirsky)

The final result marries the old brick structure of the 1907 substation with a soaring blue steel cube (blue being the “ultimate Jewish color,” Libeskind said). Together they create a shape derived from the Hebrew letters chet and yud, which together spell chai, the Hebrew word for life. It’s the kind of underlying meaning that characterizes Libeskind’s way of thinking — a very Jewish way, he said.

“I think Jews have invented that there has to be a point to everything,” Libeskind said with a laugh.

Since its opening, the museum has become an iconic part of downtown San Francisco.

“We like to teach about the building as if it is our permanent collection,” said Lori Starr, the museum’s executive director, who moderated the talk and book signing attended by hundreds.

Libeskind was born in 1946 in Poland, under what he called the “state-sponsored anti-Semitism” of socialist rule, to parents who had survived the Holocaust. When he was a child, his family moved to Israel and then New York City. Libeskind said his working-class upbringing meant that he’d never even met an architect, but it gave him other things that still influence him today.

“Here’s a page from the book,” he told the CJM audience. “I don’t know if you can see it. It’s about the Formica table I had growing up in the Bronx.”

He studied art and eventually graduated with a degree in architecture from the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in 1970. But the curved edges of that humble table, he said, taught him that there’s more to life than the right angle, and his work today is known for its bold use of unusual angles, including in the CJM hall he spoke in, which has lines across it that represent navigational maps of Jerusalem.

“I always say we cannot escape from meaning,” he said.

And, he added, the Jewish way of thinking is one of freedom, pushing the boundaries of intellectual thought past the lines of religion, ethnicity or history. It’s a commitment to life, he said, but not to oneself — to others.

“I think there’s no other culture that has this impact in architecture,” he said.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.