21 September 2013

Daniel Libeskind's museum in San Francisco

It was important for me to read Celebrating the Contemporary Jewish Museum, written by Connie Wolf and published by Rizzoli in 2008. This book tells the story of how the Jessie Street Pacific Gas & Electric Power Substation was built in San Francisco in 1881 and later enlarged twice, in 1883 and 1892. And then, after the 1906 earthquake, there was frantic rebuilding going on all across the city.

The Pacific Gas & Electric Power Co hired architect Willis Polk (1867-1924) to expand and redesign its damaged plant. Polk chose a classical revival style, associated with the City Beautiful Movement which focused on public buildings and urban infrastructure. The building’s commanding presence was intended to inspire the community’s confidence and to suggest the comfort and prosperity that PG&E could bring to California. The Polk structure was completed by 1909 and remained as a working utilities substation until 1968.

front entrance
Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco
Daniel Libeskind,
reopened 2008


In the 1970s, most of the surrounding buildings in San Francisco's South of Market Street neighbourhood were being razed to the ground, to clear the way for the development of Yerba Buena Centre. Only two buildings escaped destruction – the Jessie St Power Substation and its next door neighbour, St Patrick’s Catholic Church.

In 1995 the Jewish Museum was invited by the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency to develop the long-abandoned Jessie Street Pacific Gas & Electric Power Substation building. Only one requirement was made explicit: to actively showcase Willis Polk’s beautiful brick façade.

Of all the architects around, why did the Jewish Museum Board in San Francisco select Polish-born,  American-trained, Berlin-based architect Daniel Libeskind (born 1946)? I am assuming it was because of his work on the Felix Nussbaum Museum in Osnabrück in Lower Saxony Germany, near Hanover. The new Museum was built as an extension to Osnabrück’s Cultural History Museum and was dedicated to Felix Nussbaum, the Jewish artist who was born in Osnabrück in 1904 and exterminated in Auschwitz in 1944. The building was completed in mid 1998 and at that stage was Daniel Libeskind’s ONLY completed museum. The San Francisco board particularly liked Libeskind’s Osnabrück museum because the new components were linked, via a bridge, to the old museum.

Felix Nussbaum Museum in Osnabrück
Daniel Libeskind
completed 1998

Characteristic of Libeskind's designs, the structural addition to the original substation was filled with symbolism. Inspired by the Hebrew phrase To Life, the architect based the extension's conceptual organising principles on symbolic Hebrew letters. Libeskind created a dynamic contemporary design intimately connected to the museum-going experience. His design ensured a conversation between the old and the new, a conversation based on the belief that Jewish life was not isolated. Rather it was informed by, and in turn contributed to, the broader Californian community.

Nowhere was this two-way conversation seen better than in the Jewish Museum’s exhibition called The Beat Generation: photographs of Allen Ginsburg (1926–1997). The original Beat Generation writers, eg Jack Kerouac, William S Burroughs, Lucien Carr, Herbert Huncke, Peter Orlovsky and other young men, met in New York but by the mid-1950s, the key members were all living in San Francisco. One famous San Francisco moment occurred when Ginsburg's epic poem Howl was first read in October 1955 at the Six Gallery.
The Beat Generation: the photographs of Allen Ginsburg
at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco
Ending in Sept 2013.

The district has become one of the densest museum-areas in the USA with 12 cultural institutions located within a smallish area. The neighbourhood has been made even more cultured with the development of the new public Jessie Square, a landscaped community space in front of the building.

For a review of Libeskind's Jewish Museum in Berlin, but not his museum in San Francisco, read "Building Stories" in The Jerusalem Report, 29th July 2013. The take-home message of this review is that Libeskind treated architecture as a kind of narrative, particularly museum architecture.


We Travel said...

My best years were 1962-75, so I mostly missed out on the antics of the Beat Generation. But spouse and I still enjoyed Allen Ginsburg's photographic exhibition.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, From your photo, they did a tremendous job of preserving the exterior of that Power Substation. It does make one tremble to think what had been lost in the "clear-cutting" of that neighborhood.

I haven't attended yet, but in Beachwood, Ohio (suburb of Cleveland) there is also a new Jewish museum, the Maltz Museum.
Their website describes an interesting upcoming exhibit on the Dreyfus Affair, derived from University of Pennsylvania collections.
--Road to Parnassus

Hels said...

We Travel

me too! I was fascinated by the of obscenity trials, their drug use, their sleeping with men and women or someone else. I was particularly impressed by their idea of living up to their own standards.

Hels said...


I have been to the USA and or Canada 14 times, but never too Ohio *blush*. A museum of diversity, immigration and tolerance is something I would really love.

Captain Dreyfus is someone I have returned to, many times in this blog.




Train Man said...


have a look at The Art of the Jessie Street Substation in the blog "Art and Architecture – San Francisco". You will enjoy it very much.

Hels said...

Train Man

many thanks. I added the blog to my list and found the post called The Art of the Jessie Street Substation. Note the pediment sculpture that was part of the original substation building. It features matte-glazed terracotta cherubs holding garlands above a plaque that reads 1907!!

Love the link