Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Sound of It

"Jews on Vinyl" at the San Francisco Jewish Museum designed by Daniel Libeskind

In early spring my wife, daughter and I spent a long weekend in San Francisco enjoying the sites, taking long urban walks, and eating great meals. I could spend an eternity talking about the urban design differences between San Francisco and Los Angeles, but I feel the dichotomies of two great places have been picked apart many times, are full of clich├ęs, and most important, besides the point. These two cities are very different and trying at this mature point to nudge either to become more like the other is an exercise in futility and frustration.
For me, both San Francisco and Los Angeles have their genius and genius loci.

Perhaps, I am just tired of debates that try to force the imprint of one place into the framework of another. Perhaps, I am bored by the constant abstractions of urban design, which at their projective best abstract place visions into goals, sketchy possibilities, and guidelines. There is little satisfaction with no guarantee of implementation. Or perhaps, I have come yet again to conclude that it takes an architectural idea or place in the city to realize the singular urban moment that is simultaneously richly experienced, deftly designed, and surprisingly encountered. We had one of these architectural encounters in San Francisco.

One of the must-see new buildings in the Bay Area is the Contemporary Jewish Museum. Designed by Daniel Libeskind, the building opened to the public this past spring. This is the fourth building designed by Libeskind that I have experienced in person, the others being the Jewish Museum Berlin (1993), the Fredrick C. Hamilton Building of the Denver Art Museum, (2006), and the adjacent Museum Residences (2007). It is refreshing to see his buildings off the pages of glossy magazines and beyond the bombast of architectural chatter.

One discovers in person that the San Francisco structure, like each of the others, is dependent for its success and related closely to an existing building or setting – a fact that sometimes gets lost when one reads about his buildings - presented as objects - in the press.
The new San Francisco museum structure is located opposite Yerba Buena gardens and on the edge of an otherwise sterile cultural district of now ten year old and more buildings and fountains that all seem unsettled in relationship to their surrounds and each other, a result no doubt of their origin in older concepts of urban renewal. In contrast, the Libeskind design has the benefit of not quite embracing but encompassing, indeed slicing through the context of the historic 1907 Jesse Street Power Substation designed by Willis Polk.

The tension created by the juxtaposition of two such different approaches to architecture, one beaux-arts and the other, well let us say post, post-modern, creates a visual vitality of old and new, square and slanted, shiny dark blue metal and red brick that is compelling. The otherwise wind swept surrounds of mostly unmemorable buildings and plazas have a new center, an attractor, indeed a destination.

Once inside the positive tension engendered by collision continues. Liebeskind states that the organization of the building is inspired by a Hebrew phrase, "L'Chaim" or “to life” and the displacement of two Hebrew letters, the alphabetic chet” and “yud” that combined mean life. I cannot see quite how this works in fact and generally get uncomfortable when these types of analogies need to be pointed out. Nevertheless, an architect has to get his inspirations and motivations from somewhere and then deploy them.

Here, as one enters the building, the organizing principles, whatever their origin, combine to shear the old with the twisted sensibility of the new. Looking up, one sees light-filled gaps between the architectural dynamics that spill cool blue into unexpected corners. Between old and new a sense of volumetric in-betweeness is realized that is palpable yet never disorienting. The great engine hall of the former power station is transformed into the space of a museum. The galleries and circulation of the museum twist and turn and slant and overlap and provide new energy to the more staid volumetric figure of the engine hall. Yin and yang, both need the other to have a present and future purpose.

While all of this is impressive, the moment that got my highest attention occurred not outside where I admired the combination of decorated brick box with off-kilter metal-skinned volume, nor in the entry hall, where I applaud a much more aggressive approach to historic preservation than is the norm in this country. Rather, what struck my nerve was a simple exhibition in a deceptively simple yet complex space on the second floor of the museum that we were lucky enough to encounter the day we visited. At the south end of the building and at the top of the stairs that lead away from the engine hall, this space is entered through a glass door that separates it from the circulation paths and galleries of the rest of the building. Here is a volume of distinctly unneutral white space that in plan and section is rhomboidal, never orthogonal, and pierced by small trapezoidal windows the allow for small beams of penetrating light that play about the walls and floors and surfaces to the side, below, and above. While it may be a multipurpose room in name, it is really best seen as a space where one becomes highly conscious of your self-presence. One can feel, to use a term that is so out of fashion, one’s haptic self.

We experienced in this space not an exhibit in the traditional sense, but a sound installation, “Jews on Vinyl”. The installation incorporated a simple 1960’s living room setting of couch, easy chairs, and coffee table set over an area rug. The placid living room, in contrast to the trapezoidal space invited one to sit and enjoy a potpourri of ethnic musical celebration recorded from the 1940’s to the 1970’s by artists both famous and unknown. One placed oneself on the couch to experience the space and instead was transported in time by the raucous jokes of Totie Fields of Ed Sullivan fame, or the Korean-American Jon Yune’s interpretation of Hebrew hits, or the African-American Johnny Mathis singing “Eli, Eli' 'Kol Nidre”, each bouncing against and being reflected by the walls of the space. Some of the songs were familiar but most were not. Still the combination of sound, domestic setting, and prismatic oragamic volume combined to create a total not quite surreal experience of site sound and sense that was heightening.

I think if I had just seen the space without the sound, or heard the sound without the space, or certainly felt the fabric of the furniture in the absence of the sound and the space, that none would have added up to a greater whole. Indeed this was a designed experience where the curators, Roger Bennett and Josh Kun, brought together a spectrum of atmospheres and played them deftly in contrast to the torqued volume of the museum room. This multipurpose room is probably an impossible space to hang a painting but is a great place to sing a song, or hear the architecture. Which all led to a simple, if not always obvious conclusion. Sometimes it is the sound of it, as much as the look of it, or material of it that counts.

Back outside, in the plaza in front of the museum, on the sidewalks walking back to the hotel, even in my own house once back from our weekend sojourn, I kept hearing the sounds of rooms, buildings, streets and even the city. I remembered what many architectural experiences sounded like or smelled like, or even (true) tasted like. Did Libeskind design the sound of it? I do not think so, but then again, all good architecture has a literal vibe and I am confident that like every good architect he hears it and well as sees it.

Sometimes in the rush of projects and schedules and especially in the design of urban systems and places, sound, touch, and taste get forgotten. The Libeskind designed room tucked away behind a glass door on the second floor of a museum building in San Francisco reminded me that more than often, when the design, or even more importantly the urban design is done, the sound of it - indeed the life of it - as much as the look of it is what counts.

This essay was written for the July/August 2009 issue of Form - Pioneering Design


TJ4321 said...

Daniel Libeskind's the guy who was so disgusting he and his wife Nina wanted to launch his biography 'Breaking Ground' on the 3rd anniversary of September 11 SO HE COULD CASH IN ON EVENTS SURROUNDING THE TRAGEDY.

See: Libeskind Planning to Time Release of Memoir to 9/11/04 - Oct 20, 2003
World Trade Center master planner Daniel Libeskind wants to time the release of his memoir to the third anniversary of the 9/11 terror attack - and in a proposal circulated to editors suggests tying the book's promotion to other Ground Zero events. (New York Post)

It's hard to believe that anyone still takes Daniel Libeskind seriously, much less gets fooled into giving him free PR!

John Kaliski said...

You are too cynical. Of course there is that aspect of architecture that is about hype and hubris and competition and ego. But in the end there is also the work itself and in this case the work was an exhibit in a room where the experience was quite magical.