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History, Culture, Spirituality

November 26, 2008 By:
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The always-outspoken and often-controversial architect Daniel Libeskind took the world by storm about 10 years ago when his Jewish Museum Berlin opened in the heart of the German capital, cutting its own distinctive, jagged path across the landscape of that recently unified city. The architect was then in his early 50s and had opened his design firm in Berlin in 1990, after winning the competition for the Jewish Museum project the year before.

Though this indisputably great building, animated by Jewish history and ideas, was the architect's first to be accepted for construction, it was not the first to be executed, as it turned out. A smaller museum, the Felix Nussbaum Museum in Osnabrück -- for which Libeskind also won a competition in 1995 -- was developed simultaneously with the Berlin structure, but was actually completed a year before the larger building.

Libeskind, who was born in postwar Poland in 1946 and became an American citizen in 1965, first studied music in Israel and New York, and had something of a career as a virtuoso pianist. But he eventually decided to study architecture, receiving his professional degree from New York's Cooper Union in 1970. He then earned a postgraduate degree in the history and theory of architecture at the School of Comparative Studies at Essex University in 1971.

Until he won his first commissions, Libeskind worked for the most part as a lecturer and an architectural theorist, someone soon recognized as an expert in his field, but one whose own designs were criticized as undoable. That is, until the Berlin museum was completed. His career -- except for the setback over his Twin Towers designs -- has continued apace, though again not without stimulating controversy.

The progress of at least one portion of the architect's multifaceted career is the subject of Daniel Libeskind and the Contemporary Jewish Museum: New Jewish Architecture from Berlin to San Francisco, which is published by the estimable art book firm Rizzoli. The book is liberally illustrated with sharply rendered, densely hued photographs and also includes essays by the architect himself, and scholars Mitchell Schwarzer and James E. Young, all of it overseen by Connie Wolf.

The volume is quite timely in a sense, since June 2008 saw the opening of Libeskind's most-recent work, the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, which also happens to be his first building to find a North American home (Wolf has been its director and CEO since 1999). In addition to complementing his earlier German museums, it also completes a quartet that includes the Danish Jewish Museum in Copenhagen. These four works -- and the ideas that animate them -- are the subject of the Rizzoli volume.

Libeskind's newest work is the true focus of the book -- but it's seen in the context of his other museums, all of which have clearly drawn from the deep well of images set loose by the Jewish Museum Berlin.

Writes architecture professor Mitchell Schwarzer about the San Francisco building: "Blue steel cladding, a classically ornamented brick wall -- these are among the contrasts that strike the eye as one approaches Daniel Libeskind's Contemporary Jewish Museum in the emergent Yerba Buena district of San Francisco. Nowhere else in the city is the encounter between architecture's past and present so jarring, and yet so enticing. The unusual pairings of material, texture and shape are riveting. One starts to wonder what kind of museum awaits? Crossing the threshold and entering into the expansive lobby, history, culture and spirituality resonate in this soaring architectural space. Moving deeper into the galleries themselves, one feels reverberations between the sensuous breadth of what lies all around and the symbolic depth that it evokes. At some point, one gets the sense of what it is like to be in a Jewish space."

Professor James A. Young, known for his work on post-Holocaust art, points to another source of the history and ideas that animate this new building, that give the space the layers of meaning all Libeskind buildings possess.

The impetus, Young writes, was "a groundbreaking sociological study by Steven M. Cohen and Ari Kelman describing the current mind-set of young, largely unaffiliated Jews. 'From our interviews with Jewish young adults,' Cohen and Kelman reported, 'we learned how "engaged, but unaffiliated" Jews seek cultural experiences that offer alternatives to an institutional world they see as bland, conformist, conservative and alien. Instead, they are drawn to events that promise to cross boundaries between Jews and non-Jews, Jews and Jews, Jewish space and non-Jewish space and distinctively Jewish culture with putatively non-Jewish culture, effecting a "cultural hybridity." '

"In this extraordinary statement," Young continues, "they captured the goal of the museum, which is to offer space where Jewish and non-Jewish cultures co-exist, reciprocally nourish and inspire one another. Rather than definitively resolving the issue of what constitutes Jewish art, the [Contemporary Jewish Museum] becomes a space where both Jewish and non-Jewish visitors ponder the question."

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