Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco

The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco re-opened in 2008 in a new building designed by Daniel Libeskind. If you read about the building on the museum’s website, you’ll encounter a lot of architectural rhetoric about the symbolism of the shapes, materials, and designs. But do those abstract concepts translate into a user-friendly building? Call me a Philistine, but I don’t think so. 

The lobby, otherwise known as the Koret-Taube Grand Lobby, features what the museum calls the ‘PaRDeS’ Wall.

jewish contemp lobby

Outlined in lighting panels in this photo, it’s an abstract representation of a Hebrew acronym referring to a Kabalistic practice. To my naive eye, though, the lobby is simply a tall, narrow, awkwardly proportioned space with a geometric design on one wall.  

The galleries have bench seats, nothing to write home about but adequate. The education space, at least when we visited, had seating that was a little more interesting than usual.

jewish contemporary bubble seats

They’re sort of low, bulbous, padded stools. We referred to them as “bubble seats.” You can move them around pretty easily, put them together, and generally enjoy them more than the average stool or portable bench.


Restrooms are adequate, although the hardware — latches and handles and the like – are remarkably shoddy. This is something we’ve noticed in a number of other brand-new public buildings. (Which strikes me as a short-sighted way to save money.) One of the men’s rooms has a strangely impractical bench along one wall.

jewish contemp restroom men bench

It’s a nice idea, but the wall behind the bench slants inward, making it impossible to sit upright. Anyone who has visited the Libeskind-designed Denver Art Museum will recognize this sacrifice of comfort to grand design.

Another disappointing space is the Richard & Rhoda Goldman Hall, a multipurpose performance/lecture/event space. The photo on the museum’s website makes it look bigger and more attractive than it is. For one thing, the retractable tiered seating has extremely little legroom. You’re squished in tightly with other audience members.

jewish contemp multipurpose squish

Also, the steeply raked tiers do not accommodate anyone who has trouble climbing stairs. The only truly universally accessible row of seats is the front row.

jewish contemp multipurpose empty

More seats can be added at floor level, but it’s a kludge. 

Finally, there is another disconnect between the design concept and the reality of the space. According to the architect, the pattern of lines on the ceiling and wall reference a 16th century map of trade routes to Jerusalem. A noble conceit, but, so what? When you actually sit in the room as an audience member, you see a pattern of diagonal lines inscribed arbitrarily on the walls and ceiling of a room that has all the charm of a high school gymnasium.

jewish contemp multipurpose overall view


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