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A long time coming

Hired in 1998 to design -- then downsize -- the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, architect Daniel Libeskind will finally see ground broken today.

July 19, 2006|Michael J. Ybarra | Special to The Times

SAN FRANCISCO — Daniel Libeskind knows a little about delayed gratification. Although he made a name for himself as an architectural theorist while teaching in universities (Yale, Harvard, UCLA) he didn't actually win his first building commission until 1989, when he was 43. And it took a dozen more years and numerous struggles before that acclaimed project -- the Jewish Museum Berlin -- opened.

Then there's the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, which hired Libeskind to design its new home in 1998, and then, among other complications, had him redesign it on a much smaller scale when the institution couldn't raise the money to construct the original plan.

But the much-delayed groundbreaking is finally scheduled to take place today in Jessie Square, across the street from Yerba Buena Center, with the museum expected to open in 2008.

"Projects the most worthy of being built are often the hardest," Libeskind says. "I stuck by it, and I'm glad the board stuck by me. There were years when people said, 'This project will never happen.' I thought it was important because this project is about contemporary Jewish culture. You have to believe in it and have faith in it. There were moments when I had doubts. The person who never had doubts was my wife, Nina. Architecture is a marathon, not a sprint."

Born in Poland to Holocaust survivors, Libeskind immigrated to America with his family. He studied architecture at Cooper Union and then Essex University, from which he graduated in 1972.

Seventeen years later he won the job of designing the Jewish Museum Berlin and moved to Germany, where he opened a studio. While that project crawled along, Libeskind designed and built the Felix Nussbaum Haus museum in Osnabruck, which commemorated an artist who died in Auschwitz. That museum, which opened in 1998, was the architect's first design to be built.

"My wife calls me a late bloomer," Libeskind says. "I was in my 50s when I built my first project. Architecture isn't just for kids."

That same year Libeskind landed the job of designing a building for the Jewish Museum in San Francisco.

"It was only by coincidence that my first building was a Jewish museum," he says. "Each project should be unique, related to its history and place, and should have a need. No project should just be a formula, a style ....That particular area of San Francisco is an emblem of America -- people coming to this place and creating one of the most beautiful cities of the world."

San Francisco's Jewish Museum, founded in 1984, has no permanent collection but shows temporary exhibitions out of a small space on Steuart Street in downtown.

"The museum's mission is to provide opportunities to look at art, culture and history from a Jewish perspective as well as an interfaith exchange," Executive Director Connie Wolf says. "We want to find ways to lead people to ask questions and look at the world in a deeper way. Daniel's building is really quite ideal. We think of our mission as making the past relevant to the present. We're creating a physical dialogue between the old and the new. The idea of life allows us to think about breathing life back into this building and the area."

The museum snagged a prime spot of real estate on Mission Street across from the Yerba Buena Center and around the corner from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The site was occupied by the shell of a 1907 Pacific Gas & Electric substation designed by Willis Polk, between the 1851 St. Patrick's church and the site for a proposed new Mexican Museum.

"The building was struggling to find an identity," Libeskind says. "That's a very Jewish thing."

He unveiled a design in 2000 for a 100,000-square-foot museum that featured geometric metal forms coated in a golden or amber color and bursting from the brick substation.

"I don't intellectualize," Libeskind says. "I start in a very traditional way with a sketch. It's not just another building. It's about San Francisco. I love that area, a vibrant area of the city. The idea comes to you as you sketch the existing building, walk around and meditate. It's a whole constellation of factors that congeals into an idea. I knew the site from many years before. You have to delve into the history of electricity in San Francisco. That power that once drove batteries is now transferred into driving creativity."

But the $60-million project never got off the ground. The 2001 recession walloped the museum's fund-raising plans, and a 13-month merger with the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley unraveled. (The Mexican Museum has had greater fund-raising difficulties and is proceeding at an even slower pace.)

A reconstituted Contemporary Jewish Museum emerged from the ashes with a $46-million construction budget.

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