Wednesday, November 30, 2011

San Francisco's Contemporary Jewish Museum

Noted architect Daniel Libeskind is still celebrated around the world for his angular take on both form and function.

Libeskind continues to receive commissions and builds buildings and creates space across the Americas, as well as in Europe and Asia.

I have had the opportunity to be in spaces he has designed in Berlin, Toronto, Denver, and now San Francisco.

And to a project, I have to say, the Boards and individuals who hire him must really like the language he speaks, for his work doesn’t match any aspiration for a successful space.

Just the other day I spent some time at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. A renovated space just off Market Street in the now trendy and popular Yerba Buena Gardens, this behometh of a building offers a jarring contrast upon approach, a witty appeal in the canyon of the main level, and then a series of perplexing statements in the main gallery entryway and public area.

The existing building obtained by the CJM was a 19th century power station for the city of San Francisco. Destroyed in the 1906 earthquake, it was rebuild on site in classical form under the design of noted architect Willis Polk. Unused and virtually abandoned for years, it was reclaimed for the CJM project, and Libeskind was hired in 1998 to create the new space.

What’s interesting here, among other things, is that this commission was Libeskind’s first in North America, before his additions to the Royal Art Museum in Toronto, the Denver Art Museum, and even his role in the 9/11 Towers at the World Trade Center.

Yet it was completed only in 2008, after each of the other museum additions, as well as the opening of his Jewish Museum Berlin, the signature piece in his portfolio.

In visiting several of Libeskind’s spaces, you immediately see the severity of his lines, the deliberateness of his angles, and the harshness of corners that seem to materialize out of nowhere. In plan, these exteriors must be tantalizing, for in execution, they are cold and off-putting, literally creating distance between people and the building itself.

The CJM space, while it doesn’t have as many dangerous corners and post-construction safety notices as in Libeskind’s other domestic works, still manages to confound with perhaps the most counter-intuitive central atrium of any museum intended to attract, hold, and move people.

The CJM has two levels. The main level has a large gift shop in one of Libeskind’s cubes, as well as some smaller gallery space buried in corners behind the primary stairwell, off and away from the ticket region. There’s also a very large but underutilized entryway, which recognizes the industrial history of this space, but when facing east seems little more than a post-modernist interpretation of the original building.

Ascending the main stairs, modern as well, stark in white, with handrails along one side which serve the dual purpose of keeping both children and adults away from the pointy corner walls, ascending the main stairs delivers you to a landing which provides at least three choices.

Choice #1, immediately to the right, offers an exceedingly large and bright gallery space, directly above the gift shop, and in the extension of Libeskind’s slashing cube. This space is deceptively large, incorporates creative use of perception and distance to present identical windows as different in size, and serves as a way station on a journey through the museum.

Choice #2 is further ahead on the landing, and offers a perch above the main floor, a view down and across the old industrial space, above fellow museumgoers who are still entering the building. Yet this space is contained by the corner in which it was placed, and requires entering and exiting in the same manner. It is also at this space that the two aspects of this building come together, the old and the new. At at this space is the visual confluence of the Jewish symbolism that Libeskind follows as the design theme, the linkage of the Hebrew words 'chai' and 'yud' to celebrate life, and this building. Or so he says.

Choice #3 presents a large freight elevator, stark in appearance, unusual in it’s placement, right past a turn towards the primary gallery space, and central to the grand area that should be where you are when you are standing at this point. Among the many design issues with the building, the placement of this important yet best hidden item is the most perplexing. There’s no getting around this. You have to step right around this service elevator to enter the primary gallery space. Why there’s no false wall to mask the elevator, let alone an elevator in another space, since it was added for this project, is quite perplexing.

Beyond these three choices, at least with regard to the problems with this building, is that this landing, this confluence, this core of the building, is actually a choke point, forcing people to step aside, step back, or in some way actively work to avoid moving into one another as they attempt to proceed. So coming up stairs, you may be forced to wait for other ahead to clear. Moving from any of the three choice points mentioned above, you might similarly have to dance around others, or just wait for them to move. And making matters even worse, there’s a series of sharp turns to enter the primary gallery space, boards to read just behind one of the sharp turns, and here’s the most confounding point of this all, jutting walls closing off this space, so that in addition to the turns, the confluence, and the volume, are angular white walls coming down at you, restricting your entry, as some sort of post-industrial sentry designed to thwart entry, as opposed to invite thought and wonder. It’s a bit much, and the breathlessness of the last sentence really is intended to convey as much. Really.

This space, which all must traverse in order to enter the main gallery, is a travesty, and a sorry excuse for a grand promenade for what should be a remarkable building.

How someone can take an open space virtually the size of a football field, and manage to contain a central area for movement down to the size of an airport restroom, defies logic.

That, after all, is the brilliance of Daniel Libeskind. Reducer of architecture, confounder of design.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

ESPN hot seat over Syracuse tape

Deadspin attempts to waggle its' finger at the Bristol Behometh and the Bernie Fine/Syracuse story. But there are so many more lingering questions.

Here are ten+ that come to mind for anyone who cares about journalism or reporting:

Were any calls placed to Syracuse area law enforcement to determine whether any of these allegations had risen to the level of an investigation, or arrest?

Why not hire an audio analyst to check the voices on tape to confirm identity?

Why not examine the tape to determine whether it has been edited, and if so, where?

Why hold onto the audio for the past 8+ years if this is not a story?

How often did these allegations come up in meetings over the past 8+ years?

Who was this story first brought to at ESPN? A producer? A reporter? Anyone in their enterprise unit? An investigative person?

Did anyone at ESPN in the past 8+ years reach out to anyone at Syracuse University to seek comment? Was there any communication of any kind about these allegations?

If, as ESPN college basketball reporter Andy Katz noted on air this week, it is exceedingly unusual for a college team to travel ‘ball boys’ to out of town games and tournaments, why did this not come up in anyone’s reporting on Syracuse men’s basketball?

Were there any concerns that the relationship between ESPN and the NCAA might be compromised if even preliminary calls were made about this story to Syracuse University or any of its’ representatives or associates?

Why wait until these allegations have the cover of the Sandusky/Paterno/Penn State story before reporting on the tape?

And, as a bonus, what did ESPN’s legal department have to say about these allegations, this tape, and its significance, when it was advised of the tape’s existence in 2002?

Monday, November 28, 2011

Musings on San Francisco Bay Area

Weather changes from neighborhood to neighborhood. The locals know this. The tourists read of it in advance. Yet it’s still refreshing.

Yerba Buena Park provides a respite for urbanites. There are museums, fancy shops, hotels, and pricy restaurants. And there are also public spaces, attractive park areas, each of which acknowledge the city, incorporate urban life, and welcome all who come and visit, not only the moneyed class.

San Francisco street life defines eclectic. From Tranny couples, to punk kids, to toking teens, on to trendy/attempting middle age women, over to Brit-styled men who ogle men, the streetscape along Market provides a range of views and styles and appearances. Some of them even memorable. Others decent.

The homeless situation in the city is serious. These guys are light years beyond an ‘Occupy’ movement. Wherever they are, they’re occupying their space, 24/7. It’s hard living on the street, and faces, stares, attitudes, and distance from the surroundings further defines as much.

There’s a shitload of Asian restaurants in the Bay Area. Who knew? Well, we all know, but still, there are dozens of Noodle Shops, several places with the name ‘Bamboo,’ and enough Dim Sum places to be sick of interior food carts. This city is a foodie destination. And you don’t have to go far to adventure, or drop big money for good stuff. Then again, not every hole in the wall offers paradise. Food, that is.

While there are iconic tourist locations, from Ghirardelli Square to the Golden Gate Bridge to Alcatraz Island, and of course Coit Tower and Lombard Street, the Cable Cars and the stores and shops around Union Square, even the remnants of the Haight, there is so much more just steps from touristville, and in many ways, under the noses of everyone. Take in the Hunter-Dulin building at 111 Sutter Street. A French imperial inspired skyscraper (well, 25 stories capped with spires and a mansard rood) in the heart of the financial district, it has the main entrance on Sutter, but around the corner, the entrance to the Wells Fargo branch on the corner of Montgomery and Post provides another way into this building, and a reminder of the grandeur and wealth that old banks once had. But the key to this building is the address, and the history that was made by Philip Marlowe when he had the office of detective Sam Spade up on the sixth floor.

Just around the block, near the corner of Bush and Market, is the Skinny Building. Just 20 feet wide, this narrow mini-rise goes up six stories at 130 Bush Street, and provides some whimsical context to the serious nature of the financial services buildings all around. It’s reportedly called the Skinny Building not only for it’s narrow width, but because its’ original tenants were garment workers who made ties and other ‘skinny’ fabrics. Go figure.

Visiting in the late fall provides a respite from the weather in other cities, particularly of those back east. But even without the opportunity to catch a Giants game at AT&T, or to stroll about on a mild evening, there’s still the splendor that is Golden Gate Park, and perhaps the greatest treat the city provides visitors, the truly inspiring and remarkably sedate Japanese Tea Garden. Ensconced within this urban oasis, the Tea Garden truly takes visitors away from the relative bustle, and even from the strollers and joggers in the Park, and offers a tranquil setting which seems to provide greater distance from the buildings and people and even sounds that lap up to the manicured flora than one could imagine.

I have long been telling whoever asks that Americans should find a way in their life to live in two cities for at least a year or two. New York is naturally one of these cities. And San Francisco, and the entire Bay Area, is the other. While it’s not possible to do more than scratch the surface on a short visit, sustained trips over many years continue to provide insight into this fantastic, vibrant, and energetic city, this place that provides a range of sites, tastes, and even settings, for virtually every type of person. I would expand that to say that the Bay Area could work for anyone, from any country, any culture, any background, and with any language skill. There’s much to appreciate, and even more to take in. I am already looking forward to my next visit.