Daniel Libeskind’s Conteporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. (Photo by Joel Levinson)

by Joel Levinson

Every morning I receive an email from a company called Arch Daily that sends architectural news to thousands of architects worldwide. Yesterday, one of the featured projects was Reflections at Keppel Bay, a two-million-square-foot residential development that includes six high-rise towers and some low-rise housing prominently situated at the entrance to Singapore’s Keppel Harbor.

It was designed by Daniel Libeskind, who originally rose to prominence because of his striking and highly honored Jewish (Holocaust) Museum in Berlin. I‘ve been told that visitors find the building an emotionally overwhelming experience.

Libeskind is obviously a very talented, daring and successful architect. He was born in postwar Poland, studied music in Israel, performed with great success, then turned to architecture, studying first at Cooper Union in New York then getting a postgraduate degree in history and theory of architecture at Essex University in England.

My interest in the Berlin museum, which I have yet to visit, is based on the extensive use of diagonal motifs, which has been an interest of mine since I went to Penn’s School of Architecture in the mid-60s. In plan, the zigzagging museum looks something like the symbol of a lightning bolt, and the resulting diagonal motif is repeated consistently throughout the building.

Based on photographs alone, (admittedly, not a great way to judge a building), I found the diagonal motif overdone and in many instances something of a superficial, unnecessarily unrelenting, architectural design element. Nevertheless, it is a building that keeps calling you back through its conceptual intensity and architectural originality.

Because I am writing a book about diagonality as expressed in all the arts, I have remained interested in Libeskind’s architecture for many years. He has been prolific with major projects executed all over the world. However, what began to trouble me over time was that every project of his I saw published employed the diagonal as if he had forgotten the value of the right angle.

This made me suspicious. Could it have been that the diagonal was so perfectly suited for every project he designed? The use of diagonals in his case seemed more like an adopted trademark style than a program-generated or site-generated design feature.

When I saw his Keppel Bay Towers yesterday morning, I had to laugh. The towers, although gray, look like an array of flaccid carrots of varying length stuck upside down into the green birthday cake of the surrounding landscape. From other angles, the leaning towers look like a bunch of drunken sailors wearing birdcage caps of intersecting thin metal struts whose only function seems to be to bring each tower to a tapering, eye-catching point.

To my eye, the metal cages look inane. This may sound like harsh criticism but you can find the project on the Web and judge for yourself. While the complex is visually arresting, one can’t help but wonder whether, in the end, this is simply a search for form over substance.

One of the mantras at Penn in the mid-60s was “form follows function,” a dictum that has its merits, but a design rule that certainly can be overdone. Even famous architects from that era, like Wright and Le Corbusier, who in one respect espoused functional architecture, were nonetheless always seeking expressive, unique and artful architectural designs.

Perhaps the curious nature of Libeskind’s project has a raison d’être in the marketplace of real estate. If one had to choose between a boring box and a design that is intoxicating from start to finish, one might go for the intoxication, no matter the cost of buying or renting a unit. This might bring joy and wealth to the developer who must be complimented for taking a giant risk with such an unconventional design. I do give credit to the Libeskind Studio for an enthralling poolside pavilion that is a little architectural gem.

When I was in San Francisco a few months ago, I saw a Libeskind-designed building firsthand. The Contemporary Jewish Museum is a remodeling of the 1907 Jessie Street Power Substation adjacent to the Yerba Buena Park and smack against the Four Seasons Hotel. Regrettably, the building was closed so I could only photograph the exterior and peak in a few windows.

The unmistakable Libeskind tilted, dark-blue addition to this 63,000 square foot, $47.5 million project is a fascinating piece of sculpture. Critical reaction to the project is edifying. Commentators from the Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal lauded the work, including the comment, “a careful balance of explosive and well-behaved forms.”

Both critics were relieved that Libeskind had abandoned his earlier sloping gallery walls for vertical walls. Unlike in his previous museums, it is much easier to hang art on a wall that is plumb. Edward Rothstein of The New York Times, however, was not so favorably disposed. He bemoaned the museum’s dedication to “multiple perspectives … without a grounding in knowledge, without history, detail, object and belief.”

What troubles me about Libeskind’s work is that he has trademarked himself. He stamps his tilting forms on almost every project he designs, and when he adds additions to existing buildings he hacks into them as if with a hatchet. This may be appropriate once in a while, but more often it seems to show a disregard for the work of other architects.

It strikes me that he seems to feel unfazed about expressions of serious architecture executed in an earlier age as exemplified by his renovation and addition to the 135-year-old Bundeswehr Military History Museum in Dresden, Germany. He mangled the staid integrity of the existing design by aggressively slamming his V-shaped metal addition into the original masonry classical structure. It looks as if a giant missile head fell from the sky and slashed cleanly through the building like a knife through soft clay.

Is this approach to the work of others unbridled narcissism, or is it inventive, daring design that I have trouble appreciating, save for the admittedly dramatic spaces created inside the museum?

As I photographed Daniel Libeskind’s Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, I had to wonder whether his building will be the only one left standing after the next earthquake hits northern California. Will it be jostled into a right angle relationship to the earth, rendering it the only surviving building that then looks right, but not resulting from the architect’s original design? Or, will the titling crumbling buildings all around his museum look right, and his now foursquare building look wrong to today’s younger generation?

Joel Levinson can be contacted at joellevinsonauthor.com, 267-408-0240, or joel.levinson@verizon.net