Credit: Bruce Damonte

The Hebrew word pardes means “garden (or orchard) beyond” but also, when read as an acronym, refers to the discovery of four levels of meaning in the study of the Torah. It is appropriate, then, that a two-story wall embedded with an illuminated architectural abstraction of this term welcomed visitors to the June 4 preview of Daniel Libeskind's Contemporary Jewish Museum (CJM) in San Francisco, a building rife with symbolism and metaphor.

The museum—founded in 1984 as the Jewish Community Museum and previously located in the Jewish Community Federation's building—was created to promote Jewish perspectives on history, art, and ideas through public exhibitions and educational programs. In his opening remarks, Libeskind aptly described the 63,000-square-foot project as “not just a building, but a place to experience Jewish culture.” The architect spoke of the inherent symbolism of the Hebrew language and the challenge of converting an existing 1907 power substation from a place of physical energy to a place of creative energy. “It is necessary,” Libeskind said, “not to create an illusion of history.” Instead, his surprisingly restrained intervention strives to create a dialogue with history, juxtaposing skewed walls and prismlike forms with the brick Classical Revival substation, designed by Willis Polk. The resulting building stresses to visitors that the past continuously informs the present.

Insoired by the Hebrew phase l'chaim (to life), Daniel Libeskind's design for the Contemporary Jewish Museum incorporates two architectural forms based on the letterforms in the word chai (life): chet (right) and yud.

Insoired by the Hebrew phase l'chaim (to life), Daniel Libeskind's design for the Contemporary Jewish Museum incorporates two architectural forms based on the letterforms in the word chai (life): chet (right) and yud.

As Libeskind sat for an interview in the space between the chet and the substation's original façade, a man joined him on the bench, casually eating a sandwich while studying the pardes wall, clearly unaware that he was sitting with one of the world's best-known architects. When asked about this later, Libeskind laughed, embracing the small moment as a sign of the building's success, a true embodiment of the CJM's mission: where strangers unite amid the past and the present, and where if people are inspired to learn more about Jewish culture, all they need to do is turn to someone next to them and ask.

Jimmy Stamp, author of the blog Life Without Buildings, lives in San Francisco and works at Mark Horton / Architecture.