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Contemporary Jewish Museum of San Francisco, USA

Issue 45 Oct / Nov 2008 : Architectural ; Museum


Patricia Glasow of Auerbach Glasow French describes her firm’s extensive involvement in lighting the recently completed Contemporary Jewish Museum of San Francisco, from the architectural lighting, to the illumination of the inaugural exhibitions.

The new home of the Contemporary Jewish Museum of San Francisco opened its doors to the world on June 8, 2008. Located in the heart of the Yerba Buena cultural district, it is surrounded by other esteemed institutions such as the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

The building itself is an adaptive reuse of the landmark Willis Polk 1907 Jesse Street Power Substation. Rising from within its traditional façade the unique forms of the blue metallic steel clad addition weds the new and the old in this venerable institution.
Auerbach Glasow French became involved with the project in July 1998 during the Schematic Design Phase. Our firm was tasked with designing the lighting for the interior public areas, event spaces, galleries, education centre and the administrative offices. The project went through a number of changes, was scaled back, and in 2004 emerged from Studio Daniel Libeskind in its current design. Libeskind was inspired by the Hebrew phrase L’Chaim (to life) and incorporated the two Hebrew letters of chai, the chet and the yud, as part of the form of the Museum. The shape of the chet forms the exhibition and educational spaces and the yud is the now famous blue cube on Yerba Buena Lane, a pedestrian connector beside the Museum.

Although the building was a manageable 63,000 square feet, the scope of its program was expansive: contemporary and historic art exhibitions, film, music, live performances, events, parties, education and outreach programs for the broader community. The four event spaces were designed to accommodate any of these events and the three art galleries needed to meet stringent exhibition requirements to accommodate travelling shows, all within the non-traditional architectural vernacular of the Libeskind building. To accommodate these challenges, the lighting needed to be extremely flexible, providing excellent quality of light while integrating with the architecture.

The design architect, Studio Daniel Libeskind, the architect of record, WRNS Studio, and the project managers, KPM Consulting LLC, forged a successful, mutually respectful relationship with all the team members. After years of creative process it is not surprising that the design and construction team had a very close working relationship. Connie Wolf, Director and CEO of the Museum, had a hands-on wholly immersive approach to the project and was involved in discussions about aesthetics and the needs of the Museum. From Plant Construction, the general contractor, and Decker Electric, the electrical subcontractor, came the expertise and collaborative spirit needed to construct this complex facility.

From the beginning we understood the importance of balancing the aesthetics of the building with the lighting system requirements for a world-class museum and all the technical gear that goes along with it. We wanted to integrate the lighting with the architectural form to convey the geometry of the space without losing the space amidst a sea of equipment. We also wanted to express the open volumes and the idea of lightness that we envisioned when we first met with Daniel Libeskind. We used linear forms to complement the lines of the building. This worked well with the lighting track in the exhibition areas and the linear fluorescent fixtures for general lighting throughout the building. Traditional downlights, or dots in the ceiling, would have been the antithesis of the architecture. When possible we used the architecture to incorporate or obscure the lighting equipment, such as utilising the trusswork in the historic spaces.

The complexity of the building necessitated a lot of model work because it was the best way to understand the geometry of the spaces. With sloping and angled walls the architecture of the floor was not the architecture of the ceiling. Our design phase project manager, Susan Porter, made frequent trips to the WRNS offices to check the lighting design against the model. We also built our own in-house model for the more difficult spaces such as the “Yud” Gallery. During the construction phase the coordination continued, but now we had the building to work with and our construction phase project manager, E. Sara McBarnette, spent considerable time coordinating mounting details with the architects and contractors.

As you walk through the historic brick façade of the Contemporary Jewish Museum and into the dramatic 2,500 square foot Koret-Taube Grand Lobby, architecture from the turn of the twentieth century meets architecture of the new millennium. Many of the original historic features in the lobby, including the façade, trusses, skylights and crane, exist alongside the new dynamic architecture of Daniel Libeskind. The lighting approach for the Grand Lobby employs a multi-level strategy to address the many functions of the space: an introduction to the Museum, an area where historic meets new, and an event space. Using the historic truss as a mounting location, contemporary theatrical-style fixtures provide general lighting for the lobby as well as specialty display lighting. Along the same truss, fluorescent uplights illuminate the historic ceiling and skylights, and suspended pendant lights recall the historic 1907 substation.

The most dramatic architectural and lighting element in the lobby is the PaRDes wall, an architectural installation incorporating an abstract representation of a Hebrew acronym. Each letter is outlined in light with linear fluorescent fixtures integrated into the wall design.

Various lighting elements are used to create different looks at different times of the day. When daylight fills the space, only the registration desk, café and PaRDes wall are illuminated. General and display lighting, ceiling uplighting and the pendant lights are added later in the day as daylight recedes. The Museum also has a dynamic presence at night when only the PaRDes wall is illuminated. It is visible through the windows of the historic façade and calls out to passers-by.

The 2,700 square foot Sala Webb Education Center includes an activity room, the Ronald and Anita Wornick Boardroom and a common area. The common area encompasses a variety of lighting looks to suit the different uses of the space such as educational or art events, conferences or pre-event receptions. Perimeter fluorescent ceiling coves, adjustable accent lights for display and dimmable fluorescent downlights can be used alone or in combination to support the different events. The display vitrine, a centrepiece of the area, incorporates low voltage rail lighting and LED linear uplighting. The individual rooms integrate recessed linear fluorescent fixtures into a linear ceiling design reminiscent of many of the linear lighting motifs throughout the building. Each room has independent preset dimming controls, while the control of the common area is connected to the central dimming system.

The second floor Koshland Gallery incorporates some of the old with the new architecture as in the Koret-Taube Grand Lobby. Part of the gallery retains the ceiling trusses and skylights from the historic power substation whilst the other part of the gallery has a new architectural footprint with sloping walls and a high ceiling. The gallery lighting system is comprised of lighting track suspended from the ceiling and recessed into the sloping soffit and architectural beams. On the historic side of the gallery, the track is mounted to the underside of the historic trusses. The orientation of the track emphasizes the length of the gallery and accommodates flexible, dense art displays. Each side of the gallery has fluorescent uplights mounted atop the trusses or beams accenting the high ceilings of the new architecture and the historic ceiling of the old building.

The first floor Roselyne and Richard Swig/Swig and Dinner Families Gallery is a rectilinear space with an exposed, unfinished ceiling. The lighting system is comprised of parallel lengths of lighting track that connect to a perimeter track configuration. The perimeter track follows the wall layout of the gallery. Large windows across one end of the gallery are carefully filtered to control visible and ultra violet light to allow for art display.

The dramatic 2,200 square foot Stephen and Maribelle Leavitt “Yud” Gallery has a soaring 65 foot ceiling with 36 skylights.
Suspended lengths of extruded aluminium channel follow the shape of the room and contain lighting track incorporated into the bottom of the channel to light exhibitions and events, and concealed fluorescent uplights in the top of the channel to illuminate the high volume of the space. The 2-circuit lighting track is zoned so that the lighting for presentations can be controlled separately from exhibitions or events, and the uplighting is controlled separately from the downlighting.

The 3,300 square foot Richard and Rhoda Goldman Hall is a flexible space, providing the Museum with a flat floor venue for dinners and meetings, as well as a media screening facility with stadium seating for 225. Auerbach Pollock Friedlander, our theatre consulting and design group, designed a telescopic seating system that requires little more than thirty minutes to set up. This allows the room to be converted from an open plan meeting space to a fixed seating environment suited to media presentations and arts events for smaller audiences. The architectural and theatrical lighting system designed by Auerbach Glasow French had to accommodate the versatile requirements of the space and fit within the dynamic linear design of the ceiling.

Adjustable downlights in a variety of wattages and light distribution patterns light the space in its multitude of configurations: flat floor, tiered theatrical seating, table seating, with side or front room orientation. There are distributed circuits and mounting locations throughout the ceiling for special events lighting and theatrical rental lighting equipment to accommodate the changing uses of the room.

A central dimming system was critical for the four event spaces: the Grand Lobby, the Education Center, the “Yud” Gallery and the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Hall. The system would provide easy access for light level changes and quick reconfiguration of the lighting look. We talked extensively about the dimming system and the requirements of the Museum. The Museum wanted a system that was easy and intuitive to use, preprogrammed, yet easily reprogrammed, completely automatic, but with override capability, and the ability to manually run live events. We needed what appeared to be a simple system on the outside with brains on the inside to support all the different functions.

We demonstrated different systems to Connie Wolf and the design team. Connie wanted a system that was very easy to operate and would not require much training. She felt that an LCD touch screen was not simple enough and required too much paging through virtual pages; a laptop for quick re-programming functions was too cumbersome and a theatrical control board was too complex for the vast majority of uses. After considerable thought, a hybrid system emerged. The backbone of the system was a portable console for each event space that we designed from standard components. The console consists of an 8 preset pushbutton station to recall different lighting scenes and manual slider controls from which you can run the lighting for live events. The slider controls can also re-program the lighting levels for the preset scenes. The initial set up of the system and fade times of the presets were done with a laptop computer, but then the laptop was retired to the dimmer room where it runs the automatic time clock functions of the presets.

During normal operation the lighting presets are automatically time clock activated and change throughout the day: for pre-opening, opening, afternoon, evening, after hours and late night. Every space has a wall mounted preset pushbutton station for manual override of the timed presets. When live operation or re-programming of the presets is required, the portable console is used. With this hands-on approach to events and re-programming of presets, anyone can learn this system within a few minutes. The system is usable and transparent, as easy as pushing a button or running up a slider.

As construction neared completion, Auerbach Glasow French was asked to light the inaugural exhibitions. Nothing is more satisfying to a lighting designer than to use his/her own design and we were delighted to work with the Museum staff during the months leading up to the successful opening.

The Contemporary Jewish Museum is now basking in the light of its new home and innovative exhibitions and we feel privileged to have participated in the creation of this vibrant new San Francisco landmark.




Auerbach Glasow French:
Patricia Glasow, IESNA, LC, IALD, Principal in Charge
Susan Porter, IALD, LC, Design Phases Project Manager, Lighting Designer
E. Sara McBarnette, IESNA, LC, Associate IALD, Construction Phase Project Manager, Lighting Designer

Auerbach Pollock Friedlander:
Steve Pollock, ASTC, Principal in Charge
Howard Glickman, Project Manager

Track lighting: Lighting Services, Inc.
Linear fluorescent slot downlight: Focal Point
Pendant indir/dir linear fluorescent: Focal Point
Beam mounted uplight: Insight
Unitrack integrated uplight in Yud: Belfer
Fluorescent cove for PaRDes wall: Bartco
CFL and MR16 downlight: Prescolite
Adjustable T4 downlight: Kurt Versen
Low voltage rail light: Bruck
Theatrical lighting fixture: ETC
Steplight: Bega
Central dimming system: Strand Lighting
Local dimming system in board and activity rooms: Lutron

Intelligent switching system: Watt Stopper (system designed by Silverman & Light)


Jewish Museum of San Francisco

Pic: Mark Darley, courtesy of Contemporary Jewish Museum of San Francisco

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