National Museum of American Jewish History, designed by James Polshek, opens

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 25, 2010; 9:50 PM

PHILADELPHIA - The city of Philadelphia, the National Park Service and the general march of urban disorder have pretty much messed up Independence Mall, the greensward that should be a centerpiece of this city's historic district. The Mall's open blocks - created by demolishing existing neighborhoods in the 1950s - front the dour but elegant brick pile of Independence Hall, framing it nicely for snapshots but deflating the urban energy around it. The mall has become cluttered with banal NPS buildings that serve commercial tourist interests but degrade the dignity of the historic experience and is surrounded by ugly offices built decades ago in shapes and styles that have not retained any charm for contemporary visitors.

The newest addition to that landscape, the National Museum of American Jewish History, which opens Friday, is an exception to the rule. Designed by James Polshek and Ennead Architects, the NMAJH is clad with glass and terra cotta panels, and feels decidedly like a product of the 21st century. With its cool, composed and geometric facade and its emphasis on careful asymmetries rather than ornament or repetition, it would be at home on an academic campus. It will certainly never be confused with the oppressive, low-slung concrete and glass office blocks that dominate the neighborhood north of Independence Hall.

Polshek, 80, is the semi-retired architect who built Washington's Newseum, and with a string of successful cultural projects to his credit, he was an obvious choice when the Jewish Museum decided to raise its profile and build a state-of-the-art educational museum. Not surprisingly, the NMAJH and the Newseum share some key features, including a large central atrium dominated by bridges and stairways that are all slightly askew and pleasingly energetic in their dissonance with the basic grid of the building. Like the Newseum, the new Jewish Museum also meets the street efficiently and elegantly, despite the obvious concession to security fears manifest in the small windows and the granite wall that faces the Independence Mall on Fifth Street.

By moving an existing and historic statue to religious freedom that once sat in front of the Jewish Museum's far less prepossessing former home a block away, the architects have enlivened and focused what would otherwise be a dead space. It serves much the same function as the newspaper kiosks that line the front of the Newseum. The logic: If one must have a blank surface, use it to frame something worth looking at.

But in many ways, the NMAJH is a more striking and gratifying building than the Newseum. It is understated and more modest with nothing like the aggressive and tacky display of the First Amendment (on a giant stone panel) that cheapens the Newseum facade. And its use of fritted glass creates a more muted, veil-like exterior, eschewing the techno-edginess of the Newseum's more futuristic aesthetic.

Both buildings were built as part of a move and expansion of an existing institution. The Newseum was built after its leaders decided they wanted a more prominent Washington presence than their old home in Rosslyn allowed. And the new Jewish Museum is part of an effort to create a national presence and user-friendly home for a museum that was initially associated with a local, historic synagogue. But whereas the Newseum expansion felt like a bold and determined exercise in aggrandizement, the Jewish Museum has created a first-class home that feels smart, low-key and civic-minded.

The Jewish Museum once shared space with a historic synagogue that still inhabits a terribly grim brick 1976 structure just a block away. The new space radically increases the room available to the museum, and its curators and exhibition designers have taken advantage of every inch of it to create (for better and alas worse) a state-of-the-art museum-education-entertainment space that flows through four full floors, with additional room for special exhibitions, a gift shop, cafe, classrooms and auditorium. Unlike the Newseum, relatively little of the building has been turned over to offices or commercial uses.

To its credit, the new museum is also more substantial in its educational mission. The Newseum went with Ralph Appelbaum as its exhibition designer, and it got classic Appelbaum designs: Heavy on emotional appeal and iconic objects, but light on information and detail. The Jewish museum's exhibitions are designed by Gallagher & Associates, and although like almost all new museums today they are distressingly focused on ephemeral multimedia displays, they are nonetheless rich in content. The only complaint - and it's an important one - is that too many reproduction documents are mounted and displayed like original objects, and though labeled correctly, it still feels like a sleight of hand.

It's hard to overemphasize how ugly Independence Mall has become, and how low the bar for any new construction there currently stands. Almost a decade ago, the north of the mall was "finished" by the addition of the National Constitution Center, designed by Pei Cobb Freed. But this very second-rate example of that firm's work only furthered the aesthetic crisis of the mall by adding a low, gray, unappealing concrete structure that vitiates the already minimal urban energy of the site. Worse, its exhibitions are silly and emotional, and not worth the price of admission.

Any act of basically competent contemporary architecture would have improved this patch of lost and squandered opportunities. But the Jewish Museum goes beyond competent. Its glass, extended up above the basic volume of the building to give the profile greater height, has a hand-rendered pattern etched into it, which makes it seem more transparent and airy from the outside. The use of custom-made terra cotta paneling is an appealing reference both to the ancient sources of Jewish history and the few truly excellent office buildings on the mall, including the adjacent Bourse Building, constructed in the 1890s. The result is a building that strikes the right balance between openness and monumentality, without being glib or pretentious.

The firm's good work in Philly, however, should be carefully considered as Ennead prepares to go forward with what could be its next Washington project, the ill-considered and unnecessary visitor center for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, slated to be built on the National Mall, near the Lincoln Memorial. Building impressive, jazzy buildings such as the Newseum is a proof of virtuosity; buildings that improve a city, like the Jewish Museum, are evidence of virtuosity conjoined to vision. But designing a building, no matter how good, that defaces a sanctified national landscape would sully the firm's portfolio and call into question its larger legacy of improvements to America's cultural infrastructure.

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