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Building and message at odds

While the museum's exhibits tell of Jews' success in America, the architecture is decidedly downbeat.

The recent boomlet in museums devoted to Jewish history has produced several remarkable works of architecture, the most notable being those devoted to the Holocaust. You can hardly enter a building like James Ingo Freed's United States Holocaust Memorial in Washington or Daniel Libeskind's Jewish Museum in Berlin without feeling a cold shiver rush down your spine.

Those architects had a certain advantage. The horrors of the Holocaust provided them with a dramatic narrative that could be readily transferred to the language of brick and mortar and packed with moral clarity and emotional resonance. There are no gray areas when it comes to the Holocaust.

The mission of the National Museum of American Jewish History at Fifth and Market Streets is quite different from those Holocaust memorials: It is clearly intent on broadening the story beyond that singular historic event. Here, Jews are defined not as victims, but as success stories, immigrant strivers who arrived penniless and overcame obstacles to rack up remarkable achievements and take their place in the great American mosaic.

It is not a new story, and certainly not one unique to America's Jews, but the $150 million museum's packaging of the familiar narrative is nevertheless a gutsy step for the Jewish community. While museum design often channels our cultural preoccupations of the moment, the aesthetic choices here are especially freighted with meaning. So, naturally, the design by New York architect James Polshek must be evaluated on how successfully it expresses the museum's more assured and optimistic take on the Jewish experience.

Not very well, I'm afraid. Given the museum's location overlooking Independence Mall, its eagerness to link Jewish success with the success of American democracy, and the embrace of the word national in its name, Polshek's building is strikingly inward-looking and closed off from its surroundings.

The quality becomes especially pronounced when the building is compared with Polshek's work at the Newseum, the Washington, D.C., museum of media history that served as a template for the Philadelphia project. This is architecture that exudes unease.

The downbeat imagery of Polshek's design actually works at cross-purposes with the compelling story told within the museum. While the exhibits proclaim America as a place where a long-persecuted minority can finally feel secure, the architecture suggests that Jews are still looking nervously over their shoulders. Museum officials may claim that the building's reticence is just a good-faith effort to fit in with Philadelphia's historic area, but the line between assimilation and camouflage is thin indeed.

In a news handout, Polshek tells us that the Fifth Street facade, which looks west to the mall and the Liberty Bell, is dominated by a glass curtain because the material is associated with openness and "is intended to unambiguously convey a generous welcome." But to block the afternoon sun, the glass surface had to be embedded with a translucent frit that makes it difficult to see inside, especially during the day. The glass acts to veil the museum.

Meanwhile, at street level, where buildings set the terms of their relationship with the city, the museum presents a high wall of dark gray granite, its blankness alleviated by a few horizontal slits that unfortunately recall the viewing ports in prison doors. That there is no entrance in this most symbolic of facades - where the museum intersects with a landscape honoring democracy - only reinforces the message of fear.

The presumption, of course, is that security concerns forced the architect to bunkerize the building and locate its front door on Market Street. Polshek, however, strenuously insisted during a tour that his design choices were merely a response to heavy traffic on Fifth Street and the museum's organizational needs. "This is not an appetizing corner," Polshek told me, gesturing at Fifth Street.

If that really is the explanation, it's a pretty poor excuse not to engage with the mall. The traffic on Market Street is surely no better than Fifth Street's. Maybe it was just easier for Polshek to follow traditional architectural practice and place the entrance on the long side of the rectangular building. But even the grim KYW building that previously occupied the site had a door facing the mall.

The museum design does improve marginally on the Market Street side. Polshek (whose firm recently adopted the name Ennead) uses floor-to-ceiling glass for the ground floor to allow glimpses into the lobby, exactly as he does at his Newseum on heavily trafficked Pennsylvania Avenue. Yet, in Philadelphia, everything above the first floor is housed behind a red, terra-cotta grille that might easily be mistaken for a parking garage.

It only gets worse inside. Passing through the modest set of glass doors, you almost immediately bump into the ticket counter. This entry space is so tight and awkward that one shudders at the chaos that will ensue when a busload of tourists pours in.

Such a cramped vestibule might be excused if the building occupied an especially tight site. The lobby is, in fact, plenty big. Rarely do you see so much space wasted so flagrantly.

The museum's "wow" feature is a five-story atrium at the lobby's center. While such soaring openings are now a cliche of museum design, they can still pack a visual punch. At Polshek's Newseum, a central atrium floods the building with light and enables visitors to see each level, so they quickly understand the museum's organization.

The difference in Philadelphia is that Polshek takes the atrium down to the basement, where the auditorium is located. Instead of walking in a space of uplifting height, visitors are stopped at the precipice of an enormous pit.

What is the point of placing this barrier at the moment of entrance? Why trouble to bring daylight into the basement when people are just going to settle into a windowless auditorium?

Not only does the arrangement undermine the purpose of the atrium, it eats up a large part of the lobby and forces visitors to circumnavigate the pit, through a narrow chute of leftover space, to reach the gallery elevators.

Among the bizarre details is an oval overlook next to the ticket counter, where visitors can peer into the rather bland pit. The atrium actually occupies only about half the lobby. The other side is devoted entirely to two immense curved screens showing videos that celebrate the lives of notable Jews - the latest example of runaway screen inflation. In this vast sea of space, the displays look like tiny islands. On top of that, they are placed so passersby get a fantastic view of one screen's blank back.

The lobby pit is hardly the only wasted space. Visitors are meant to circle the atrium on their way to the exhibit galleries, which are arranged chronologically from the fourth floor down to the second. But the meat of the show is always in the galleries east of the atrium, while everything to the west is fluff.

The real purpose of the wide balconies on the west side is to allow people to look out through the glass wall at the mall and city skyline. The views are certainly nice. But again, the metaphor the arrangement calls to mind is not encouraging: Jews peering out through a translucent screen at democracy.

Inside, the museum effectively celebrates the invigorating wit and sheer, unabashed chutzpah that Jews have stamped on every aspect of American culture. From Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" to Broadway musicals and Hollywood blockbusters, Jews have excelled at divining the emotional zeitgeist without taking themselves too seriously. More than anything, Polshek's design could benefit from a little more of that chutzpah.