Please Announce Yourself

The recently opened National Museum of American Jewish History needs to find a way to tell us what it's all about BY JOANNE BECK

Every child can draw a house. Simple. It has four sides, windows, a door and a chimney. Monuments and religious spaces are grand and exotic and welcoming and give the message that… this is an important place. Approach and come inside. Important things are happening here.

When looking at a building, I would like the building to announce itself -– what is its purpose? Why should I consider entering? Should I enter it for solace, for depositing and withdrawing my money, for education, for recreation, for the business of buying what I need? How can I know where to go?

Building iconography has changed. We are now able to build strong shapeless or angled buildings of concrete and steel and glass. But how can we know if we want to go in and what we might find inside? Many “sheds,” as the architect Robert Venturi calls these square buildings, have flourishes outside or a contrasting style of entry to the architecture of the building. Otherwise, how would we know where to enter?

Venturi talks of the “Decorated Shed”– the steel and glass building with words or a pictoral announcement that clearly states its purpose. He designed a model for the Philadelphia Orchestra Hall — his design didn’t win — with the words “Philadelphia Orchestra Hall” across the building for identification. He was seeking a solution to the problem I am addressing. Without the full compliment of past architectural signals, he felt the building needed to say or announce what it was. If we can approach from a distance and see the importance of a building, or if a large sign is provided on the grounds in metal or billboard style…that is an announcement. Venturi felt that Louis Kahn (with whom he worked) was too into “less is more;” Venturi is famous for saying “less is a bore.”

The National Museum of American Jewish History, which opened a few months ago on Independence Mall, is designed by an architect who brought his philosophy to the drafting table. There is no clear-cut exterior purpose or announcement of why I should enter. No announcement, no clue, no color to reflect the association of the Jewish population in the United States with American history. For me the exterior visually shrinks back from the street. It looks defensive. Wouldn’t it be just great if I felt great about going into a building that announced itself as an important place to exhibit the achievements of 300 years of Jewish history in the United States? Maybe there should be a neon American flag instead of “Only in America.” That might help to say something about what’s inside -– American history as experienced by the Jewish population.

I love to look at the exterior of buildings. Different styles, different materials, antique references…the chiseled or cast ornamentation of centuries past. I think we need to visually communicate why a structure exists through modern references that give us an indication or a signal that communicate why we would want or not want not enter.

That’s why I say to the National Jewish Museum: Please Announce Yourself.