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Daniel Libeskind and the Jüdisches Museum

By Leo Gullbring
A truly strange museum is emerging amongst the shiny new bank palaces, luxurious department stores and Prussian administration buildings in Berlin. The silvery shape is all zig-zag, a twisted, jagged Star of David made out of crispy brittle zinc. It's impossible to contain it in one view, it folds around itself, shying away, denying you a complete vision. Daniel Libeskind's Jewish Museum is no whitish modernist box, neither a deconstructivist mock-up. Architecture, instead of the artifacts, narrates the story of the lost soul of Berlin. Libeskind has achieved a singular architectural statement with a voice strong enough to never having us forget the Holocaust.


'This way please. Look out for the fresh paint and the cables. This path will join the Jüdisches Museum with the Berlin Museum. Here it splits, like the history of Berlin, in the exile and the Holocaust.' Nina Libeskind makes her way through the debris of the ongoing construction. 'Here the burning of books are to be exhibited. Here we might have the evolution of an individual's life.' For sure, these spaces are quite evocative with slanting walls and floors, with windows and exhibition cases sliced out here and there, flush with the walls.

It's far from an inviting museum Daniel Libeskind has conceived. And the story of Berlin's lost soul is certainly not to be told with the common museum dogma, it requires architecture itself to express what can't be understood in words, what can't be explained. But not the white perfections of a Moneo or a Meyer. This is nothing like an objective sterile envelope where the artifacts are all left to themselves to tell the story. Vera Bendt, curator of the Jewish department, acknowledges the irony in being able to gather a collection of Judaica solely because it has lost its original function due to the Holocaust.

'This is the first void. It's almost church-height, some 27 meter up to the top and less than five to the square. Some won't stand it, they feel like in a tomb. Others will rest here, listening to the sound of the city, schoolchildren passing by, cars stopping for a red light, they say they can communicate with history itself in here.' The walls of polished concrete are all irregular and at the edge far above our heads enters a blindingly intense light. 'That light up there was inspired by the tale of a woman. Confined in a train wagon, on her way to Auschwitz, she saw a light through the grating, that was all she could see. Maybe it were just lamps in a tunnel, but she believed it to be clouds, stars, sunshine. The hope to see that light once more got her through, it made her survive.'

The eight voids adds up to something as uncanny as a non-place which keeps this broken and fractured building together. On the outside the whole zapping structure is clad in brittle silvery zinc, like a forlorn snake-skin, trying to embody what's not any more. But more than snake skin I come to think of the lamp shades the Nazis made out of murdered Jew's skin. More than any words the voids makes visible the non-visibility of the Jewish presence in Berlin.

Seen from above the Jüdisches Museum is none the more easily apprehended. It looks like a deconstructed Star of David, a thunderbolt igniting the city, zapping through the whole baroque city block by Lindenstrasse. Or why not one of these Paul Klee drawing from the World War I Libeskind so fondly refers to? 'The voids penetrates like a straight line through the whole museum,' continues Nina, 'Most of them are closed. You can only look into them from holes in the walls, or these catwalks, reminding you of the bridges in the concentration camps. The voids makes present what's can't be seen and understood, what Berlin lost and never can redeem, the lost soul of Berlin which disappeared in the Holocaust.'

As we make our way up along the steep but broad staircase, we arrive at the two main floors of exhibition halls. Here the history from the Second German Reich to the present are told. Both religious as well as secular history will be present. But it's no calm interior. Windows cuts and slices the walls like knives, folding out and leaving an exterior facade marked and cut with mysterious hieroglyphs, form turned into text. 'Daniel was not content with the location, so we've got a map on the walls, a kind of human topography. Every window is an address.' Nina says there's something like 1005 windows, not one like the other, and she points at the skewed corners, 'there lived Heinrich Heine, there Rahal Varnhagen, Walter Benjamin, Arnold Schoenberg, Paul Celan, you name'em'. It's like a tattoo on the white skin of the walls, an unerasable memory of what Berlin lost in the Holocaust, the very fact that close to a quarter of a million of Jews emigrated or were murdered.

The rooms are all different, the floor plan a kind of a flow around the voids. Cut out windows, flashing ceiling lights, all combines to a dramatic setting. Daniel Libeskind says that the outer skin is crisp, delicate, brittle. 'The exterior relates to German and European history, it's very graphic and very bold, and it can be read in a glance. The inside of that history though, is very vulnerable. You cannot really hold that under the pattern of homogeneous vectors. So inside it's kind of fragile and falling apart, depending on the visitors to be put together. It's also very thin, very white. The windows are folded out, they do have a very different character inside and outside. Where the outside is very heavy, the inside i perplexingly thin.'

I meet Daniel Libeskind himself on the other end of Berlin City, in the laid-back cityscape of Charlottenburg. The small office is cramped into an old backyard building and in the entrance I almost stumble over heaps of models in all kind of sizes. Young architects runs around, while Libeskind's secretary bosses around, ushering us into a left-over room. Daniel Libeskind himself is entangled in thoughts on his next lecture. Born in Lodz, of American upbringing, this very museum has become his breakthrough as a practising architect. Some ten years ago no one would consider the idea commissioning a house of this overly abstract figure, too wrapped up on books on Derrida and fancy French philosophers. Maybe that's why Joseph Kleihaus, the man behind IBA and Berlin Capital, let him win the competition.

Ironically the hope that Libeskind would never be able to realise the project, have resulted in one of the most sought after stars of the architecture avant garde. This might not the less be to some detriment to Libeskind himself, since he is cloning away too many copies of this singular one-of-a-kind statement. The addition to Victoria & Albert museum in London is a jewel, though, a kind of fractal architecture which establishes a freestanding supporting structure out of seemingly randomly piled cubes.

So what is architecture at the closing of this century, I wonder? 'It's a multifarious art that connects, which is part of so many things, the very fabric of life. It's much more than space and light which can be understood by quantifiable matters. Architecture stands between physics and metaphysics, it's neither, it's what stands in between, it's the space of the mind and the light of the beyond!'

He goes on favouring the irrational as opposed to Reason, the power of enlightment which kind of sealed the fate of the German Jews. And if deconstructivism can be seen as a ridicule, a caricature of modernism, breaking down the supposedly perfect order into fragments of interrogation, disturbances and so on, it's also a rejection of the modernist belief that man's happiness can be quantified. 'You can't divide the mind from the hand, the eye from the foot, there's a sinestetic reality, and we are part of it. But the minute one starts to think about the separation of the different quantative aspect, you fall into the reverse, you have to join them back together again. But I never made the division in the first place! That's the whole modernist dilemma, that everything is abstract, that we are hardly able to breath inside a building unless we been trained to cut out of our life large part of reality. This why we like to travel to historical sites, where things are falling apart, to smell something which is different.'

Both in deconstructivism, in post modernism and as well as in contemporary Jewish thoughts, memory is of paramount importance. And the same is valid for the rest of society. Every new museum popping up is a sacrifice to memory. But to represent the memory of absence is quite a feat. Sure enough it shows Libeskind has an understanding, as told in the words of the Hebrews, of faith as the 'substance of things hoped for; proof of things invisible.' And he proudly admits that 'there's a dimension of the Jewish imagination in my work.' 'Very often people confuse memory with history. While history would be a recording of facts, memory would be first of all a communal interpretation of the significance of history. It would also have an element of the eternal in it, a kind of an agreement with the holy, of what it signifies.'

The Nazis were part of the modern project, but they embarked on a blind alley, writing one of the most horrible chapters in history. But it was not only the Jews which were killed off in the camps. The German middle class sold out their humanistic values for a cold technocratic view, that very idea that everything could be explained and accounted for, a materialistic world view with roots in the enlightment. Difference was rejected, any 'uncleanness' to be uprooted and wiped away. Instead of man animating matter, he deprived himself of his own soul. Since nothing has influenced Berlin as much as the Holocaust, Libeskind's museum is as much a memorial to the unforgivable as to the failure of the modern project, and not the least to the mystical aspects present in the Jewish tradition.

'Well, everybody is a mystic! Have you met a single person which is not a mystic after ten o'clock at night? But I'm a mystic in the daytime!' He laughs, but catches himself. 'Everybody is interested in life, in the deeper issues, and if architecture doesn't touch upon them, then it's just a hollow thing.' 'I certainly think that architecture has to do with an ethic towards others. Many architects don't believe in anything, the follow the regulations which are set up for them. They are not taking responsibility. Unless you're building a private little house somewhere, you are affecting the life of many people, you've got to take responsibility, you've got to challenge some of the so called truths....'

True enough Berlin Capital is ready enough to offer civilisation and culture on the altar of commercialism. At the opening of the new Potsdamer Platz everybody went blindly shopping. Little Mercedes welt-classe abounded, not a surprise since Daimler-Benz themselves developed what now stands as the symbol of the reunited Berlin. Alas, you have to forget public space. At Potsdamer, as in Friedrichstrasse, you can spend as much as you want on architects, but in the end, the individuality which characterised the Berlin of the past, amplified by progressive Jews, is but a memory. 'Those in power doesn't always think of the issue of good space and good city,' he retorts thinking about his own master plan for Potsdamer Platz, 'but of investments and returns. Therefore the political role of architects are clear, architecture is a political act, it's much more than aestethics, forms, models, it's about how objects relates to human beings.'

(texts and drawing on the Jüdisches Museum are to be found in the book with the same name edited by Kristin Feireiss)

Published in Frame


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