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Berlin Phoenix.

Daniel Libeskind's Jewish Museum in Berlin is one of the most discussed buildings in the world. Michael Spens explains the often arcane gestation of the spaces and forms which are intended to evoke a troubled history.

The Jewish Museum in Berlin celebrated its formal inauguration in Lindenstrasse on 25 January. This was the culmination of a prolonged gestation: over a decade. Daniel Libeskind won the competition in 1989. So dramatic have been the historical changes (not least the reunification of both Berlin and Germany itself since then) that the early resolution of both the city museum of Berlin, through its board, and the jurors to select such a radical 'quite extraordinary, completely autonomous solution',(1) seems in retrospect to have been acutely prescient.

The Berlin Senate is to be the governing body of what next year will become again the capital city of Germany. The uncertain scrapings and tentative excavations of the divided city of the middle 1980s, interminable debates, wholesale demolitions and site clearances after the Wall was breached on 12 November 1989 have all followed the triumph of Libeskind as winner of the competition for what was supposed to be 'a new wing for the Berlin Museum' on that far off summer day in June 1989.

History had accelerated as never before. Yet the sense of liberation that swept across the Berlin architectural world in late 1989 was short-lived. Libeskind was prominent by 1995 in calling for dismantling the 'staggering degree of regimentation and control': a battery of arbitrary constraints that go under the guise of 'rationalism', the 'rhetoric of order'.(2) He noted the degree to which able architects such as Philip Johnson, Arata Isozaki and Richard Rogers have been overcome by such forces: he had also demonstrated, in his own entry for the 1991 Potsdamer Platz urban design competition, the direction in which city planning might go. A visit to Potsdamer Platz today reminds the visitor of how the virtuoso talent applied by Libeskind, and architects like Will Alsop, has been foregone for the tamed block plans and disingenuous facades that are emerging to form a commercial centre which is only a pale reflection of the Potsdamer Platz milieu of the 1920s JAR January 1999].

Against this context, the Jewish Museum stands out as a miraculous intervention in the city of facades. 'I don't think it is the time of the facade any more' says Libeskind. 'It is a different time and while the word facade might still be around, I don't think anyone is looking at them, even if the architects of Berlin are still constructing them'.(3) Almost equally surprising is the degree to which the original concept for the competition has been sustained with only minor modification throughout. The Jewish Museum is, by definition, a container for sharing historical objects and memories, documented or attributed. This is to be illuminated by the sheer dynamic of Libeskind's grasp of history. its meaning on various levels and within a host of conflicting attitudes, experiences, abnegations, and recognitions.

The cornerstone of the building was laid on 9 November 1992, and topping out was achieved in 1995. Construction budgets were held to DM 77 million ($43 million at 1999 rates of exchange), and the final cost was within 4 per cent of target, a remarkable achievement for a building of such symbolic, even monumental importance, in which the final floor area was some 10 000sq metres, (110 000sq ft). Construction proceeded at a somewhat ecclesiastical pace during significant changes in the directorate. The arrival of Michael Blumenthal (a former US Treasury Secretary of Berlin origins) as director and the presence of Tom Freudenheim, formerly of the Smithsonian in Washington, have strongly reinforced the creative potential and international significance of the Jewish Museum. An extensive literature now exists on the subject of the museum. But as yet there has been very little consideration of the curatorial options which a creative leadership can develop within the building.

As it stands today, the five-storey building, given its area, seems surprisingly modest in size in terms of the overall volume of space it contains. This is partly because the shortest elevation parallels (and breaks) the Lindenstrasse frontage, the formal entrance to the site. Clearly the proliferation of postwar 12- to 15-storey apartment blocks, free-standing and set back from the Collegienhaus building of the original city museum, establishes a neutral, but surprisingly spacious urban void: a proscenium otherwise devoid of players. So, into this open green space (unavoidably the focus of vision of innumerable high-density occupants - a factor never overlooked by Libeskind) the building is thrust down as if from a great height. From the angular metallized container, a seeming extraterrestrial deposit, a major visual drama is then developed, but one that seems wholly reconciled with the stage onto which it has been projected. The apparent detachment of the extension from the original museum building assists this venture. The splayed container, and its two seemingly jettisoned ancillaries, the vertical Holocaust Void (in fact linked underground to the main block), and the tilted assemblage of 49 earth-filled concrete squares (the E. T. A. Hoffmann garden), accentuate this sense of an unpremeditated landing from a great height. Libeskind has succeeded in harmonizing the building successfully with the surrounding territory: the earth emerging from the top of the 49 squares for example, now supports lush plant growth. There are surrounding rose arbours discreetly laid out to reflect the angularity of the fenestration. (The rose was the only plant permitted to be grown inside old Jerusalem). Creeping plants are allowed to cover one garden wall. A children's playground is being established, amid pathways of mosaic and paving and gravel. This garden landscape is representative of the careful embedding of the museum into the lives of the immediate community, with harmony and without presumption.

In the architecture, the paradox is explicit; the building is wholly autochthonous, impacted on the earth surface, yet sprung from the ground. The ground plan (which embodies in the angularity of the plot line traces of the Star of David) allows an internal sequential route for visitors. This provides the museum with significant and practical potential for exhibition purposes. The built form makes possible a formal spatial arrangement appropriate to historical context, narrative requirement, and object display simultaneously. All that is required is for the museum curators to work within the grain of the building, rather than against it.

The emptiness

The organizing spatial denominator in its simplest form is a line: a line of voids. 'Die Leere' [the emptiness] both articulates the museum, and defines a zone: a virtual corridor directly traversing the galleries from the entry elevation to the final apex and terminating bridge. Yet this corridor does not (as might be expected) provide a circulation line, but its denial. Visitors, as required by the original brief, must enter the museum from the pre-existing building (the Collegienhaus of 1735 was part of the palatial core of a Baroque enclave of the city). Visitors enter the new building underground. In the words of Heinrich Heine, on the death in 1833 of the renowned Jewish letter writer and literary hostess Rahel Varnhagen: 'We step into the grave with sealed lips - the language of the eyes will soon be lost. To those born later ... our written testimonials will be undecipherable hieroglyphs'.(4)

Libeskind insists that for the duration of the visitor's presence in the museum, the visible language of the architecture speaks clearly through an arrangement of corridors. First, a corridor leads directly to the main gallery-linking stairway which, in a single flight, climbs like Jacob's ladder, through the entire building. Second, a shorter corridor leads directly to the vertically pivoted steel door which opens into the Holocaust Void. A third corridor leads towards the exterior and the E. T. A. Hoffmann Garden. On each typical gallery level on the three floors above, the interaction of stair, gallery space, and linear void (which must be crossed by bridges) establishes a clearly perceptible spatial progression, yet it is one which neither terminates, nor predicates the visitor path. The elevation of the museum, both externally and internally, is penetrated by an angular system of sealed transparent openings. This fenestration is characteristic of all the building. Externally the zinc cladding, sealed and riveted is pierced where deemed appropriate. The positions of these openings are defined, Libeskind suggests, in terms of a plotting of the lines of connectivity between individual places of Jewish importance on the Berlin city map. '1 did build the museum on the basis of addressing points, for example of connections between Berliners and Jews who lived around Lindenstrasse. I attempted to present the names and numbers associated with the Jewish Berliners, with the 200 000 Jews who are no longer here to constitute that fabric of Berlin which was so successful in business and the arts, intellectual, professional and cultural fields?

Apocalyptic Berlin

Libeskind plotted 60 such locations, 'tracing apocalyptic Berlin' along the building plan, itself spread in the form of a distorted Star of David. These points are marked on the elevations, to the extent that they also indicate the density of Jewish presence in one part of the city or another, by the increased juxtaposition of openings. (Incidentally these openings provide unpremeditated views out of the building, or lighting conditions which have a meaning not only related to the function of giving light.) And at night, the luminous lines of penetration convey a historical significance, which is of course the primary role of any museum. 'The light which comes in and out of the Museum doesn't come through normal windows, as there are no conventional windows in the building. Of course, there are places where you can see the sky, where you can see the street, and where you can look across, but ... it is the openness of what remains of those glimpses across the terrain ... belonging to a projection of addresses traversing the addressee'.6

As Libeskind indicates, a totally original technical solution had to be found for the windows, involving new details, and technology transfer from the automobile industry. Over a thousand windows (only five being identical) posed a special problem. The acuteness of some angles accentuated the underlying requirement for an absolutely hermetically sealed window set closer to the inner skin of the building than the external surface. The system is superb, it works perfectly, and will probably be used on future projects by the architect.

This determination to incise the fenestration deep into the zinc clad walls provided Libeskind with another apparent paradox: structural members are made externally visible in gaps within the zinc cladding. As Libeskind admits, this provides a fundamentally sheathed building with a tectonic connotation, despite the absence of all four of Semper's basic elements. There is neither, even metaphysically, 'earthwork, hearth, roof, framework' nor lightweight enclosing membrane. Yet the zinc clad monolith remains undeniably tectonic and solid. By contrast, if the fenestration had been located flush on the external and not the inner wall, this quality would have been denied. Yet it all seems to sit lightly on the surface of the park. The effect of the perfectly detailed zinc cladding is to lighten the critical mass of the object. In time, the shine of the zinc will dull down to blue-grey, in common with other zinc applications throughout Berlin, where this is a much-utilized and economically fabricated material.

Materials used internally (notably the blue-grey slate floor tiles) enabled Libeskind to bring the total cost, subject to variations, below what was originally budgeted. Yet even on secondary stairs, stair parapets and handrails, Libeskind's obsessive perfectionism of detail is everywhere evident. Lighting systems are simply tracked within pre-planned recesses in ceilings which conform to the overall idiom, as does the fenestration. The lighting is purpose designed where required to allow maximum flexibility within galleries. But, in general, relatively commonplace, ordinary materials and products are used: 'After all', says Libeskind, 'the Holocaust was an everyday event. It was not special, even on the contrary, it was something that happened daily?

Controversial device

The performance of the Jewish Museum as a device for historical interpretation, has caused much controversy even before installations have taken place, in the curatorial world - not only in Berlin, but internationally. The museum, after all, not only demonstrates a world-beating design, but is now staffed by directors and curators of international accomplishment.

The institution, following the return of Berlin to capital city status, is set fair to become the Jewish Museum of Germany, not only the Jewish Museum, Berlin. The museum has to deal with a wide range of issues: historic, cultural and ones that deal with the whole question of assimilation of German-speaking Jews into national life, in the past, and now again. As we leave the twentieth century, we find in retrospect that the Jewish contribution had been vital to the cultural dynamo of Berlin of the 1920s. Then we look further back to the period of the early assimilation, of the time of Rahel Varnhagen, her brilliant late eighteenth-century salon, her christianization and marriage into Prussian nobility, and her catalytic role in the Berlin culture of her time, to know that it was so since the Enlightenment. The museum must encapsulate the life and idiom of such individuals too, people like Hannah Arendt (the biographer of Varnhagen) another victim but survivor, and Walter Benjamin, Max Pechstein, and Erich Mendelsohn.

Libeskind has also contrived to establish the memory trace of the Berlin cinematic landscape/streetscape of the 1920s. The acute angularity and tonal contrast familiar to followers of Robert Wiene's Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari (1919-20) is readily identifiable, especially at those points where the void crosses the galleries. The museum offers the possibility of establishing in certain areas audio-visual environments that will be more appropriate to the twenty-first century. Treasures like those of the Sorer Collection of Ceremonial Objects, Torah curtain hangings, or the paintings of Ludwig Meidner will be able to be installed in a milieu free from conventional trappings, yet redolent of the psychology of the overall context. The presence of this atmosphere becomes a constant, and so achieves the ideal condition for focusing on the cultural or social history of a particular period of Berlin Jewish life.

Libeskind says that 'A house where the Muses are served emptiness - like an equinox modelled on the storm's sobriety is filled with longing for every ignited hair'.(8) Libeskind's house for the Jewish Museum is composed of innumerable memory traces. In some, his own historiography has illuminated the narrative: for instance discovery that E. T. A. Hoffmann, commemorated in the garden of that name, had worked as a lawyer in the adjacent Collegienhaus, and lived nearby. There are other recent extensions, to other national museums that incarcerate (however elegantly) dead objects of a lost history. The difference here in Berlin is that history has been retrieved not simply in the form of objects of interest, but in the spirit and meaning of the past, the present and above all the future.

1 Jewish Museum Berlin Competition Report, June 1989.

2 Libeskind, D, Berlin, World City Series, edited by Alan Balfour, London, 1995, p35.

3 Libeskind, D, Jewish Museum Berlin, G+B Arts International/Berlin, 1999, p35.

4 Arendt, Hannah, Rahel Varnhagen: The life of a Jewess, Ed. Liliane Weissberg. Trans. Richard and Clara Wilson John Hopkins Univ. Press 1998.

5 Libeskind, D, Jewish Museum Berlin, ibid, p24.

6 Libeskind, D, Jewish Museum Berlin, ibid, p41.

7 Libeskind, D, Jewish Museum Berlin, ibid, p32.

8 Libeskind, D, Fishing from the Pavement., NAI Publishers Rotterdam, 1997.


Daniel Libeskind, Berlin

Project management

Matthias Reese, Jan Dinnebier

Design team

Stefan Blach, David Hunter, Tarla MacGabhann, Noel McCauley, Claudia Reisenberger, Eric J. Schall, Solveig Scheper, Ilkka Tarkkanen


Muller, Knippschild, Wehberg


All photographs by Katsuhisa Kida apart from no 1 which is by Bitter Bredt
COPYRIGHT 1999 EMAP Architecture
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Title Annotation:Daniel Libeskind's Jewish Museum in Berlin
Author:Spens, Michael
Publication:The Architectural Review
Date:Apr 1, 1999
Previous Article:A tale of two museums.
Next Article:Past master.

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