(Berlin, Germany) 1989-
At the intersection of Wilhelmstrasse, Fried-richstrasse and Lindenstrasse, in an area where empty bomb sites from the Second World War are still unfilled, an extension to the Berlin Museum is intended to house the Jewish Museum, a combined archive and memorial occupying more than 1000 square metres. After a competition held in 1988, Daniel Libeskind, the Polish-born, internationally renowned architect, was selected. The programme for the extension to the Berlin Museum required that there should not be a separate, isolated Jewish museum, but that the new building should reconnect the German and Jewish 'experience' and completely integrate it into the other museum collections of the city. Libeskind accepted the validity of this objective. In his design, no visitor to one building can avoid the second, nor can a Jewish visitor withdraw to a separate wing surrounded by the Jewish past alone.
About twenty years before, two architects had offered diametrically opposed solutions in an effort to bring architecture out of what was generally acknowledged to be an impasse at that time. At 'La Mem&, the Medical Faculty of the University of Louvain (pp. 44-47), Lucien Kroll tried to construct an architecture that would be completely new. spontaneously generated by the users of the building working in collaboration with the architects. It would not have to submit to any design preconceptions, and there would be hardly any previously established institutional constraints - which would have given the architect a free hand in making design decisions independently of the building's users, as had happened in the past. Aldo Rossi, in the Cemetery of San Cataldo in Modena (pp. 56-59), attempted to reconstruct an architecture relying on a building typology, a number of prototypes of architectural forms and an institutional framework within which architects could practise autonomously.
Two decades later, neither of those clear-cut approaches seemed satisfactory. For the extension of the Berlin Museum, Libeskind worked alone, without the participation of users and without following any established typology.
As a museum, the new building could have been conceived in conventional terms, archiv ing, conserving, receiving, supplying and displaying facts about the past, on request. As a monument in memoriam of the dead, the building could have been conceived symbolically. representing past facts. It was the latter way which Libeskind chose. No comparable structures quite of this kind existed, no tried solution for a building meant to represent this particular kind of memory. Feelings of absence, pain and bafflement and images of fire and incineration were the only materials he had to work with. There were also some facts, but they were isolated single points, fragments, single names and addresses. The architect could go through the archived and documented evidence to try and detect some suggestive patterns. He did. He located the home and work addresses on the map of Europe of certain prominent Jews, 'someone like Rachel Varnhagen', Friedrich Schleier-macher, Paul Celan, Mies van der Rohe. The points on the map were plotted and, as in any work of detection, possible links were tried.
Lines were drawn between the points, connec tions were made between 'figures of Germans and Jews', lines were crossed. 'An irrational matrix' was plotted. And patterns began to emerge: 'Some reference to the emblematics of a compressed and distorted star: the yellow star that was so frequently worn on this very site ... a particular urban and cultural constellation of Universal History.'
(Above) Site analysis
(Opposite, above) Museum model seen from above
(Opposite) Site plan and volumetric plan showing the connection between the two buildings
Four more 'aspects' of the Jewish experience were incorporated: Arnold Schoenberg's Moses and Aaron, an allegorical opera 'whose subject', according to the writer and pianist Charles Rosen, 'is the impossibility of realizing an artistic vision'; two large volumes called the Gedenkbuch (The Book of Commemoration), just names, locations and dates of birth, deportation and murder during the Holocaust; and Walter Benjamin's One Way Street. These became the four orientating 'aspects of the project', together with the existing building of the Berlin Museum to which its extension had to be tied, inseparably, 'in depth" through an underground connection. Libeskind made up clues, created cues, reached for handles to give shape to an unformalizable form. These were constraints, 'invisible', 'elliptical', as Libeskind calls such background material, significant but not sufficient to define a plan. The search continued.
One day a plan was drawn and simulated in a model. To put it simply,' Libeskind said, 'the museum is a zig-zag with a structural rib, which is the void of the Jewish Museum running across it.' Another element is an underground passage which crisscrosses* the existing building and binds the old museum to the new, under the surface, while from the outside, the two buildings appear separate. How did this plan come about? What did it mean?
The 'structural rib', consisting of empty space which the architect calls voids, stands for the vacuum left in Berlin by the disappearance of Jews during the Holocaust. The city's Jewish population, which was about 185,000 before the War, is about 8,500 today. The 'zigzag' schema indicates search. It ultimately defines the project. It testifies, for Libeskind, to the patient hunt through the site and the city, through culture, literature and political events which lead only to a search path, a path connecting 'nodes' down a 'search tree' - a diagram for representing the process of problem solving in contemporary science, of decision making, remarkably similar to medieval kabbalistic images of the process of emanation out of the Serifot chart. But the search path here is only the palindromic road of an unravelled labyrinth without an end point, the trail of a tortuous passage. What is suggested by this schema, therefore, is that the search initiated with the competition programme did not arrive at a solution, a point of rest. This open figure tracing a search without a discovery reflects perhaps what most characterizes the 20th century as it nears its end: giving up hope of a 'meta-narrative' which would make chronicles comprehensible, so they can be turned into history and 'cognitive structures' through which madness can be interpreted.
Thus the idea - if there ever was such an idea of designing a memorial in the Grand
Tradition, a Monument, a well-formed, coherent structure symbolizing a historical event as well as the idea of remembering a significant act of the past, is not at all what Libeskind had in mind. Although that tradition survived until recently, not only as an academic tradition, but also in the modern idiom in works such as Georges-Henri Pingusson's Mémorial à la Déportation in the Ile de la Cité (1962), it seemed to Libeskind to be out of place today. Instead of designing the building as a vessel and as a representation of memory, he turned out a petrified description of a shattered mind which succeeds in accumulating names and places and events and in distributing them along lists, planes and niches, but which refuses to structure them into any meaningful order.
Besides the representation of the unspeak-ableness of the Holocaust and 'Berlin's twisted history', there is another way of interpreting Libeskind's choice of a zig-zag configuration, a schema which is hard to represent spatially and which may well lie deeply in his Hebrew cultural identity. In a celebrated study on Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek, Thorlief Boman has pointed out that in the language of the Bible, objects are not described in terms of their appearance; they are conveyed instead through descriptions of their process of 'construction', since the making of objects is a process, in temporal rather than spatial terms, which results in the 'restful harmonious unity in the beauty of whose lines the eyes find joy'. This may be one of the determinants of the zigzag line which, although hard to capture through spatial concepts, is easy to see as a representation of process. Consequently the appropriate way of describing this building is by describing the process of its creation and by using words such as bending, turning, switching. rather than geometrical-spatial ones.
This was not the first time that Libeskind had used the zig-zag figure. He had already conceived it in his installation Line of Fire for the Centre d'Art Contemporain in Geneva, commissioned by its director, Adelina von Fürsten-berg. To refer to Libeskind's own explanation of his way of working, as revealed in his interview with Vittorio Magnago Lampugnani in Domus (November 1991), the figure was a 'framework' about which he had already been thinking. It existed prior to the museum competition, 'self-generated', resting in his 'creative thought', 'without a name', with an 'unstated' function, and subsequently found in a 'political and public programme' a way to be instantiated.
This oblique, wry, winding, broken-line spatial pattern has fascinated for a long time because of its geometry, which is notoriously hard to describe, and because of its associations - a crack caused by a sharp blow, splitting a hard substance unexpectedly, the revelation of the inner structure of an object as a result of 'force acted upon it', the erratic eruption of a striking thunderbolt, the wrathful incoherent spittle of fire, the catastrophic, but also the dynamic, as the Book of the Prophet Micah describes the divine, its affinity with energy, power, destruction, an emblem of formlessness, the form of the unanswerable.
Thus, far from being original here, the zigzag pattern has a history of at least five centuries in architecture and the visual arts. The Mannerist designer Wendel Dietterlin, the Baroque architects of the Churriguera family, the visionary Piranesi, can easily be cited in this respect. But no architect before Libeskind has ever attempted such an extreme identification of an entire building with the broken figure. And in no period other than ours could the broken line seem more appropriate as an image of an epoch, a reflection on and questioning of the intractability and incoherence of a world which is characterized not only by the failure to understand, but by the still greater failure to uphold moral responsibility towards the 'Other'.
At the date of this writing, construction has been officially delayed for one year.
(Opposite, top to bottom) General plan; two elevations of the facades; section of the old and new buildings; longitudinal section
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