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MONDO ARC

No.10: The Jewish Museum, Berlin

issue 39 Oct / Nov 2007


Regular contributor Henrietta Lynch plumps for the building that put libeskind on the map.

The entrance to Libeskind’s Jewish Museum is through the former Collegienhaus (Old Building) which was originally built in 1735 and is one of the last standing examples of baroque in Berlin. The additional museum building designed by Daniel Libeskind was completed in 1999, attracting 350,000 visitors before it opened in 2001. Over the last five years, it has attracted a total of four million visitors. Previously known only as a conceptual architect, this iconic project was the first design of Libeskind’s to actually be realised. It is an extremely distinctive structure constructed to create spaces that reveal the social, political and cultural story of the Jewish race in Germany. It is a building that has consistently sparked debate and is viewed variously as a deconstructivist masterpiece, an architectural intellectualisation and even as an exhibit in its own right.
The building covers a footprint of 15,500 square metres and consists of two stories in a zig-zag format. The design is a physical manifestation of connecting lines between locations of historic events and locations of Jewish culture in Berlin. When designing the building,  Libeskind plotted the addresses of prominent Jewish and German citizens on a map of pre-war Berlin and joined the points to form an “irrational and invisible matrix” on which he based the geometry and irregular shape of the building. The narrow slit windows slashed into the building’s outer skin allow irregular slots of the sky to be viewed and are also positioned to fit within this pattern. They are described by Libeskind to be “the physical manifestation of a matrix of connections pervading the site.”
At the intersections of these lines are vast empty spaces. These are called ‘Voids’ and are double height spaces rising from the ground floor to the roof. The ‘Voids’ represent the concept of absence, and express the disappearance of Jewish culture in the city. Visitors are able to look into but not enter these empty spaces. There are five ‘Voids’ in total. They have bare concrete walls and receive no artificial light. Libeskind is quoted as saying the ‘Voids’ refer to “that which can never be exhibited when it comes to Jewish Berlin history: humanity reduced to ashes.”
The main staircase leads to an underground site that is composed of three corridors. The first and longest of these is called the “Axis of Continuity”. And represents the continuation of Berlin’s history. The “Axis of Emigration” leads outside to daylight and into the Garden of Exile. The “Axis of the Holocaust” is a narowing corridor which gets darker and darker and leads through a heavy, black steel door ultimately to a dead end inside the Holocaust Tower. The tower is the only ‘Void’ outside the Museum building. It is 24 meters high and lit by a single narrow window high above the ground to commemorate the numerous victims of the Holocaust.program
The complex ideas which have informed the design of the building repeat on the surface of the building, where the position of ‘Voids’ and windows give an onlooker no idea as to the location of rooms and spaces. The exterior is clad in an untreated alloy of titanium and zinc, which will oxidise and change color as it is exposured to light and weather.
Although the museum is often criticised for the inaccessibility of its intellectual narrative, the architecture of the museum works a spell on its visitors anyway. It is a sombre and forbidding building but also achieves a beauty of its own.

“As a trainee architect, I was drawn to Berlin at the beginning of the 1990’s after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Berlin was experiencing a building ‘Zeitgeist’, unlike the rest of Europe, which was in recession. After re-unification, the building boom in Berlin highlighted a city preparing it for its previously lost, but now to be regained status, as Germany’s capital. Berlin began to act as the core around which the fractured halves of the entire country were to be re-joined. I have chosen Libeskind’s Jewish Museum as it symbolises the regeneration of Berlin, the re-unification of Germany and everything that it represents to the rest of the world.
This building creates something very beautiful out of something deeply disturbing. It allows the physical and metaphysical cracks that make it and this city to become an integral and vital part its architecture. The window slots allow light in but also very specific views out. They help to define the space through juxtaposition of void against solid. For this building it is quite literally ‘the little cracks that let in the light,’ with the light being of equal importance if not more important than the solid walls. “
Henrietta Lynch, Independent Designer

 

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