Libeskind Zigzag in Berlin
On a more optimistic note, an adjacent sculpture garden features 48 columns signifying the year (1948) when the State of Israel was founded.
Libeskind, who lost most of his family during the Holocaust, comments that in his design he wanted to capture the cultural contributions of the Jewish citizens of Berlin, the tragedy of the Holocaust, and how ultimately, "through a particular form of absence, life can have meaning and an optimistic, hopeful direction."
Libeskind believes that "architecture is one profession where you can't be a pessimist, because the meaning of architecture is building, creating."
First Project for a Name Architect
No less remarkable than the building is the fact that when he received the commission in 1989, Libeskind had not realized a single one of his designs. This despite the fact that the architect and theorist has won a good number of design competitions.
Born in Lodz, Poland in 1946, Libeskind emigrated to Israel with his family when he was 11 years old. He studied music in Israel, later going to the United States to earn an architecture degree from Cooper Union in New York. He later received a postgraduate degree in the history and theory of architecture at Essex University, England.
He had an extensive career as a critic and writer on architecture before launching on his own design practice. Although Libeskind recently moved his firm to Berlin, he still teaches at the University of California, Los Angeles, the Berlage Institute in Amsterdam, and the ETH in Zurich.
Since receiving the commission for the Jewish Museum, Libeskind has won a competitions and commissions in Germany, England, Japan, and Ireland.
The Long Road to Completion
The debate concerning a Jewish museum in Berlin lasted almost a quarter century. Finally, a competition for such a structure was announced in 1988. Some 163 architects took part and Libeskind 's design won first prize.
The museum was originally supposed to be an annex of the neighboring Stadtmuseum. But Libeskind presented certain conditions: the Jewish Museum must be an independent entity; financial aid from the city and the federal government — the museum's main financial backers — must be dependable; and the exhibition themes must transcend Berlin city limits. All of his conditions were accepted.
The new cultural institution is, in the words of director Michael Blumenthal, a "narrative museum" that will showcase the history of Germany's Jews dating back to ancient Roman times. The museum's design and modern, interactive exhibits, he says, complement the architectonic features of the building.
In addition to its exhibition halls, the museum will contain an archive, a documentation center, a forum for public events, and a learning center particularly for younger visitors.
Both Defiance and Hope
"How does one fill such a bombastic building?" was on the mind of many a visitor before the museum opened. The difficult task of organizing the exhibits in the labyrinth-like halls went to Ken Gorbey a New Zealand archaeologist and art historian. To Gorbey, the museum is a built paradox: it speaks of destruction and of the triumph over destruction; it points up absence and is overwhelmingly present.
That might remind some of the first Jewish Museum in Berlin, which opened in January 1933, just one week before Hitler became chancellor of Germany. As a sign of protest to the Nazis, that museum deliberately featured an exhibition of work by artists of the Berlin Secessionists, led by the German Jewish Max Liebermann.
"This museum is a new emblem of hope," says Libeskind of his creation. "It underscores the necessity to create a different — and by different, I mean ethical — architecture for the 21st century, which is based on a fundamentally transformed political, cultural, and spiritual experience of the 21st century."
He adds: "I hope that this building, at the same time an epilogue and a prologue, will reflect something of the essence of today, which also means tomorrow."
Lili Eylon is a freelance writer based in Jerusalem and a contributing editor to ArchitectureWeek.