The Berlin Museum

“There is a feeling of exhilaration when a building opens,” says Daniel Libeskind, “because architecture is the one art you cannot represent in a drawing or even a model. It has to be built in order to be experienced.”

At 52 years of age, Daniel Libeskind who was relatively unknown outside the academic world, burst into the international consciousness with the opening in September 2001 of his acclaimed Berlin Museum. It had taken ten years from the time Libeskind, a teacher of architecture who had never before built a building, was chosen to create what is up to now his most famous work. Once finished, it stood empty. Controversy shrouded the project and as a half million people toured the vacant building he wrote, “it acts as a lens magnifying the vectors of history.” The purpose of the Museum was debated on the streets and in the Senate. A holocaust museum? An art gallery? A historical monument?

Finally, it was decided that the museum would focus on the role of Jewish history in Berlin. Critics rated the Berlin Museum alongside Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain as the most exciting architectural innovation of the past decade. Gehry is quoted in Metropolis magazine in 1999, “Libeskind expressed an emotion with a building, a most difficult thing to do.”

To the casual tourist, the tall, zinc-clad, zig zag structure looks like a thunderbolt. It is fascinating and enigmatic. Libeskind says that the thunderbolt shape alludes to “a compressed and distorted” Star of David. There is no direct entrance to the new building but rather, as requested in the original competition program, one enters through the old baroque building and descends into the underground through a dramatic stair. At the bottom of the stair are the three rows of underground passages: one leading to the Garden of Exile and Emigration, one leading to the Staircase of Continuity and one leading to the dead end of the Holocaust Tower.

Jewish Museum, Berlin
Photo By Michele Nastasi,
There is a sense of disorientation. The 1005 windows are a signature to this building. “They are more like cuts than actual windows.” He explains. “They are the actual topographical lines joining addresses of Germans and Jews immediately around the site and radiating outwards–the writing of the addresses by the walls of the Museum itself.”

Cutting through the zig zag of the building is a straight line 22 meters high and 4 meters wide. The spaces created within the museum are voids–embodiments of absence. The most chilling of these voids is the Holocaust Tower itself, accessed only through the underground and lit by a thin window at the top of the tower.

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The memory void which is the largest of voids at the end of the museum resonates with a particular sound. “There is no third act, he explains, in Schoenberg’s opera Moses and Aaron, so really, it continues not in the space of music but in the space of the reverberations of the void.” Bernhard Schneider quotes him in the museum guidebook, “The Jewish Museum is conceived as an emblem in which the invisible and visible are the structural features which have been gathered in this space of Berlin and laid bare in an architecture where the unnamed remains the name which keeps still.”

As in all his designs, there is a seamless integration of the interior and exterior. “This is something I specifically set out to do,” he explains, “to get away from that old notion that there is something alien between the outside and inside. I’d rather that they are interconnected in every way.

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