The Jagged Edge

Daniel Libeskind's Jewish Museum in Berlin is an architectural lightning bolt aimed squarely at the history of German Jewry.

Architect Daniel Libeskind stretched a Star of David until its form was almost unrecognizable. That, he explains, was the jumping-off point for his Jewish Museum in Berlin—the most talked-about building erected so far in the post-Wall city. The origin of the museum goes back to a design competition held in 1989 requiring that the new building connect to its neighbor, a reconstructed 18th-century edifice that was once a Prussian government building and that later housed the Berlin Municipal Museum. Of the 165 architects who submitted proposals, Libeskind alone decided that there could be no passageway aboveground between the new building and the old.

"You cannot have a bridge that connects the new Jewish Museum to this Baroque building," he says. "You cannot rebuild the bridge to that golden time. The only connection is through the void and the foundation."

The most startling aspect of the museum is how Libeskind used architecture to make his metaphor real. To reach the new building, you must go through the ornate main entrance of the old one and then descend slate steps to an underground level, where the floor is pitched at a three percent tilt. The subtle skew is just enough to make you feel uneasy without your quite knowing why.

The Jewish Museum, which was completed early last year and will open its inaugural exhibition in 2001, occupies a long, narrow plot in Kreuzberg, just south of the city center, a neighborhood that was mostly destroyed by air raids during World War II and now features undistinguished housing blocks. Clad in zinc sheets, which will darken with age, and slashed by strip windows set at crazy diagonals, the museum zigs and zags like a lightning bolt or a shattered Star of David. Although it is constructed around seven empty spaces the architect calls voids, to the visitor inside the building unfolds directly, if discontinuously, by way of bridges that traverse the voids.

In Berlin, where the Nazi destruction of European Jewry was planned, anyone designing a Jewish museum must somehow acknowledge that there is no way to encapsulate that enormity. The difficulty reminded Libeskind, a trained musician, of Arnold Schönberg's Biblical opera, Moses und Aron, which was left unfinished. Having composed Aron's argument for allowing the populace to worship images, Schönberg found it impossible to set the notes for Moses' response, that God is—and must be—inconceivable to mankind. In short, the composer failed to find music to express the unutterable name of God.

For Libeskind, the challenge in Berlin was not only to evoke the unfathomable; it was also to make visible what had vanished. "The connection of Jews to this city and what they had to do with the history of the city is no longer readily apparent," he says. To conjure up these hidden relationships, he resorted to a peculiar stratagem. He took a street map of prewar Berlin and superimposed it on a plan of the building site. Then he paired names of former Berliners according to shared sensibility: poet Paul Celan and architect Mies van der Rohe, saloniste Rachel Varnhagen and philosopher Friedrich Schleiermacher, and so on. By drawing lines between their street addresses Libeskind arrived at the lengths and angles of his windows. Of the 1,005 windows in the building, all but five are unique, and most are not rectilinear. Twelve plus-signs (resembling crosses) also punctuate the building's skin, intended to suggest the intersection of latitude and longitude. Libeskind decided that the underlying geometry required no explanation to be appreciated. "Only certain musicians know about the intricate details of how Bach fugues work with the letters of his name," he says. Offering another analogy, he compares his working from coupled addresses to Schönberg's system of serial music, in which an initial sequence generates a complete piece.

Engineers informed Libeskind that his windows were technically unfeasible. But he persisted, and about 80 percent of them were built as designed (the other 20 percent were changed for both engineering and curatorial reasons). "It's hard to remain intelligently ignorant," he says. In fact, it was easier back then, because the Jewish Museum was his first commission. Previously, Libeskind had established his reputation as a teacher, theorist, and critic of architecture. When his design was chosen he was in the midst of moving his family from Milan to Los Angeles, where he had been awarded a Senior Getty Scholarship at the Getty Center. "We came to Berlin to accept the prize and Daniel realized that were we not to be here, the museum would never be built," says his wife, Nina, who now manages her husband's office. With their three children, the Libeskinds abruptly changed direction, moving to Berlin in 1989, the year that the Wall came down.

As the child of Polish Jews who'd fled east from the Nazis, Daniel Libeskind did not move to Berlin lightheartedly. "I was born just about two hundred kilometers from here, and this was not a place I expected ever to come back to," he says. "I was almost disowned by my family for doing so. You can imagine what Holocaust survivors would think. It wasn't easy to say, 'I'm going to Berlin, and I'm going to bring up my children in the German school system.' "

Libeskind is a short man of enormous energy whose words, as his enthusiasm rises, spill out in torrents. In person, he is nearly as austere as his building—gray leather sports jacket, wire-framed glasses, gray-white shock of hair. He was born in Poland in 1946, a year after his parents were released from Soviet camps, where they had been political prisoners. The family lived in Poland until Daniel was 11; that year the government permitted Jews to emigrate. The Libeskinds moved first to Israel, and then to New York. Daniel originally spoke Yiddish and Polish, and he now speaks English with a slight accent.

Encouraged by his parents to study the piano (they first bought him an accordion, fearing the ostentation of a piano would provoke Polish anti-Semites), Libeskind showed himself a prodigy. In 1959 he won the America-Israel Cultural Foundation Award, which has gone to such virtuosos as Daniel Barenboim, Pinchas Zukerman, and Itzhak Perlman. "Isaac Stern, who was one of the three judges, later told me I was the only one who ever won who did not pursue music," Libeskind says, laughing. When he was 17, living in New York, he abandoned the piano. "I just thought I would rather do something that was less ephemeral," he explains.

He was already drawing and painting, and he was passionate about mathematics. What made him commit himself to architecture, however, was a fascination with human relations and an adherence, which he shares with his wife, to progressive politics. "Architecture is not mathematics," he says. "It is not just a science. It has human constraints that cannot just be abstracted. Architecture always has gravity." Nina elaborates: "History and culture are what make Daniel interested in architecture, not just form." Yet all three of Libeskind's vocations—music, mathematics, and architecture—depend on the manipulation and modulation of numerically expressed relationships. Libeskind even wrote his official proposal for the competition on musical notation paper.

The entrance to the museum is the first of seven voids. Standing in this space—beneath a ceiling that soars 90 feet above the floor—you have to decide which of three paths to take. One road leads to the Stair of Continuity, a monumental staircase that is bound by high, confining concrete walls. It ascends to the second floor, which will display temporary exhibitions, and the third and fourth floors, which will contain the permanent collection. Overhead in the staircase are diagonal concrete beams, which were not part of the original design; when the engineers told Libeskind that more support was required, he put in six beams to buttress the weak points, and a seventh to satisfy his aesthetic and numerological inclinations. At the fourth floor, the Stair of Continuity comes to an abrupt dead end. As with many of the spaces in the museum, it sounds a bit literal and programmatic when described in words. Experienced, it carries a powerful emotional charge.

A second path leads to a door opening on the E.T.A. Hoffmann Garden (or the Garden of Exile and Emigration), in which the world has turned upside down. (Other than the entrance, it is the only exit portal.) The ground is paved in Belgian cobblestone and pitched at a slight angle to the horizontal, and the garden consists of 49 concrete columns—each 23 feet high. Arranged in a seven-by-seven grid and set at a right angle to the oblique floor plane, each column encases a willow oak—chosen because its leaves reminded Libeskind of the olive trees of Israel, and for its habit of horizontal growth. The branches should eventually form a canopy without obscuring the smooth, polished concrete "trunks."

"Most visitors feel a nausea in the garden," Libeskind says. "You become slightly dizzy, as you would on a ship." Indeed, the tilt of the columns holds a particular significance in the history of Libeskind's own exile. "I must have been one of the last immigrants to come to New York by boat," he says. "I did have that experience of seeing the phantasmagoria of Manhattan from the instability of the sea."

As with his oddly angled windows, the architect has a hermeneutical explanation for selecting the number of columns. Forty-eight of them represent Israel, which was founded as a state in 1948; and they contain soil from Berlin, because so many of the settlers in Israel, like Libeskind's parents, were European refugees from Hitler. "It is not a coincidence," he says, "that Israel was founded on the ashes of the Shoah." The central column holds soil from Jerusalem and, the architect says, stands for Berlin. To my mind, it represents one particular Berliner, Libeskind himself—who was three times an exile (from Poland, Israel, and America), and has found himself for the past decade among the small Jewish community that tenaciously survives in the German capital.

The garden bears a remarkable similarity to Peter Eisenman's subsequent competition-winning design for a Holocaust memorial in Berlin. After the resemblance was pointed out repeatedly, Eisenman was quoted in the German press as saying the E.T.A. Hoffmann Garden was the weakest part of Libeskind's building. The two men, who were friends, haven't spoken since.

The most unforgettable space in the museum comes at the end of the third path: the Holocaust void. Like the other six voids, it is sheathed on the outside in black graphite; inside it is raw concrete. To enter the Holocaust void you must pass through a door, which shuts behind you with a loud, ominous clang. You are left in a room neither heated nor air-conditioned. Its walls converge in a painfully acute angle. The sole illumination comes from a gap slashed at the top of the towering space; it has been positioned to provide only reflected light. A bare ladder affords access to the ceiling, but the first rung is tantalizingly inaccessible without a stepladder. Ten small, evenly placed perforations in one wall open to the outside world, which although invisible is audible. I heard murmurs of conversation, the distant shouts of children, and chillingly, the wail of sirens. "It is a completely radical space, so the public can understand that history had come to an end," Libeskind says. "Even large groups, when they enter, stop talking. Some feel it is like a cathedral. Others find it very disturbing. I have seen visitors leave very hurriedly."

Though it was his first commission, the Jewish Museum was not the first Libeskind building to be constructed. That distinction goes to the Felix Nussbaum House in Osnabrück, a similarly jagged building that houses the paintings of Nussbaum, a native of Osnabrück who died in Auschwitz. (Libeskind is now working on an addition to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, an Imperial War Museum-North near Manchester, and another Jewish Museum, this one in San Francisco.)

Frequent changes in government in Berlin and Germany delayed the project over the decade. "So many times after unification, people said, 'Why do we need a Jewish Museum? We want the money for the Olympics bid, we want it to build the stadium,' " Nina Libeskind comments. Her husband says that a mayor of Berlin once told him, "Had this been an ordinary museum, we would never have been able to justify the expenditure of money."

Now that it's built, for a relatively modest $62 million, the museum is widely hailed as the first outstanding work of new architecture in the vast building site that constitutes post-1989 Berlin. "The museum is very powerful," says Paul Goldberger, architecture critic for The New Yorker, who visited it while it was under construction. "I had had a fear before seeing it that the verbal rhetoric was going to drive everything, that it was almost a conceit, and the whole thing could not bear the weight of the conceit. At the end of the day, what matters with anyone of real talent is that the spaces have a power and integrity to themselves. And they do. It works as space. I think Libeskind is a remarkable talent."

From the beginning, Libeskind rejected the notion that the new building should be an extension of the Berlin Municipal Museum. "I didn't believe that you could compartmentalize the history of the Jews in Berlin, as you could a fashion or furniture department, because the Jews were not a department," Libeskind says. "Their history is woven through the history of this city."

He wanted to combine the older building (which he renovated) with the new structure (which he sheathed in zinc as a conscious allusion to the roof of its neighbor) in the belief that together their exhibits could narrate the story of all Berlin. But his mandate has changed shape as often as Proteus, and the two buildings have been joined to tell only the Jewish history of the city. (The Berlin Municipal Museum has been moved to other quarters.)

In 2001, the Jewish Museum will open to the public its collection depicting the history of German Jewry. Even with its vitrines vacant, the museum attracted about 93,000 visitors last year. There are those who think the architecture is so expressive that the museum would best be left empty, but Libeskind is not one of them. "The building," he says, "is very robust."