Frontpage Contents Search Press Office BTA logo italiano
Jewish Museum Berlin: an “architectural metaphor” 1  
Lucia Signore
ISSN 1127-4883     BTA - Telematic Bulletin of Art, 16th June 2014, n. 716
The Jewish Museum Berlin (fig. 1, 2), otherwise called with a longer name that is the result of continuous changes of mind: «Extension of Jewish Department in the Berlin Museum», is an architectural masterpiece realized by Daniel Libeskind. This construction is often included among Deconstructivist architectures, buildings that have lost the static solidity of classical architecture dissolving in fluid forms that convey big energy to structures that are no longer architectural boxes.

The Jewish Museum is an anticlassical structure or, using new expression, it is a liquid architecture whose fluidity depends on zigzag and broken up profile that gets away from Euclidean world. Architectural fluidity’s concept is not probably understandable and admissible because it is associated with the art of building that is always taken care to erect durable, solid and static structures.

But in contemporary age dominated by virtual fluidity of World Wide Web and Cyberspace, it is clear that the world of solidity and concreteness undergoes the influence of new concepts. From this «labyrinth without end»1 that is the Cyberspace, it is taken the element of disorientation. This is a characteristic of the Jewish Museum built by Libeskind and it is in conformity with architectural destabilization of Peter Eisenman who was teacher of Daniel Libeskind and also the theoretician of deconstruction’s concept in architectural context.

The labyrinthine characteristic is omnipresent in the Jewish Museum, from the underground to three exhibition upper floors where the visitor is fluently carried among various objects and findings that are chaotically preserved and disposed there. So they hamper grid-route with the black walls of inner voids and they oblige to pass round these obstructions that significantly re-propose a “tortuous” history.2 Chaos, dynamism (both inside and outside) and complexity are the foundations of the geometry of reference: it is not the Euclidean geometry of order, solidity and stability, but it is the fractal geometry.3

There are not geometrical figures anymore, but intersecting lines that don’t create 90-degrees angles longer by rejecting the classical grid of nine squares that Daniel Libeskind disliked intensely since he was at Cooper Union School. Marcos Novak’s reflections about this virtual architecture always mutable, impalpable and difficult to realize, are suitable for the graphic and building activity of Daniel Libeskind who realized many drawings and plans for an imaginary and utopian architecture in which Piranesi’s Carceri 4 or Kandinskij’s abstract art (and I quote only these two examples) are very recurrent. These artists are mentioned by Marcos Novak because they are the forerunners of Cyberspace’s abstract spaces in which architecture «aims to become music»5, a continuous and mutable symphony, an elusive and dynamic piece of music like Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in which the art of music is very important.

Berlin construction erected on Lindenstrasse – built in Kreuzberg quarter, significantly near the city centre that puts a Jewish small collection up in the past - was constructed from 1989, a particularly important year for the historical developments of the entire world and for the progress of German culture (especially with reference to Jewish culture). Horrors and crimes committed by Nazi prevented to talk with people decimated for a long time; the weight of shame hushed everything up.

An almost unpronounceable word – Vergangenheitsbewältigung (comparison with the past) – was coined in the 50’s, but this word was used only thirty years later.6 Jews could be a problem in the bipolar world of Cold War, as East Germany and West Germany were separate politically and ideologically but they were united by a common and sad past. The fall of the Wall and the consequent reunification allowed German people to admit the horrors and the crimes that they committed and to recover the memories of the tragic parenthesis of 20th-century history from the oblivion in which they were sunk. Remember was necessary for confronting and trying to overcome a collective drama that pooled - and it sometimes still pools – defeated and winners, survivors and descendants of dead people in a condition of anxiety and sense of guilty. Historical memory is the fundamental concept of this architectural project: Holocaust cannot and mustn’t be forgotten because it is the most unmistakable event of Jewish past that must incite new generations to build a future in which there will not be tragedies. Kelsey Bankert spoke about traumatic architecture to underline that this structure not only commemorates a historical tragedy dramatically, but it also helps to overcome this sorrow with the setting up of therapeutic and cathartic spaces.7

Libeskind is ingenious in the design of this architectural metaphor: every single structural element and probably the numbers that indicate the sizes and colours of the spaces, the architectural plan of the whole shows a particular meaning. Libeskind builds thin symbolic references to various disciplines of humanistic field like historical-philosophical themes, or History of Art, Music and Literature, besides scientific notions that are necessary for building a structure. We know the four main sources of this project with absolute certainty: a map of Berlin’s city, Schönberg’s composition Moses and Aron, Gedenkbuch and Einbahnstrasse written by Walter Benjamin.

We wonder what was the utility of the map given that the place of edification was already established and the architects had inspected the site. The chosen area was near the Kollegienhaus that was an ancient courthouse – then used as a museum for showing historical findings - built by Philipp Gerlach in 1735. Libeskind meticulously searched the addresses where renowned men of culture lived in the eighteenth and nineteenth century on the map. Then he joined these names in a kind of «marriage»8 with a simple line. Ironically or out of thought, the lines on the map produced a star with six points, the Star of David that is the emblem of Jewish religion and discriminatory symbol in the twentieth century. The couples are: Rahel Levin Varnaghen with the Lutheran theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher (this line is superimposed on Lindenstrasse where the museum is built), Paul Celan and Mies van der Rohe, the poet E.T.A. Hoffmann and Friedrich von Kleist. In this typically Jewish “frame”, Libeskind placed his structure with its forms reproducing again a star with six points, but it is broken up and it is reproduced with a twisty form that does not render immediately understandable its meaning. It is necessary to underline that this contour is visible only by an aerial view and it seems a lightning so the Berliners use the word blitz to indicate this structure (fig.3).

The second source is musical: Libeskind focuses his attention on the third act no music of Arnold Schönberg’s Moses and Aron. This musician was Jewish so he was obliged to leave Europe in the 1930s because of inflamed anti-Semitic hate. So his musical work that exalts biblical personalities has remained incomplete and this very concept of incommunicability and the silence that characterizes the third act inspired Libeskind. He transforms the absence of sound into voids that are impenetrable spaces that divide the architectural structure. The void is the most important structural element of this construction because it is particularly meaningful to indicate physical absence of people murdered in concentration camps, or the silence of physicists, writers and artists.

Therefore the same Schönberg was victim of Hitler’s hate, so he is remembered like many other murdered or exiled Jews that left a void and a bitter silence, but the memory at least. In this museum that is like the sacred places in which we enter with a «processional ritual»9, it is possible to render homage to Holocaust’s victims with a silent prayer or with the reading of many names that would have filled the voids. So our voice would have modulated a hollow litany or a lugubrious dirge by reading that interminable list of names then not engraved on the walls. These names of ghostly identities are not fruits of his amazing fantasy, but they are written in Gedenkbuch (third font) that are two voluminous books in which there are the names of deportees with the dates of birth and deportation and the name of concentration camps.

Fourth and last source is the above-mentioned essay of Walter Benjamin that is a collection of aphorisms for friends in which surrealistically it is possible to reconstruct the topological and spiritual profile of Berlin in the 1920s, but by following a not linear and confusing route. Thoughts, dreams and places are not described consequently, provoking «the sensation of lack of sense of direction, the fail of spatial and temporal sense (to) reader-visitor»10 and this surrealistic peculiarity of loss that makes this literary text similar to the architectural text of Libeskind, because architecture is a text, as suggested by Derrida.11

Analyzing the urban context in which the Jüdisches Museum is placed, it is possible to observe the considerable unlikeness between this construction and those built in the past (Kollegienhaus and houses) on the same side of Lindenstrasse. This museum shares only the height with other structures in accordance with town-plan. But in front of Kollegienhaus there is the Academy of Jewish Museum built by Libeskind in 2011.12 This structure talks with pre-existing ones and it recalls the Jewish Museum particularly for the covering (in this case wood) that is ploughed with diagonal lines and also for the inclination of the entrance’s cube that recalls the Garden of Exile. The museum is in a vast green area. The green colour is present both in the lot of construction and in the lying space behind, the glazed court that Libeskind realized in the square space among three wings of the ancient 18th-century courthouse.

The two gardens were planned independently: the green space behind the Kollegienhaus was organized by Hans Kollhoff and Arthur Ovaska in line with the style of the 18th-century palace; the one around Libeskind’s structure by Cornelia Müller, Jan Wehberg and Elmar Knippschild. They created a space that allows Libeskind’s structure to be integrated in the surrounding environment by using flagstones and by planting particular and symbolic trees. The reference to Paul Celan, poet and award-winner man of letters explicitly commemorated by Libeskind, is very interesting: in a space obtained among building walls, Celan’s court is accessible from the outside and presents a relief on the floor designed by the poet’s widow Gisèle Celan-Lestrange.

While the close structures show a composition based on first geometrical forms and volumes in the light of geometrical analysis – for example the Kollegienhaus is inscribed in a square, or the houses are disposed rhythmically one in front of the other in a proportional manner that re-propose cubes – the Jewish Museum is notably different because it is a structure with a fragmented development based on an open broken line. By tracing the prolongations of individual segments that constitute the zigzag line it is not possible to obtain important centres of projection. The irregular form is produced by two directional lines: one is tortuous and taut to infinite (blue line) acting as a model for elevation; the other one «straight but broken»13 (red line) determines the continuous inner void (fig. 4).14

The structure is mixed, as a result of the union among continuous and point-shaped structures, realized with steel pillars that are visible also in the “cuts” on the surface and that exceed the typical dimensions of a full masonry structure (fig. 5), and with reinforced concrete which is possible to see in the inner voids. This allows to individualize other differences between the plans of the museum and the Kollegienhaus because the latter has a full masonry structure - in line with 18th-century architectural rules – that conveys the solidity and the static nature that are absent in the fluid museum of Libeskind.

It is interesting to analyze the relationship between full and empty spaces that are subject to a transposition from the outside to inside and vice versa. The long and thin windows that are the voids of the external surface take shape inside by means of reinforced concrete pillars (fig. 6) that are disposed obliquely and are incumbent like «always present menaces»15 on the principal stairwell. The pillars are the inner prosecution of the external gaps as well as, by contrast, the windows are the continuation of the inner girders. Moreover the light contributes to make a connection between inside and outside, full and empty, because the rays of light that enter through the windows (or voids precisely) are reflected on white and bare (but full) inside walls. Following the “anticlassical code”, the windows are all different and are not disposed sequentially and modularly; instead Gerlach chose to divide the surface horizontally with two orders of windows and to scan it rhythmically also with pilaster strips that individualize five rectangular modules vertically (fig. 7).

So the design is based on the concept of symmetry: the main module, in which Kollegienhaus’ hallway is placed (but also the Judisches Museum’), is particularly accentuated through bigger windows, a balcony on the second floor and a tympanum on which there are two allegorical statues representing Justice and Prudence. It is possible to discern another characteristic that distinguishes the two buildings from a bird’s eye view: the ancient courthouse has a red mansard-roof, while Libeskind’s building has a flat roofing (a homage to Schinkel who, with his flat roofings, revolutionized 19th-century Berliner architecture) on which it is possible to see pipes and all parts of different systems. All is displayed, nothing is hidden in the masonry.16

Also Daniel Libeskind appeals to labyrinthine scheme in accordance with the principles of Decostructivism, of which he is a member (even if he does not like to be defined as such), for undermine the classical sense of direction produced from the traditional architectural boxes. This way the visitor is involved both emotionally and physically. Heart, mind and all senses are stimulated to make the visitor identify himself with a Jew. So the usual practice to put passively the visitor in or in front of a structure is changed. The trouble, uncertainty and anxiety are considerable when going into the museum or even before entering it because it is possible to notice an anomaly by staying on the Lindenstrasse: the contemporary building that appears autonomous looking onto the courthouse – that is so different for colour, style and form – instead depends tightly on it because Libeskind’s museum does not have a hallway. This choice that is in line with an anticlassical canon – in fact the hallway is often accentuated in the classical tradition to put it in a central position into the symmetric decoration that is typical of modular planning of the front, like the Kollegienhaus – is symbolic. In a competitive examination it was clearly expressed that the building would have been erected significantly in the triangular-shaped area near the Kollegienhaus and it would have been presumably autonomous. Instead Libeskind has connected the two buildings through a steep stairway and an underground passage that takes - like he said- to the «roots» of Berliner history in which it is not possible to separate the German history from the Jewish one. So whoever wants to visit the new Jewish Museum has to go into the adjoining 18th-century building and go down through some stairs that provoke a new and strong sense of uncertainty because it is impossible to see what is at the end of the staircase.

The insecurity (especially in the first part of the route) makes the visitors have something in common with the dramatic experience of exile, of the last journey towards death and of the resumption of life (for the survivors) after so much suffering. Hebrews did not have certainties and assurances when they left for new, unknown and distant lands; they did not have awareness of destination of that journey – for many without return – towards the concentration camps; the survivors did not have the serenity and the peace to turn their attention to a new life that brought the unforgettable signs of a painful past.

So, how is it possible to re-create those unpleasant sensations with reference to classical architecture, to its forms and its reassuring principles which inspired the art of the enemy? It was an obliged choice to reject the 90-degrees angle for the acute angle, to incline the floor to tire the visitor during the visit, to make the windows smaller to prevent too much light from entering and avoid contact with the exterior. 17

So the grey atmosphere of the concentration camps is recreated, in which the people lived in half-light, in complete alienation, having only the certainty to have been imprisoned, to be maltreated and probably to be led towards death. For an emotional or sensible architecture in which all senses – also the ones before disregarded- are stimulated to promote «sensorial perception in the aesthetic experience and in the cultural fruition»18 it is compulsory to reject the classical statement of the box and the established planning of the expositive route that required a common state of visitors. Instead they have to play an active role, search for the right way and therefore change their sense of orientation.

This is further complicated in the underground space built in reinforced continuous-septum concrete in which there are three passages that are all serving spaces (or spaces of connection) and served spaces because it is possible to see cases in which there are objects of some Jews (fig. 8). After the descent through the staircase between the two buildings, the visitor is on the Axis of the Continuity which is a long corridor which ends with another staircase that brings to the surface. So it is possible to continue the route by following the signs of history even if it is possible to do it only after a purification by crossing the other two axes. Like a “second Dante”, the tourist has to go down to infernal abyss and he/she has to experiment the absolute evil produced principally by the Shoah. Even if various findings telling of two thousand years of history are silently preserved in this museum, Daniel Libeskind decided to stress the most tragic historical event because it interlaces with the past and the future of Jews, but also with those of all humanity.

At first the visitor is invited to cross the Axis of Exile that ends with a trapezoidal wall of glass near a door that takes to Garden of Exile, otherwise called E.T.A. Hoffman Garden. It is a served space with an area of forty-nine square metres (fig. 9). It is an open space but paradoxically claustrophobic because the colours of the nature are overcome by the grey and the grass is replaced by concrete; because it is not possible to see the sky; because the visitor finds himself in a forest of pillars and over them, through an overturning, there are olive trees. So it is not a classical garden, it is not an oasis of peace, it is not a green space in which it is possible to admire the classical natural views: by entering this garden the sense of alienation is very strong and it induces to escape. Here the labyrinthine element is particularly evident and the lack of balance that forces some people to lean to pillars, by stimulating also the touch, is caused not only by the use of equal and equidistant pillars but also by the inclination of six degrees of the floor.

The same expedient was used by Peter Eisenman for the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin (fig. 10). Also in this space, which appears like a big crackle by Burri, the apprehension is very strong when walking through two thousand and seven hundred parallelepipeds of increasing height. Fabio Colonnese defined the E.T.A. Hoffman Garden «the most labyrinthine interpretation of the hypostyle hall»19 the ceiling of which is the sky that leans on the soft foliage of the olive trees that are planted on the top of the forty-nine pillars to symbolize the regeneration after the tragedy and –as Zambelli said – the adaptability of the “people without earth”.20 The number of the pillars is not fortuitous but it is symbolic: forty-eight pillars filled with Berliner earth represent the year 1948 (the date of birth of the Palestine); the forty- nine placed in the middle of the area and filled with Palestinian earth represent the city of Berlin in which the remarkable Jewish community played an important role not only for economy but also for culture. Libeskind describes this garden as the «wreck of history»21, the space in which every certainty fails and contrasting feelings collide like despair and hope represented by the green of the foliage.

After this dramatic experience, the visitor has to face another one more dramatic: the Holocaust. Physically the route is challenging because the Axes of Exile and of the Holocaust have a floor inclination and the body is submitted to a strong change of temperature. The Axis of the Holocaust has laterally trapezoidal cases containing objects of the victims of the Shoah, but it is necessary to get close to see them because the cases are closed with opaque glass as if the objects were relics. By contrast this passage, that intersects significantly the other two, ends with a black door that takes in another space in which there is no warmth because the trapezoidal tower called Voided Void (a served space) intentionally lacks heating and cooling systems.

The heavy infernal door is slammed behind the visitor making a thud that roars in the darkness of the tower illuminated only by a slit. There is nothing in this claustrophobic space, only a staircase (perhaps Jacob’s Ladder that joins earthly world and heavenly world) which is not reachable. There is no escape. In this space of death it is possible to hear only the roar of the metal door from which other “deportees” pass and the voices of children who play in the near kindergarten. The tourist hears the sound of life that swarms out of this oppressive space that recalls the chimneys of crematoriums22, or gas chambers23 or also the wagons in which the Jews were condensed during their last journey. Actually the light that enlightens the darkness in the tower recalls Yaffa Eliach’s book Non ricordare…non dimenticare: l’Olocausto raccontato con la speranza chassidica nell’umanità. Initially Libeskind thought to build a big void room to suggest the image of a gas chamber, but the tale of this woman distorted his projects. Yaffa Eliach remembers her journey: she saw a white line (probably a cloud or a trail of an airplane) that gave her the hope to see again the sky. And it happened.24

Also in the underground it is possible to see two voids in the learning center on the right of the staircase. It is possible to arrive to the voids through a zig-zag course created by different separators. The only accessible void is the Memory void which is reachable through the Eric F. Ross Gallery on the first floor where temporary exhibitions are organized. In the Memory void there is the installation Shalechet (Fallen leaves) created by the Israeli artist Menashe Kadishman: many bronze faces of different sizes and with open mouths that silently shout completely cover the floor (fig. 11).

Now we have to identify ourselves with the anti-Semites and trample on the dignity of “different” men, women and children: by walking on those faces it is not possible to feel any pleasant sensation because the noise is very disturbing and the run is rough. So the visitor runs the risk of falling, hurting himself because a physical fall becomes the symbol of a spiritual fall. After this cathartic journey it is possible to continue and to discover other fundamental events of Jewish history by following the Staircase of Continuity or Sackler Staircase (from the name of a supporter of the museum). Oblique beams of cement hang over it and a white wall is erected at the edge. By turning left the expositive route starts and it allows reviving Jewish history from the Middle Age to our days through artistic objects, dresses, papers, photographs, small models and tales that are visible and audible by means of many different interactive objects that stimulate all the senses.

The rout is labyrinthine also in this only zig-zag passage that does not have rooms as in a classical museum, but small cosy or raised spaces that are obtained by zig-zag or trapezoidal separators or by voids, recognizable from the black colour of the walls, that cross the whole structure. The expositive spaces are illuminated by artificial lights because the natural one that filters through the zinc-plated blanket, on which there are one thousand and five hundred windows that represent the piece of the shattered Star of David, is very dim.

As for the colours chosen to paint the walls, Marco Biraghi talked about «cromoclastia»25 because the predominating colours - or non-colours- are white and black with the intermediate grey for the six voids that are symbolically built with unrefined concrete. It is a matter of journalistic colours that are suitable for the narration, for a sad narration that remembers many histories equalized by a tragic epilogue. Grey is also used for the external covering made of zinc that permits to change the colour of the surface – that is destined to become blue (this is another element that makes this structure mutable depending on temporal fluidity, on Eraclito’s panta rei) - and to make an umpteenth and fine reference to the more known and tragic events of Jewish history that are remembered in the underground also by means of the Raphael Roth Learning Center. Hugh Aldersy-Williams understands the metaphoric value of zinc through a reference to psychoanalysis, to the oneiric world, to the interpretation of dreams, because this metal is associated to emigration (symbolized by the Garden of Exile) and to the death because it is used to close the coffins. In fact the researcher defines this structure like «a big sarcophagus»26 that contains the ashes of the thousands of victims of the Holocaust (represented by the trapezoidal Tower) and to preserve the memory.

I think that the ashes are represented by the sand containing a sort of a trapezoidal seeded-patch located in the outside garden. The trapezium, a geometrical figure that is continually used for spaces which represent void, absence and silence, allows us to get a subtle and presumed reference to the setting of the concentration camp. The connection is with the first lager built in Dachau where the crematory ovens, symbolized, as I remember, by the Tower, were placed in a trapezoidal plot.27 This geometrical form is also present in the Felix Nussbaum Museum in which a Jewish painter killed in a concentration camp in 1944 is remembered and in the plot of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe erected by Peter Eisenman.

From the summary description it is possible to understand that Daniel Libeskind has been particularly involved emotionally by planning this construction as if his parents, who were interned and who were forced to do continuous escapes after the liberation, had transmitted him their pain genetically. Tales, papers and discrimination permitted Daniel Libeskind to win and to materialize a project for the first time. The Jewish Museum Berlin is the first construction erected by him in parallel with the Felix Nussbaum Museum in Osnabrück28 (figg. 12, 13) when he was fifty-year old. Previously he devoted himself to a teaching career and to graphic activity in which the echo of Metaphysics, Surrealism and Cubism (but not only) is very recurrent. So, why did Libeskind manage to overcome a very long period of pure conception exactly in that moment and with this project? Vittorio Magnago Lampugnani asked this question to him in 1991 and he answered that «idea, method and desire» melted in relation of continuity and evolution in comparison with what he had done previously.29

Many announcements of a competitive examination are on his writing-desk but he chooses only those in which he can convey a message and the Jewish Museum is one of these. In his autobiography he says that we have to “read” his architectures like a text30, «destabilizing architectural texts»31, as Eisenman says, that are subject to different interpretations and that present many references to other writings of different natures. This metaphor strengthens further the connection with the philosophical-literary world from which the De-constructivism derives. With this name it is classified a group of architectural works in which «repressed impurities»32 re-emerge and through which it is possible to deliver a new architectural language in the past, sometimes without consideration.33

The project of Jewish Museum is known with the name Between the lines probably by recalling also Eisenman’s between. This architect approached deconstruction theories to destabilize architecture since the 1980s and he defined the between «a juxtaposition of structures» in which one does not prevail on another. He talked about «middle interstice forms that admit the irrational in the rational, so as the presumed ugly in the presumed beauty whose respective borders are not now so distinct and universally recognizable yet».34

It is possible to notice this mixing of different elements also in the work done of Libeskind who creates “harmonic contrasts” by means of approaching stylistically different structures: for example the Jewish Museum is a contemporary and liquid structure linked to the eighteenth-century that has the traditional plan of a box.35 Libeskind defines harmony what is considered a contrast in a banal way and he explains this concept with a musical image: disparate pieces that show many differences are included in the whole of classical music and yet they live together under the same name and their performances one after the other don’t produce any violent contrast.

The reference to the musical world is recurrent in the treatises about Libeskind’s work because he did not forsake this big passion cultivated since he was a child and then only apparently set aside for graphic and architecture. The title of the project has a literary and musical background: the lines are not made of thought; they are not only the drawn and intersecting lines to create the inner voids, but they are also the lines of the staff on which he showed graphically and descriptively his project to submit it to the judgment of the committee. The connection with music was troublesome in the past because he couldn’t play the piano when he was a child because this instrument could arise suspicion. He was obliged to play an accordion that was used for folk music and so it was not the object of anti-Semitic retaliation. Also he won a prestigious prize with this instrument. Even when he decided to dedicate his time to the design, music continued to have an important role and it is confirmed by the continuous references to the paintings of Kandinskij (influenced by Arnold Schönberg36) whose abstract art gets inspiration from the music that is not regulated by the principle of mimesis imposed by the academic culture in the figurative context.

Libeskind has been always anti-academic by rejecting the comparison with the 90-degrees angle, the «nine square grid problem» and Euclidian geometry since he was at school.37 «(Libeskind) non utilizza il mondo reazionario dei morfemi classici, quanto le immagini appartenenti alle esperienze avanguardiste del Novecento»38, Antonello Marotta said and the Jewish Museum shows it. So it had been necessary to wait ten years before seeing the completion of the construction at the risk to forsake the work and to rectify (suffice it to think of external walls that were sloping at first). Few people believed in his work so eccentric and almost utopian and also the best architects of the twentieth century were skeptical, as, for example, Philip Johnson who gaped when Libeskind showed him the project. And yet he made it by resisting tenaciously the reviews like the one published on Casabella in November 1989, in which it is possible to read an article in which the winner is announced, but the second best project, Walter Nobel’s, is exalted.39 Also I remember that the museum opened empty in 1999 (the same year Libeskind won the Architecture Prize) recording a conspicuous number of visitors.

This event caused other controversies after the official inauguration in September 2001 (a very significant date for Libeskind because of the downfall of the Twin Towers)40 because it spread the idea that the museum, considered a three-dimensional artwork, had to remain empty because the emotional impact would be superior. The sense of emptiness, nihilism and absence would be stronger; the visit would be more exciting. In fact Bruno Zevi defined this structure «Espressionismo a scala metropolitana, non più pago di urlare, deciso a rievocare l’orrore in modo gelido, tagliente, spietato».41 The reference to Expressionism well recaps the work of Libeskind and of all Jew artists because by means of this artistic movement artists can express their emotions through disturbing and monstrous figures, through distorted images that it is not possible to see in the nature because they are not realized with the classical principle of mimesis. And doesn’t Libeskind plan architectures that break up with the classical rudiments to better express his reflections and his pains? The reference to Expressionism becomes more suitable linguistically and terminologically because the German Expressionist group chose the name Die Brücke (that means Bridge) by taking inspiration from Nietzsche’s philosophy and Kelsey Bankert used the image of the bridge to indicate the function of this building that is an «architecture of trauma»: « a bridge between the memory of tragedy and the future of traumatized people».42

These references reaffirms the liquid anti-classicism which is at the basis of architecture and of this architecture, or «anarchitettura»43 that can be included in the group of anti-monuments erected in Berlin after the reunification. The choice to reject the monumentality and the classical rudiments is symbolic because these characteristics have been exasperated from Nazism, so the artists called to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust chose a style opposed to the one used to glorify the Nazi ideology. For example in the German city of Kassel with the “anti-fountain” built in the square in front of the municipal building, Hoheisel overturned the monument because the old neo-Gothic fountain built by a Jew entrepreneur and demolished at the end of the 1930s was rebuilt but in the opposite direction. So the water does not gush upwards but it converges in the earth. It is possible to render the memory more living by re-proposing its absence rather than restoring its original aspect. Returning to Berlin, the concept of absence and emptiness is re-proposed also by Micha Ullman at Bebelplatz (fig. 14) where twenty thousand books have been burned by Nazi in 1933 and the memory of this sad event is materialized by a window opened on the floor and trough which it is possible to see an empty underground bookcase. It is necessary to put it in connection to Libeskind’s voids in the Jewish Museum because the message the two architects want to communicate is the same: remember even if there is not anything anymore.

«Only the spirit of the books and the people remains; they meet each other in the heavens».

After the construction of the Jewish Museum Daniel Libeskind has become an Archistar and many countries in the world ask him to leave his signature through a building and so he is forced to move continuously. Like an old Jew, Libeskind is a “nomadic architect” who, since he was a child, has been forced to emigrate and look for a place in which it was not necessary to compare himself with “diversity”. The United States and particularly the Bronx gave him serenity and liberty which is symbolized by the most famous statue in the world that was also the first image appeared to him when he disembarked in that land. Libeskind has started again to ravel for specializations, then for teaching career and now for construction of buildings: he still is a stateless person but now he leads his existence under the banner of nomadism with a different spirit.

English translation revised and corrected by Giulia Martina Weston.


1 M. NOVAK, Architetture liquide nel ciberspazio, in Cyberspace. I primi passi nella realtà virtuale, Padova, F. Muzzio, 1993, p. 257.
2 Fabio Colonnese says that the grid-labyrinth recalls World Wide Web’s hyper textual models because they agree rather with liquid, mutable and pulsating virtual architectures than static construction of real world.
3 I suggest the following texts for investigation: N. SALA, G. CAPPELLATO, Architetture della complessità: la geometria frattale tra arte, architettura e territorio, Milano, F. Angeli, 2004.
4 A. MAROTTA, Daniel Libeskind, Roma, Edilstampa, 2007, p. 25.
5 M. NOVAK 1993, p. 261.
6 V. VANNUCCINI, F. PEDRAZZI, Piccolo viaggio nell’anima tedesca, Milano, Feltrinelli, 2005, p. 65.
7 K. BANKERT, The Architecture of Trauma: Daniel Libeskind in New York City and Berlin, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013.She examined carefully studies of the psychoanalytic nature effects on people that suffered from collective dramas and then she analyzed two buildings by Daniel Libeskind erected with the same emotional participation: the Jewish Museum Berlin and the Ground Zero project to restore the quarter in which Twins Towers rose to life. Even if there are differences between the two structures, their projects are very similar for the concept of drama associated with notion of absence and materialized by means of architectural void. Impracticable and most significant spaces of Berliner architectural structure are the six voids and the Voided Void, like New York depth of twenty-one metres – where Libeskind went down with his wife Nina and where he saw the retaining wall – is the main core of the sophisticated New York project. That impressive wall – a wall that would have inundated the city if it had collapsed – is the crucial point of a project like the Berliner voids in which the victims’ absence materializes itself. Also this wall is the only physical proof of that architectural whole shattered. One of the differences is the time passed between the tragic event and the architectural commemoration: New Yorkers set to work immediately not to forget and overcome the drama; instead it was necessary to wait many years in Germany because of political reasons and because the authors of “tragic sacrifice” were German themselves.
8 S. CRICHTON, D. LIBESKIND, Breaking Ground. Un’avventura tra architettura e vita, New York, Sperling & Kupfer, 2005, p. 87. Libeskind enumerates the six names that constitute the six vertices of Star of David in these pages in which there is the list of sources and he uses the verb «to marry» to indicate the connection of respective addresses by specifying the couples of names. The personalities mentioned by Libeskind are particularly important because they had particularly opposed existences that are characterized by exiles or suicides. For example Paul Celan threw himself in the river Seine when he was fifty-year old after continuous moves in many cities.I suggest another book for deepening: L. SACCHI, Daniel Libeskind: Museo Ebraico, Berlino, Torino, Testo & Immagine, 1998, pp. 50-51. Other references are in the following essay: D. LIBESKIND, Trauma, in Image and remembrance: representation and the Holocaust, a cura di S. Hornstein e F. Jacobowitz, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 2003, pp. 43-59.
9 L. SACCHI 1998, p. 59.
10 W. BENJAMIN, Strada a senso unico, a cura di Giulio SCHIAVONI, Torino, Einaudi, 2006, p. IX. The figure of Ariadne that allows to exit from Benjamin’s labyrinth is Asia Lacis, the woman loved by the writer that dedicates a street to her (the street opened in his hearth). The woman is called «ENGINEER» with capital letters. This work was dear to the Constructivists – as Giulio Schiavoni remembers – who were exponents of an artistic avant-garde Russian movement that is inspired by Cubism and Futurism, movements that are connected with Deconstructivism for anti-academic character and for the concept of separation into parts. Constructivist artists are brought back to life by Deconstructivist artists, as Mark Wigley said (he was the curator of the exhibition on Deconstructivist Architecture at MoMA in 1988 with Philip Johnson).
11 Jacques Derrida is a philosopher of the twentieth century who elaborated the theory of deconstruction tied initially to literary text in which it is possible to pick different explanatory levels by means of division of the whole text in many small parts. Then these remarks have extended to architecture that is considered a metaphorical expression of many messages like literature. Initially the word “deconstruction” was used, then “decostructionism” and from 1988 “deconstructivism”. An exhibition entitled Deconstructivist Architecture was organized in New York and the curators chose this name by referring terminologically to artistic- architectural movements of the twentieth century. Derrida moved his idea from literary context to architectural ambit thanks to the help of two well-known architects: Bernard Tschumi and Peter Eisenman. The latter, who was a teacher of Daniel Libeskind at the Cooper Union School, examined carefully this concept to make his architecture nearest to Jewish culture’s artistic rules and he did it through copious drafts of treatises and also structures that rely on this composition. With reference to C. ROSETI, La decostruzione e il decostruttivismo: pensiero e forma dell’architettura, Roma, Gangemi, 1997.
12 The Academy of Jewish Museum – built where there was a flower market in the past – is made of three main bodies in which there are an auditorium, a library with reading rooms and the entrance. Two letters of Jewish alphabet, Alef and Bet, are re-proposed in form of skylights on the cube of the entrance to underline the use of this construction. Also the building material has a symbolic significance and so it is possible to connect this structure with the Jewish Museum. On the left side of the front there is the following phrase translated in various languages: «Hear the truth, whoever speaks it».
13 B. ZEVI, Libeskind, in L’architettura: cronache e storia, n. 7, luglio- agosto 1994.
14 I believe that this outline is re-proposed also in the garden that surrounds Libeskind’s building because there are two long intersecting slabs of cement on which there are a straight line and an another one broken in ten segments. However it is not a three-dimensional representation of the project because the straight line would have had to intersect all ten segments. Therefore probably the architects made only a reference to directional lines and to lines of thought. They did not reproduce the intersection of the lines faithfully, perhaps also because of the small space.
15 M. ZAMBELLI, Museo Ebraico a Berlino, in Sopralluoghi, Arch’it,, 24 settembre 2000.
16 From the top it is possible to see two parallel skylights that represent one of the two directional lines (the red line of fig. 4). The skylights illuminate the voids and produce a luminous contrast between the dark expositive spaces that are illuminated with artificial lights and the void and impenetrable spaces that are instead very bright.
17 The architectural solutions mentioned are typical of a building erected with an «anticlassical code» that is explained by Bruno Zevi in an essay published in 1973. It looks like that his indications are followed in the next ten years when many deconstructivist projects were realized by some future Archistars. Bruno Zevi speaks about an architectural language that is dead: it is that of Classic tradition that demands a careful research because some drifted apart from Beaux Arts, we did not perceive that there are slight asymmetries even in the sacred place of classic of the Athenian acropolis. I indicate the following essay for further investigation: B. ZEVI, Il linguaggio moderno dell’architettura: guida al codice anticlassico, Torino, Einaudi, 1973.
18 I. PEZZINI, Architetture sensibili. Il Museo Ebraico e il Monumento alle Vittime dell’Olocausto a Berlino, in EǀC, Rivista on-line dell’ AISS Associazione Italiana Studi Semiotici,, 16 ottobre 2009.
19 F. COLONNESE, Il labirinto e l’architetto, Roma, Kappa, 2006, p. 297.
20 M. ZAMBELLI 2000.
21 D. LIBESKIND, Jewish Museum Berlin, Berlino, G+A Arts International, 2000, p. 41.
22 I. PEZZINI 2009.
23 M. ZAMBELLI 2000.
24 S. CRICHTON, D. LIBESKIND 2005, p. 53.
25 M. BIRAGHI, A. FARLENGA, Architettura del Novecento. Teorie, scuole, eventi, Torino, Einaudi, 2012, p. 193.
26 H. ALDERSEY – WILLIAMS, Favole periodiche. La vita avventurosa degli elementi chimici, Milano, Mondolibri, 2011.
27 Many debates have been made about the plans of concentration camps. Some of them, like that of Treblinka, have been prepared in trapezoidal plots. By using aerial photographs and confused and imprecise testimonies of survivors, historians have tried to reconstruct those dead spaces dismantled before the enemies’ arrival. Despite the levelings and the plantation of lupines grafted in those boundless plots, some tracks are yet visible and the researchers continue to reconstruct the tragic profiles of the lager with these information.
28 There are many affinities between the museums for the de-structured architectural plan and for the symbolism. The museum at Osnabrück was erected to remember the unknown Jewish painter Felix Nussbaum. Umpteenth victim of Aryan race’s hate, he was interned with his wife and after shifted to the concentration camp of Auschwitz from which he did not return. His pictorial production is made of self-portraits realized during the exile in narrow spaces that Libeskind wanted to recreate in the middle part of the structure (it is two metres wide). Also here Libeskind uses expedients that produce a sense of claustrophobia for the identification: for example the visitor has difficulty to go out (instead in the Jewish Museum the visitor does not find the entrance as if it is difficult to have an approach with Jewish history). I cite some articles published on reviews: M. DE MICHELIS, Museo Felix Nussbaum, Osnabrück, Germania, in Domus n. 809, novembre 1998, pp. 20-27; D. LIBESKIND, The Felix Nussbaum, Osnabrück, Germany, in A+U: Architecture and Urbanism, n. 12, dicembre 1998, pp. 82-101; C. WEGSCHEIDER, Museo Felix Nussbaum a Osnabrück, in L’industria delle costruzioni, n. 328, febbraio 1999, pp. 6-17.
29 D. LIBESKIND, Tra metodo, idea e desiderio, in Domus 731, 1991, pp. 17-28.
30 S. CRICHTON, D. LIBESKIND 2005, p. 89.
31 C. ROSETI 1997.
32 M. BIRAGHI, A. FARLENGA, 2012, p. 283. This expression has been pronounced by Mark Wigley during the presentation of the exhibition Deconstructivist Architecture to underline the connection with the Constructivism that has been deleted from Stalin’s Historical Realism, because, like the other dictators, Stalin wanted to restore Classicism to show a golden image of himself. Like psychoanalysts, the architects of the 1980s remove the taboos imposed to the artistic disciplines for long time.
33 I appeal to the above- mentioned essay of Bruno Zevi. He individualized anomalies not only in the classical world of Greeks and Romans, but also consequentially in the Renaissance that is inspired by the classic and in which he individualized the presence of architects that, even if highly representative of the Italian Reinassance, are sometimes anti-classical. A Resounding example is Michelangelo whose project for the square of Campidoglio in Rome or that for the fortification walls in Florence breaks with the classical rudiments of proportion, symmetry and modulation. He mentioned also Borromini, Palladio, defined «no placing» by Giulio Carlo Argan, and with a chronological jump Le Corbusier who elaborated the Five points of new Architecture to research freedom (watchword in anticlassical architecture) and Wright whose structures are erected with «democratic freedom», a freedom suppressed by the «dictatorship of the straight line».
34 Translation from C. ROSETI 1997, p. 126.
35 The approach of stylistically different buildings that belong to different ages is recurrent in Libeskind’s works. For example it is evident in the Felix Nussbaum Museum that rises close to a bridge of the XVII century. Libeskind used it to valorize it and integrated it in the project by covering it with new materials and by using it as the entrance of the new construction.
36 Arnold Schönberg took part in the development of artistic culture in the first part of the twentieth century, not only in the musical context but also in the figurative ambit through his participation to the Der Blau Reiter of which Kandinskij was an important exponent. Schönberg was the promoter of the dodecaphonic method and of atonalism that are influenced from Expressionism. He refused the hierarchical relation of notes and their temporal sequence with an «emancipation of the dissonance» in Bruno Zevi’s definition in his essay entitled Ebraismo e architettura.
37 Libeskind appeals (not exclusively) to the fractal geometry that studies the forms of nature. Casualness, disorder and complexity are predominant. These characteristics are subdued in the classical structures that are realized with precision, order and modular structural simplicity. Art, that has been related to nature since the origins, portrays the forms of fractal geometry, as the craggy engravings, or Egyptian capitals and, by doing a chronological jump, some projects in which there is the self-similarity principle which Michelangelo and Palladio show. By using sophisticated electronic instruments, the architects of contemporary times try their strength in the planning of complex buildings that recall natural forms in their unlikelihood appeal. Suffice it to think of the architectural flower designed by Frank O. Gehry: the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. N. SALA, G. CAPPELLATO 2004.
38 A. MAROTTA 2007, p. 21.
39 L’ampliamento del Berlin-Museum, in Casabella n. 562, novembre 1989, pp.31-32.
40 Even if Libeskind was born in Poland in 1946, he feels American because he found peace only in the United States after many transfers narrated in his autobiography. As an American he experienced a new collective drama: the attack to the Twin Towers. Also in this case, the strong emotional involvement allowed him to win the competition announcement for the reconstruction of Ground Zero in which he re-used and adapted to new circumstances some important concepts that are fundamental in the Berliner project.
41 B. ZEVI, Ebraismo e architettura, Firenze, Giuntina, 1993, p. 81.
42 K. BANKERT 2013, p. 9.
43 C. ROSETI 1997, p. 44.


Publication of competition announcement:


Presentation of the project:

June 1989

Laying of the foundation stone:

November 9ͭ ͪ, 1992

Period of construction:

1993 – 1999

Date of completion:

January 22, 1999


1999 (The Museum was empty)


Libeskind received the German Architectural Award in 1999

Setting up of collection:

1999 – 2001

Official inauguration:

September 13, 2001


Favole periodiche. La vita avventurosa degli elementi chimici, Milano, Mondolibri, 2011.

The Architecture of Trauma: Daniel Libeskind in New York City and Berlin, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013.

Strada a senso unico, a cura di Giulio SCHIAVONI, Torino, Einaudi, 2006.

Architettura del Novecento. Teorie, scuole, eventi, Torino, Einaudi, 2012.

L’ampliamento del Berlin-Museum,
in Casabella n. 562, novembre 1989, pp.31-32.

Il labirinto e l’architetto, Roma, Kappa, 2006.

Breaking ground. Un’avventura tra architettura e vita, New York, Sperling & Kupfer, 2005.

Museo Felix Nussbaum, Osnabrück, Germania, in Domus, n. 809, novembre 1998, pp. 20-27.

Tra metodo, idea e desiderio, in Domus 731, 1991, pp. 17-28.

The Felix Nussbaum, Osnabrück, Germany; and the Jewish Museum, Berlin, in A+U: Architecture and Urbanism, n. 12, dicembre 1998, pp. 82-101; pp. 102-121.

Jewish Museum Berlin, Berlino, G+A Arts International.

Trauma, in Image and remembrance: representation and the Holocaust, a cura di Shelley Hornstein e Florence Jacobowits, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 2003, pp. 43-59.

Antonello MAROTTA,
Daniel Libeskind, Roma, Edilstampa, 2007.

Isabella PEZZINI,
Architetture sensibili. Il Museo Ebraico e il Monumento alle Vittime dell’Olocausto a Berlino, in EǀC, Rivista on-line dell’ AISS Associazione Italiana Studi Semiotici,, 16 ottobre 2009.

Claudio ROSETI,
La decostruzione e il decostruttivismo : pensiero e forma dell'architettura, Roma, Gangemi, 1997.

Daniel Libeskind: Museo Ebraico, Berlino, Torino, Testo & Immagine, 1998.

Nicoletta SALA, Gabriele CAPPELLATO,
Architetture della complessità: la geometria frattale tra arte, architettura e territorio, Milano, F. Angeli, 2004.

Piccolo viaggio nell’anima tedesca, Milano, Feltrinelli, 2005.

Museo Felix Nussbaum a Osnabrück, in L’industria delle costruzioni, n. 328, febbraio 1999, pp. 6-17.

Museo Ebraico a Berlino, in Sopralluoghi, Arch’it,, 24 settembre 2000.

Bruno ZEVI,
Il linguaggio moderno dell’architettura: guida al codice anticlassico, Torino, Einaudi, 1973.

Ebraismo e architettura, Firenze, Giuntina, 1993.


Fig. 1
DANIEL LIBESKIND, Jewish Museum, Berlin, Germany, 1989-1999
Particular of one of the numerous fronts on which there are "cuts", long and narrow windows opened on the zinc surface asymmetrically by re-proposing a shattered design

Fig. 2
DANIEL LIBESKIND, Jewish Museum, Berlin, Germany, 1989-1999

Fig. 3
DANIEL LIBESKIND, Jewish Museum, Berlin, Germany, 1989-1999
An air photo that shows the zig-zag profile of the de-structured Star of David. Near the architectonic "blitz" there are the Tower of the Holocaust and the Garden of Exile. On the other side there is the Kollegienhaus with the glass court realized by Daniel Libeskind in 2007

Fig. 4
DANIEL LIBESKIND, Jewish Museum, Berlin, Germany, 1989-1999

Fig. 5
DANIEL LIBESKIND, Jewish Museum, Berlin, Germany, 1989-1999
Particular of the windows

Fig. 6
DANIEL LIBESKIND, Jewish Museum, Berlin, Germany, 1989-1999
Inside beams

Fig. 7
DANIEL LIBESKIND, Jewish Museum, Berlin, Germany, 1989-1999
Stylistic comparison between the Jewish Museum and the Kollegienhaus

Fig. 8
DANIEL LIBESKIND, Jewish Museum, Berlin, Germany, 1989-1999
Particular of the underground Axes' intersection

Fig. 9
DANIEL LIBESKIND, Jewish Museum, Berlin, Germany, 1989-1999
Garden of Exile or E.T.A. Hoffman Garden. It is possible to see the slope of the floor

Fig. 10
PETER EISENMAN, Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin, Germany, 1998-2005

Fig. 11
MENASHE KADISHMAN, Shalechet (Fallen leaves), Memory Void.
The skylights visible through the air photo illuminate the void and represent one of the two directional lines

Fig. 12
DANIEL LIBESKIND, Felix Nussbaum Museum, Osnabrück, Germany, 1994-1998.
An air photo

Fig. 13
DANIEL LIBESKIND, Felix Nussbaum Museum, Osnabrück, Germany, 1994-1998.

Fig. 14
MICHA ULLMAN, Bibliothek, Berlin, Germany, 1995


Photo Courtesy of Lucia Signore



BTA copyright PATRONS Mail to