In the month of October the new Jewish Museum Berlin welcomed nearly 15,000 visitors, a number that does not seem impressive unless you are aware that the museum does not even open officially for another year. There is nothing to see in the building . . . except the building.
The empty museum's unusual popularity results in part from the long, highly public struggle to get the institution established and built. Mostly, however, it testifies to the strangeness and power of the architecture. Designed by Daniel Libeskind, the metal-clad building with more than 350 oddly shaped windows is profoundly atypical.
Like a startling wall, a barrier erected according to an indecipherable set of rules, the building zigs and zags memorably across a Berlin field near where the real Wall used to be. It is a compelling sight. The inside is even more so. Anyone who visits the museum is unlikely to forget the experience any time soon.
A wide, dark staircase leads downward, under the earth. Slanted, slate-floored corridors compel a visitor to choose between three unknown destinations. One of these turns out to be the tapering upward thrust of another stairwell, leading dramatically to the museum's empty exhibition halls. High ceilings. Long, bare, white walls. Sudden, sharply angled turns. Diagonal windows slicing through walls unexpectedly. Crazily.
Downstairs, back underground, the two other paths await. One directs you to a steel door that swings open heavily into the Holocaust Void--an odd, high, trapezoidal volume with concrete walls. There is a single source of light--a corner slice allowing daylight to penetrate the gloom, from an impossible height.
Another corridor remains. It guides you to a walled and cobble-stoned outdoor "garden of exile and emigration" whose chief feature is a grid of 49 tall, thick, rectangular concrete columns. From the top of each column grows a solitary Russian olive tree. The columns are slightly tilted. You walk among them. The world seems definitively askew.
The very idea of a Jewish Museum in Berlin is both shocking and apt. This is the city from which the deaths of 6 million European Jews were conceived and directed. It also is the city that, before the Nazi reign of terror from 1933 to 1945, thrived upon the cultural, scientific, commercial, educational and philanthropic contributions of its Jewish population.
Bitter ironies characterize Berlin's history. One of them is that the city's first Jewish Museum opened in 1933, the year that Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party rose to power. It closed in 1938, as Nazi attacks on Germany's Jews intensified in ferocity and thoroughness.
Creating a replacement for the original museum was a drawn-out process that began with a Jewish department of the city's history museum, housed in varying locations in the former West Berlin. When the architecture competition for the new building was held 10 years ago--just before the fall of the Berlin Wall--the competitors' assignment was to design a wing for an 18th-century palace that was to be renovated to house the city museum.
To summarize a complicated story, this department gradually evolved into the independent institution now known as the Jewish Museum Berlin. This evolution is due in parts to the sheer momentum of the idea, the needs of a growing collection and the political polish of former U.S. treasury secretary W. Michael Blumenthal, appointed director of the institution in 1997.
The power of Libeskind's architecture also played a major role. Unlike any of the other competition entries, his strongly articulated a separate identity for the Jewish department. The size of the proposed building and the drama of its form overshadowed the baroque palace, to which it was attached only via an underground stairwell.
An independent jury that ended up selecting it was by turns baffled, astonished and then convinced by Libeskind's proposal. Explaining its choice, the jury wrote that "the obvious thing may have been to build a normal museum, had not one entry put forward a quite extraordinary, completely autonomous solution." Today the palace serves as a sort of ornamental entryway to Libeskind's building and eventually will house the museum's temporary exhibitions. (The city museum will be housed in other locations.)
The jurors must also have realized that, for all of its forceful idiosyncrasy, Libeskind's design would make an admirable setting for many types of museum displays--the galleries are spacious, well lit and there is plenty of wall space. "People wonder whether the 'weird' architecture will cramp our style," says former Smithsonian executive Tom L. Freudenheim, now vice director and chief curator of the Jewish Museum Berlin. "But they will see, it is going to work out very well." The formal opening of the museum, with exhibits, is scheduled for next October.
Libeskind, now 53, was practically unknown outside of academic circles when he won this competition in 1989. Born in Poland in the aftermath of World War II, raised there and in Israel and educated as an architect in New York, Libeskind became known as an educator and a probing theorist. When he put pencil to paper to draw, he produced designs for complex machines or buildings whose primary purpose seemed to be to illustrate esoteric theories.
Today, however, two major Libeskind buildings have been completed--the museum in Berlin and the Felix Nussbaum Museum in the north German city of Osnabrueck. Others are underway--the Jewish Museum in San Francisco, the Imperial War Museum in Manchester, England, and a dramatic, spiraling addition to the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.
Each of Libeskind's designs is intended to be visually unique--he is an avatar of the modernist code of artistic originality. Nonetheless, there are family resemblances--a preference for sharp angles and fragmented forms, for instance. Above all, there are strong philosophical connections.
Libeskind is profoundly anti-classicist. To him, the classical rules of proportion, harmony, order, symmetry and balance--modestly manifested in the sedate 18th-century palace next to his Berlin creation--are closed, outmoded systems. He prefers the complex, the irrational and the intuitive to the straightforwardly rational--which he would deem to be only "supposedly" rational.
This artist-architect is a radical individualist and a visionary who seeks to go beyond the freedom of art for art's sake, beyond matters of pure form. Rather, he seeks in each building to establish new conditions for meaning, new ways of connecting buildings, places and spaces to history, contemporary life and the future.
The Jewish Museum Berlin exemplifies the intensity and complexity of Libeskind's search for architectural meaning. To arrive at the design, Libeskind says, he sought out the addresses of prominent Jewish and non-Jewish citizens, and plotted them on maps to produce complex angled geometries at the site--an "irrational matrix," he calls it. He also pored over two massive volumes straightforwardly recording the tragic fates of thousands of Berlin Jews. He was inspired by Berliner Arnold Schoenberg's unfinished opera, "Moses and Aaron," and by Berliner Walter Benjamin's essays on Berlin.
It is not at all clear how these ideas were transformed into the forms, spaces and materials we experience today in the building on Lindenstrasse. But the lack of direct correspondence between the building and these oblique approaches to architectural meaning--they can hardly be called methodologies--is neither surprising nor upsetting. What matters is that they worked.
The building on its own terms possesses a metaphorical power expressive of the rich, tragic history of Jews in Berlin, and of our complex responses to this history. In its stark simplicity, the Holocaust Void arouses complicated emotions and thoughts. The garden of exile is as powerful a reminder of life's uncertainties as has ever been built. The architecture is surprising and moving in many different ways, and will remain that way for a long, long time.
CAPTION: A slanted corridor, above, and street-level view of the new Jewish Museum Berlin, already drawing crowds even though it's not scheduled to open until late next year.