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Libeskind’s thoughts are unlikely to win over the Maze Peace Centre sceptics

Libeskind’s thoughts on the Troubles are unlikely to win over the Maze Peace Centre sceptics, says Rory Olcayto

It’s a familiar argument. How can Daniel Libeskind be taken seriously as a thought-provoking architect when the angular, spiky style he conceived for his Jewish Museum in Berlin has since been used for luxury apartments in Singapore, a Swiss shopping centre and a university building in Hong Kong? Wasn’t it supposed to be symbolic - exclusively - of the mass murder, chaos and destruction wrought upon Jewish people? How could he justify using the same style of architecture for a Las Vegas project dubbed ‘Crystals’? That’s 2,400 private residences, two boutique hotels and a 61-storey resort casino foil-wrapped into a warped metallic heap.

But it’s not a fair dig. Firstly, the buildings cited don’t really look the same. Yes, they are angular, spiky and largely metal-clad, but the overall forms differ widely.

Furthermore, it is we that are being lazy, not Libeskind, when we say the Run Run Shaw Creative Media Centre in Hong Kong resembles his totemic Berlin museum. There are similarities in how windows cut into facades, and how giant shadow gaps score the ceilings of each building. But Hong Kong is multi-storey, a composition of interlocking diamond-like forms. Berlin, on the other hand, is a groundscraper, designed to contrast with a classical facade alongside. Yet most signature architects - Zaha Hadid and Richard Rogers to name but two - often re-use motifs irrespective of the brief, and are rarely accused of hypocrisy.

Secondly, if you were to stick with the logic that once a style has been used for a specific programme it can only be used again for a similar purpose, then any building resembling the Parthenon - and there are many thousands - must honour its original function. That would mean no more banks, libraries, town halls and the like in the style of the classical world’s most famous building. Unless, of course, they doubled up as temples to an ancient god of war. As far as I know, most don’t.

Thirdly, the social meaning of architectural forms rarely remain fixed. It doesn’t feel weird to get drunk in a church these days, because it has probably been converted to a pub, and Art Deco cinemas that became bingo halls are today more likely to be flats.

maze

Yet it does feel right to criticise Libeskind for his latest scheme, the Peace Building and Conflict Resolution Centre on the site of the former Maze prison in Belfast, approved by planners last week. Not because it is once again in his trademark angular style but rather because, now that Libeskind has become the go-to architect for clients seeking buildings that commemorate tragic events, there is a sense he believes all conflicts are much the same.

This became evident a couple of weeks ago in an interview he gave to the Belfast Telegraph. Discussing the project, Libeskind says he ‘always believed architecture is a story-telling profession’ and, despite confusion in the province over how - or if - the centre will remember 10 men who died during the republican hunger strikes at the prison in 1981, their particular story was one he wants his building to tell.

The problem is, unlike the Holocaust, and as the comments beneath the Telegraph’s article attest, there’s no consensus on that specific matter, nor much else that happened during Northern Ireland’s long sectarian war. Libeskind’s declaration too, that ‘as a New Yorker, I was very aware of the Troubles. My close friends in New York and around the world are Irish’ hardly suggests the nuanced perspective required to win over the centre’s doubters. And, as the Union Flag protests earlier this year in Belfast suggest, the complex story that Libeskind has mixed himself up in still has pages to go.

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