Libeskindbau leads where other museums should follow
Daniel Libeskind's Jewish Museum in Berlin finally opened last Sunday after a decade in the making - a period that has seen the architect rise to global prominence - with a clutch of museum commissions in its wake: the Felix Nussbaum Museum which opened last autumn; the Imperial Museum of the North in Trafford; the Jewish Museum, San Francisco; and of course the Spiral at the v&a are all on the drawing board. The Libeskindbau, as the Berlin museum is now called, is on the cover of the guide books, just like Gehry's Guggenheim. Already there is talk of the Bilbao effect in Exhibition Road, and not surprisingly in Trafford too.
The Libeskindbau challenges us. It affects the world around it, and it refracts the view back out. It subverts the functional conventions of architecture. Its circulation is circuitous, it reverberates, glares, disorientates, and in places you can hear yourself breathe. It toys with the conventions of Modernism. The Aalto running stair becomes Jacob's Ladder, but the Jewish dream of heavenly freedom is barred by the last flight. Looking back down the vertiginous running stair, there is only a black wall with an aperture - you see a face looking back at you; it is the railcar hatch. The stair does not descend amid piloti. Instead you arrive back at a crossroads, with one path leading into the memorial garden. It is a 7x7 hypostyle grid of columns each containing a tree, 48 planted in soil from Jerusalem, and one from Berlin. It slopes, and you are almost giddy - this time the refraction is physical. The exit is through an enormous Judd- or Serra-like gymnastically pivoted black metal gate. Another underground path from the cross-roads leads to the Holocaust memorial, an empty four-storey concrete shaft, with only a tiny slit of daylight at the top.
The folded lightning shape of the building is redolent of Expressionism, with the tunnel-like square archway that lets an existing public right of way pass through it, and the one railway line set in the paving, a tracer in the ground that leads directly to that other archway at Auschwitz Birkenau. The Libeskindbau is narrative architecture not of the literal kind, but of a deeply abstracted materiality.
Gavin Stamp recently berated Libeskind's celebrity status, and passionately advocated a return to architecture like the Burrell Collection in Glasgow that evinced a humanistic architecture, and eluded celebrity. The Burrell was the great building of the Cambridge School. It celebrated logical positivism, and symbolised Karl Popper's Open Society. Yet just as it was completed a younger generation of architects in the orbit of the Architectural Association - including Libeskind, Zaha Hadid, Peter Wilson, and Nigel Coates - gave up on the Modernist post-war project. Libeskind, like the poet Theodore Adorno, lived with the spectre of the Holocaust. It was Adorno who said that there could be no art after the Holocaust, and Libeskind that it is the terminus of history. How deep does the Holocaust go? There is no limit.
In parallel with abstracted materiality, there is also an abstracted narrative coursing through the building. The three key inspirations were Walter Benjamin's One Way Street, Schoenberg's Moses and Aaron and the traces connecting the addresses of all the Jews named Berlin that had died in the Holocaust, and had lived in Berlin. It is these three ideas that underscore the plan form of the building: the central void (Schoenberg) that cuts through the zigzag plan (Berlin's Jews) and is crossed by the bridges (Benjamin).
The Libeskindbau had thousands of visitors before it opened, but until last November had no interpretation, no exhibition design. The Nussbaum Museum also opened with only a temporary display. What about Libeskind's British projects? iwm was conceived with a masterplan by myself and Bob Baxter. This built the museum-making on Libeskind's architecture and carried its intellectual layering down to the micro-architecture of artefacts and personal experience. A museum could be visceral and affecting, have mass appeal and yet be esoteric. But that's been shelved, and right now only the emblematic building is the draw, with a sophisticated audio-visual dominating the interior. The risk is that it could become like a pavilion at a World Fair. Libeskind's architecture is challenging the very nature of museums, and theatrical effects are not the answer. His exhibition in Rotterdam last year remains the most prophetic manifesto for a new relationship between the form and content of museums.
The v&a's collision of the structural, geometric, spatial and fractal systems take Libeskind's architecture into its own realm of intellectual complexity while retaining a raw visual physicality. People will be drawn, mystified. The v&a, though, will need a paradigm shift in museum-making to provide the same combination of intellectual and emotive force that we find in Berlin. Because of its subject matter, the Libeskindbau works as a museum even when it is an empty building. One suspects that the sheer depth of the Libeskindbau will never be surpassed; like Eliot's Four Quartets we will go on marvelling and mining its complex sources and meanings.
Stephen Greenberg is director of architecture at degw