Daniel Libeskind: Architect at Ground Zero

From his Jewish Museum in Berlin to his proposal for the World Trade Center site, Daniel Libeskind designs buildings that reach out to history and humanity

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the jewish museum of berlin is a stunning, zinc-clad structure that zigs and zags alongside an 18th-century former Prussian courthouse that now houses the museum’s visitor center. Libeskind says its thunderbolt shape alludes to “a compressed and distorted” Star of David.


The zinc building has no public entrance. A visitor enters through the old courthouse, descends a staircase and walks along an underground passageway where wall displays tell 19 Holocaust stories of German Jews. Branching off the passage are two corridors. One goes to the “HolocaustTower,” a cold, dark, empty concrete chamber with an iron door that clangs shut, briefly trapping visitors in isolation. The second corridor leads to a tilted outdoor garden made of rows of 20-foot-high concrete columns, each with vegetation spilling from its top. Forty-eight of the columns are filled with earth from Berlin and symbolize 1948, the year the State of Israel was born. A 49th column in the center is filled with earth from Jerusalem. This unsettling “Garden of Exile” honors those German Jews who fled their country during the Nazi years and made their home in strange lands.


Back on the main passageway, “The Stairs of Continuity” climb to the exhibition floors, where displays recount the centuries of Jewish life and death in Germany and other German-speaking areas. (The officials finally agreed the museum would be a catalog of German-Jewish history.) Among the displays are the eyeglasses of Moses Mendelssohn, a 17th-century philosopher and grandfather of composer Felix Mendelssohn, and futile letters from German Jews seeking visas from other countries. One powerful theme emerges: before the rise of Hitler, Jews were a vital and integral part of German life. They were so assimilated that some celebrated Hanukkah with Christmas trees and they called the season Weihnukkah—from Weihnacht, the German word for Christmas.


But the displays are only part of the experience, says Ken Gorbey, a consultant who served as project director of the museum from 2000 to 2002. Libeskind, he says, has designed the interior to mimic the feelings of a disrupted culture. “It’s architecture of emotions, especially disorientation and discomfort,” says Gorbey. Visitors navigate sharp corners, climb into alcoves and slip into half-hidden, isolated areas.


These intentionally confusing spaces are created in part by a long void that cuts through the length and height of the museum. Sixty walkways cross this empty space and connect the cramped exhibition areas. Libeskind describes the void in the building’s heart as “the embodiment of absence,” a continual reminder that the Jews of Germany, who numbered more than half a million in 1933, were reduced to 20,000 by 1949.



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