Salingaros turns his attention to a single, prominent Decon project, Daniel Libeskind’s proposal for the rebuilding of the World Trade Center site. How to interpret this proposal? For one thing, how does it feel? Once again, a return to our basic emotional experience. What Salingaros shows convincingly is that for all the rhetoric surrounding this style the emotional experience and creative process itself of Decon is a negative one. We aren’t set free; instead, we’re brought down. We’re led down gloomy and deterministic hallways. A humane man of the world, Salingaros asks not just if this morgue-like feeling is appropriate but also, can it be said to represent any unfolding of the human spirit at all?

We contrast two distinct threads in the architecture of Daniel Libeskind — the geometry employed in his Holocaust Memorials, and the geometry of those buildings whose purpose is life and regeneration. We find no difference whatsoever between the two types, thus concluding that Libeskind’s buildings cannot serve to bring architecture to life.

Introduction.

Daniel Libeskind’s inclusion on the short list of architects who have been asked to propose designs for rebuilding the World Trade Center (WTC) site and the region around it represents for him a great leap forward. His skewed, dismembered WTC design has been vehemently criticized for its intentional shock-effect, but it is this very quality that endears it to the avant-garde. We wish to find a reasonable basis for analysis that bypasses the usual terms of debate on architectural deconstruction. That so far only generates polemics without hope of sensible resolution. Towards this end, it is necessary to dig deeper than superficial style.

Libeskind’s participation in the WTC project symbolizes a jump from buildings that crystallize a particularly horrific experience, but do not seek to move on from it — such as his Jewish Museum in Berlin — into buildings that are meant to symbolize, even contribute to “regeneration”. Nevertheless, there is essentially no difference between what he believes commemorates death, and what commemorates life, for the simple reason that he gives them exactly the same geometrical properties. Whatever life he thinks he is injecting into his “regenerative” work is no more than the artificial appearance of life, as in a Golem, or Frankenstein monster — terms that will recur later in this essay.

There is indeed an enormous difference between structures that embody “life”, and those that embody “death” — it is just that the currently fashionable architects don’t seem to be aware of that difference, or at least of how to reflect it in their buildings. It suffices to look at Libeskind’s World Trade Center proposal to see what we mean. A tall, unbalanced form with protruding, menacing components is supposed to be his answer to building on the memorial space while satisfying both the spirit of remembrance for the victims of the tragedy, and rekindling the life of the region through a regenerated urban fabric. We agree entirely with Libeskind when he says that “Architecture is an act of optimism; the site can’t turn into a funerary area”. Nevertheless, we are convinced that his intervention would endow the site with neither life, nor optimism.

An Architecture of Death.

Daniel Libeskind is one of a very few contemporary architects whose work constitutes a recognizable “brand”. The brand consists of sharp, angular, metallic shards, with gravity-defying walls, and conveys the unmistakable thrill of transgression. The building most often used to illustrate these qualities is his Jewish Museum in Berlin. Physically impenetrable except via an underground route through a baroque courthouse, this building embodies completely in its architecture the various fates suffered in the 1930s and ’40s by German Citizens who were Jewish, or who had some Jewish ancestry. The introduction into it of mundane exhibits, some time after its opening, was undertaken with fear and trembling. While the objects collected by the Museum strive to paint a portrait of Jewish LIFE — stretching over a period of one and a half millennia no less — the building that houses them is preoccupied by the DEATHS visited upon the Jewish people of Europe during the first half of the last century.

It is a testament to Libeskind’s achievement that he reproduces the visceral revulsion of the Extermination Camps — not by copying their insipid, industrial Bauhaus style, but by using high-tech materials to define a specific geometry. This geometry succeeds in making us anxious and physically ill, and recreates the terrible purpose behind the camps — a rekindling of unspeakable evil, the human spirit’s darkest and most horrible forces — by triggering our memory and senses strictly through form, space, and surface. A visitor to the Berlin Museum may well feel sick and depressed after going through the Jewish Department Extension, and this, we believe, is an appropriate experience.

In those of Libeskind’s buildings which speak above all of despair, exile, and annihilation, there is a deliberate “geometry of death” at work — one so powerfully present that it threatens to suffocate any tokens of life that dare occupy its spaces. At the same time, we would expect to see, in those buildings that speak of regeneration, a corresponding “geometry of life”. For a building to participate in regeneration there surely must be something generative about it, something life-giving in its very forms. However, search his work as you will, the “geometry of life” is nowhere to be found. Despite Libeskind’s words, it is the “geometry of death” which predominates in his forms, and which ultimately compromises those of his works through which he hopes to effect reconnection or reconciliation.

These phrases, “the geometry of death” and “the geometry of life” are not used loosely here, or by way of analogy, but with the very specific meaning they have acquired over the last two decades, in scientific studies of life processes and living complexity — a body of work to which Libeskind will occasionally pay lipservice. Human beings demonstrate more affinity with buildings and environments which are shaped by processes like those that give rise to life, than those which are not, or which choose for some special reason to deploy a geometry deliberately counter to living processes. This emphasis on process is crucial, because so much of what has been deemed to be “organic” in twentieth century architecture — whether it be Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim spiral in New York or the double-helix megastructures of Kisho Kurokawa’s New Tokyo — has been merely a formal analogy of life, rather than life itself.

Golem and Frankenstein.

Libeskind seems to have inherited some of the attitudes of the strange early Twentieth-Century organic tradition, that first cousin of expressionism. As a result, when he must confront the issue of life, as opposed to death, in a building like his Jewish Museum in San Francisco (the working title of which was L’Chaim — “To Life”) rather than ask questions of life itself, he reaches for the formal analogy offered by the Hebrew alphabet. The phenomenologist in him accepts no distinction between a “real” object such as, for example, the fine, classically-composed substation façade which will be the frontispiece for this new museum space, and the “irreal” strokes of the scribe’s pen, to which he makes appeal.

There could, intriguingly, be more to it than this. Libeskind has confessed on occasion to his attraction to the Cabalistic dimension of Jewish thought. One of the most famous Cabalistic myths — originating in 16th century Central Europe, the place where Libeskind himself was born — is that of the Golem given life by Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel of Prague. The Hebrew word golem means “shapeless mass” — a description one might in any case apply to Libeskind’s contribution to the new San Francisco Museum.

In myths like that of Rabbi Loew, a lifeless effigy is animated by the agency of a sacred word placed under its tongue. Libeskind’s own account of how he generated the form for the San Francisco Museum uncannily recalls the Golem myth. He took the two Hebrew letters of chai — which he says are “literally the life source and the form of the museum” — and translated these strokes on paper into concrete forms in three dimensions, so as to bring “life” to the Yerba Buena district of San Francisco. (Ironically, our friend the architect Isaac A. Meir says of Libeskind’s transformation of letters to building form that the letter heth has been drawn/redrawn inaccurately — or, at least, in a very “personalized” form — and the final building form is unlikely to remind anyone of a special Hebrew letter, let alone a word).

The Golem of Rabbi Loew — intended to be a perfect servant of his master, a protector of the race — turned out to be a destroyer, which its creator had in turn to destroy, to prevent it desecrating the Sabbath. Yes, the Prague tale is the earliest version of the Frankenstein story, and Libeskind’s San Francisco Museum a literal example, therefore, of that “Frankenstein architecture” which the critics of modernism have often warned of. There is no better illustration of the profound contrast between what Libeskind means when he speaks of investing buildings with “life”, and what most people would appreciate as living environments.

Geometrical Determinism.

There is another, related point. A paradox of Libeskind’s work is that an architect who claims to be so in thrall to the chaotic, the complex, the open-ended, and the democratic, should produce buildings so deterministic, and which leave so little to chance and personal choice. One should be wary of drawing conclusions from Libeskind’s own words, because he is a master at producing a veritable fog of words on demand. Boaz Ben Manasseh (2001) observed that: “It is astonishing that Daniel Libeskind can write so much nonsense without endangering his reputation”. But the architect has made it clear that he expects his buildings to communicate even to those who are unfamiliar with the apologies he provides for them.

The first of his buildings ever to be completed — the museum in Osnabrück devoted to the works of the local Jewish painter and Holocaust victim Felix Nussbaum offers the same deterministic experience as the Berlin museum. Like the Berlin exhibits, Nussbaum’s paintings are effectively stripped of their intrinsic, timeless qualities by the building they occupy. The paintings serve as little more than supporting documentation for the story that the architect has deemed more important — that of a flame being snuffed out.

  • Both these buildings display an arbitrary kind of determinism. For example, in Berlin there is a long rising staircase, offering one of three routes out of the underground passage (the only real route in fact, two of them being dead ends). This semantic confusion is matched by an approach to planning which, while intent on driving visitors along a particular route, nevertheless robs them of any sense of direction. This failure is made even worse by the architect’s apparent indifference to the effect on circulation of merely practical elements such as fire doors in the Nussbaum Haus. Perhaps this disorientating dissonance is the point of such architecture. Both museums speak of death by having their galleries violated in some way.

    Everywhere in Libeskind we find the rule that disallows contingent life its expression through either multiple connectivity or the processes that develop connections; and that therefore excludes spontaneity and emergence. Instead, he offers THE ANSWER, allowing no possibility of alternative interpretations. Libeskind’s buildings, wrought with finality and closure, provide an urgency that will not allow life the leisure to unfold, and which are not sufficiently in touch with life as lived to be able to learn from it. It could well be possible to prove, with reference to living processes, that a classical museum by John Russell Pope (the architect of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington), which offers such variety within such apparent unity, is more truly alive in most, if not all, respects than one of Libeskind’s deconstructivist essays.

    Rejection of the Sacred.

    In one of the most lucid and revealing of his lectures — dealing with the Bauhaus, and delivered in Weimar in 1998 — Libeskind expressed his admiration for the Bauhaus model of an “architecture permanently displaced”, which rejected outright the lure of the sacred. It was, he went on with growing admiration, “here, in the domain of the sacred, that the Bauhaus declared war and wrought havoc … Gods were toppled, orders broken, walls smashed, the center removed”. And, in the most revealing passage of all, he dismissed the whole notion of the sacred as being “no more … than the empty ritual, a formalism … the evil of senseless habits, the purpose of which is to deprecate reality in the name of convention so it may become fulfilled through an image” (Libeskind, 2001). These bleak words contain the essential generator of Libeskind’s brand of architecture. His architecture revels in dissonance, is the ne plus ultra of theoreticism, and regards as antithetical any ritual that might promise a return to wholeness. It thus exiles itself from its primordial relationship with nature.

    Appeals to Science.

    Libeskind is not the first architect of the last century to have been inspired by popular science to make formal analogies with the natural world. This has led him into statements every bit as convoluted as those so mischievously exposed among post-Structuralist french philosophers by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont (1998). In Libeskind’s texts, references to chaos and complexity, including fractals, conceal an approach to spatial organization which, as we have seen, is highly deterministic, and almost entirely lacking in the adaptive, stochastic processes which give rise to life-forms that exhibit such features naturally.

    The jolt of novelty and strangeness one gets from Libeskind’s designs is apt to blind one at first to their ultimate shallowness. They are no more truly scientific than those early twentieth-century buildings in which the search for geometrical novelty manifested itself through (non-fractal) forms that mimicked crystalline structure — forms entirely irrelevant to the manifold functions of such buildings.

    Libeskind’s employment of fractals (as a tiling design on so-called frac-tiles devised by the engineer Cecil Balmond) on the proposed “Spiral” extension to the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum is a case in point. These tiles represent nothing more than surface decoration, utterly at odds with both the overall massing, and the lines formed by the building’s edges. This gives predominance to these aggressive edges, and creates a caesura between architectural form and decoration typical of Modernism, and which over the last century has served to reduce ornament to being either unnecessary, or “ironical”. We have here a misapplication of the self-similar fractal geometry found in natural forms.

    Libeskind’s claim that his tiles are engaged in some kind of “dialogue” with Owen Jones’s “Grammar of Ornament” (1982) ignores what successful ornament actually does. There is a world of difference between the arborescent nature of the ornament Jones catalogued, which could unite the broad masses with the fine tooling of historic buildings, and the fractals with which Libeskind merely distresses the sloping walls of the V&A “Spiral”. This addition would therefore exist in isolation not only from the rest of the building, but also — because his fractal tiles occupy a self-contained world of mathematical perfection, insulated from truly living processes — the rest of the universe. Even in their details, therefore, Libeskind’s buildings are deterministic rather than adaptive, and it is well known that adaptive natural structure is the source of life, non-adaptation leading only to death.

    Confusing Life with Death.

    If one examines carefully Libeskind’s body of (mostly unbuilt) work, it can be seen to exhibit two distinct strands, with a few works attempting to combine aspects of both. On the one hand, his buildings (like Berlin [1988-99], and Osnabrück [1995-98]) view history and tradition in general, and civic culture in particular, as marked for all time by the awful scissure of the Holocaust, the Shoah. On the other, in a group of ongoing designs (the Jewish Museum in San Francisco [1996-2004], the Art Museum in Denver[2000-05], and the extension for the Victoria and Albert Museum in London[1996-?]), Libeskind says he wants to reunite the frayed ends of a city’s history and culture. The first strand of work is desperately pessimistic, whereas the second is brimming with optimism. Between these extremes we have the recently-completed Imperial War Museum of the North, in Manchester [1997-2002], whose characteristic shards represent the brokenness of war, but which, at the same time, is intended to contribute to urban regeneration. In fact, Libeskind’s architecture, as seen in the Jewish Museum or the Nussbaum Haus, seeks explicitly to embody an extinction on a massive scale — namely the Holocaust.

    In Berlin the “geometry of death” which results from this might be accepted, on account of the fact that we must not turn away from, and forget, the awful events that building symbolizes; but it cannot be excused in buildings which pretend not only to participate in the life of the city, but even to enhance it in some way. Is the “geometry of death”, which justifiably gives form to this class of building, transformed by Libeskind, and if so how? Do those of his buildings that seek instead to connect and give life obey a more appropriately generative geometry, a recognizable “geometry of life”? There is as yet no final agreement among scientists as to what life is, but there is a growing measure of consensus about what the nature of the processes might be that underlie it. Some characteristic properties are:

  1. Life has connectivity and pattern at its heart.
  2. Life is “organized complexity”, a potent mixture of rule and contingency, order and spontaneity.
  3. Life is not definable through traditional mathematical equations which purport to give “an answer”, but is more of an unfolding, comparable to the action of a computer program.
  4. Life is a genetic algorithm that evolves and develops complexities as it learns.
  5. And life is not just complex, but — even more mysteriously, perhaps — it is ordered, displaying an incredible range of symmetries.

Not one of these characteristics of organic life finds a parallel in the forms of Libeskind’s architecture, but only occasionally in the words that accompany his projects. It is difficult to see how they could do so, in an architecture that is based on an utter rejection of the sacred, and that condemns those patterns of activity for him only “senseless habits” after all — which inevitably accompany a sense of the sacred. Libeskind merely represents the latest stage in the profession’s determined rejection of the knowledge and the representation of life, in favor of abstract, supposedly more architectonic means of expression.

Expressing Death by Using Geometry.

A “geometry of death” reverses the properties of living structure, while at the same time suppressing the mechanisms by which human beings connect to the world. The first component recognizes death outside of us — its rules are summarized as an absence of the organized complexity found in organisms, and the presence of structural disorganization that marks their death and decomposition. This definition encompasses not only formerly living structures in the process of decomposing, but also structures that could never have been alive in the first place — what are commonly recognized as “alien” forms. An alien structure threatens us, making us anxious.

Such structures do exert an undeniable fascination — this is the fascination that children and adolescents have for things that scare them. The second component of the “geometry of death” recognizes death within us. It indicates (or mimics) a failure of our cognitive mechanisms that is characteristic of the onset of our own death.

Its purpose is to reduce our physical experience of the world by providing insufficient information to understand our environment. The method of achieving this is to create spaces and surfaces that frustrate our sensory embedding within our surroundings. For human beings to be fully alive means more than just to metabolize and reproduce — it presupposes our sensing and understanding the world. If we are confronted with obvious physical structures around us, which we see but to which we cannot connect, such an environment threatens our conscious existence as embodied beings. The anxiety we feel reflects this loss of connectivity.

These two components suggest specific techniques for simulating the geometrical presence of “death” in buildings:

  1. Dehumanizing structures and spaces — either too small or too large for a human being to relate to, built deliberately without a connective scaling hierarchy.
  2. Shapes that stand out from nature by lacking connective symmetries and attachment to the gravitational axis.
  3. Random, geometrically disconnected units that have no obvious means of support.
  4. Corners and sharp edges projecting toward us.
  5. Sheer, empty surfaces without internal differentiations, which shift our perceptual attention to their edge — surfaces unresponsive or intentionally repulsive to our visual and tactile senses, and which can be drab and colorless, smooth or rough, or made of sleek materials such a shiny metal and glass.

A third component of the “geometry of death” is to mimic the disorientation that comes about when we lose our ability for spatial navigation. Part psychological, part physiological, we possess a complex of senses that position us in the physical world and permit our locomotion. To deny this sense means to cut us off from our circulation realms. This is achieved via the techniques we have already mentioned, such as stairs that lead to nowhere; corridors that are arbitrarily cut; entrances or exits that are impossible to find; and, most of all, a deliberate circulation constrained by built structures that force us to walk in a direction different to what seems natural to us.

Although not the only architect working with the above rules to define a strikingly noticeable “style”, Libeskind is certainly one of its most brilliant exponents. Of course, these rules are a well-kept trade secret, and have never, to our knowledge, been written down. They are applied with such confidence and deliberate intention that we find it hard to suppose that this is accidental, or that they could in any way be confused with their antithetical, “life-giving” rules.

“Life” in Artifacts.

In the case of the Victoria and Albert Museum, those who fail to see the presence of the “geometry of death” in Libeskind’s proposed extension also clearly fail to appreciate what it is that this Museum houses. We have in this unparalleled collection a group of objects that embodies “life” to the greatest extent possible — the products of artistic, religious, and technical traditions that aim to capture mathematical life (as defined by contemporary complexity theorists) using only human intuition and humble materials. Those artisans and craftsmen did not have our latest scientific insights to help them, but relied instead on lessons learned over millennia of human ingenuity.

If we were to search the world over for man-made objects that best reflect the properties of what we now understand to be a “geometry of life”, and which most closely capture the spirit (though not necessarily the form) of natural and biological structures, then we would come up with something like the catalogue of the V&A’s collection — Chinese Shang bronzes; Byzantine miniatures; European Mediaeval sculptures; Seljuk Minai bowls; Iznik tiles; oriental carpets; Japanese sword guards; etc. This is discussed at length in Christopher Alexander’s “The Nature of Order” (2002).

It is only appropriate that such objects — the prime representatives of a “geometry of life” applied to create artifacts that connect to the living beings that see and use them — be housed in a building with those very same qualities. If not, the structure will become locked in combat with these products of traditional crafts, representing a variety of sacred traditions, in the same way that the museums in Osnabrück and Berlin are in tension with their contents. Since Libeskind’s design is, unlike almost all the objects in the museum, nihilistic, its effect would be to drain objects of their essential spiritual value.

Significantly, the V&A “Spiral” which Libeskind proposes is not a true spiral — i. e. a mathematical helix like Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim. He is in fact coining a new term, the “contemporary spiral” lacking an axis, and thus continuing the task the Bauhaus began — to see “Gods … toppled, orders broken, walls smashed, the center removed”. All the symmetries of a helix that contribute to its coherence are removed. The V&A project is actually composed of lopsided, intersecting cubes, and bears an uncanny resemblance to the 1919 “Würfel (Dice) Komposition” by the Bauhaus’s Johannes Itten (Marchetti & Rossi Costa, 2002).

Conclusion.

If one looks beyond mere formal analogies of life to the mathematical patterns and processes which scientists are now pointing to as the source of life itself, then Libeskind’s buildings are invariably dead. All his attempts to transfer a geometry appropriate to Holocaust Memorials (which, in that context, is restrictive of freedom) to buildings which are intended to celebrate, if not engender life, have failed, as they must inevitably continue to do so.

What about the relationship of Libeskind’s buildings to their surroundings? The life of traditional environments is not just seen in the forms themselves, but contains the seeds of its own dissemination. As is well known, the structure of DNA is such that the information it contains can be replicated and passed on. Lacking life in their forms, Libeskind’s buildings lack also (some would say, thankfully) the ability to reproduce. They stand as sterile objects within the city, the most they can hope for being to be “cloned”, by some one or another camp-follower of deconstruction. While traditional architecture both lived and reproduced, by dint of its origins in relatively simple human activities, the architecture Libeskind provides would serve to propagate only an avant-garde elite which, for all its talk of openness, thrives on a new form of mystification.