I first became aware of the Israeli architect and urbanist Hillel Schocken through his interesting article “Intimate Anonymity” (Schocken, 2003). In it, he correctly diagnoses why many urban spaces fail despite having good architecture. We corresponded and became friends. Hillel is acutely aware of the human dimensions of architecture and urbanism, and is opposed to the disconcerting practices we see around us today. He has done some very sensitive restorations in Israel, including the home of Chaim Weizmann, designed by Erich Mendelsohn. Hillel is in fact directly linked to Mendelsohn via his grandfather, who commissioned Mendelsohn to build three Schocken department stores in Nuremberg, Stuttgart and Chemnitz. Though Hillel’s built work is, to me, somewhat uncomfortably modernist, it is original, attractive, and as adaptive as modernism gets. The same can be said of Mendelsohn, who was rejected and marginalized by the other more famous modernists because he dared to be more imaginative than them (and a far better architect!). When Hillel visited Berlin recently, he wrote me his very strong personal impressions of the Berlin Jewish Museum. This letter is an important document, since it arises out of the direct experience of a perceptive user, and also confirms my own analysis of that building. I am very proud to be able to include it in my book.
Sorry for not responding in detail to your questions on the “Holocaust Museum”, or rather, as it is called, the “Jewish Historical Museum” in Berlin. I’m so frustrated with its apparent success that it seems the entire world is deaf to any criticism of it.
Architecture seems to be in a continuing crisis for a very long time, possibly since the 1930s. From a profession that solved the clients’ programmatic problems and reflected accepted cultural values of society, it has become esoteric and egotistic, reflecting the whims of the architect as an individual artist. Buildings are no longer expected to be understood by their users through architectural means. One is more and more exposed to pseudo-philosophical architectural talk. Faced with this situation one cannot escape being reminded of the “Emperor’s New Clothes”.
In your essays on Libeskind (Death, Life, and Libeskind) and others you assume the role of the little boy from that story. Your analysis based on the idea of structures that embody “Life” and those that embody “Death” is both original and illuminating.
I would like to offer you some additional points of criticism to Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin that I believe help clarify why his architecture and that of other Jet-Set Starchitects becomes “dead”. After half an hour, my son begged me to get out of that building as soon as we could. And he was right. This is another instance that is worth investigating the public reaction more than what the architect actually says.
Firstly, the museum is part of the Historical Museum of the City of Berlin and was supposed to cover the long and important Jewish chapter in the history of Germany and the city. It is true that the dark period of the Holocaust is an important part of that history but it certainly isn’t the only story. Jews lived in Germany for many generations and their contribution to German culture and to the European and Western culture in general was immense. Jews played a significant part in almost all walks of life such as science, literature, commerce, economics, the visual arts, music, theater, philosophy, etc. The museum was supposed to show all of that. True, the exhibits try to do that but Libeskind’s building makes this effort utterly useless. People still call the museum “The Holocaust Museum”. This is a direct result of Libeskind’s over-prolific rhetoric, relating the plan to “the yellow star that was so frequently worn on this very site”. One asks, why is it necessary to evoke the notorious yellow Star of David if no one can read it either in the resulting building or in its plan?
Secondly, I think architects should be barred by law from talking about their buildings! The architecture must talk to the public in a purely architectural language. In the case of Libeskind, this is an even greater problem. In various places in the museum there are little signs telling the visitor what the architect expects them to feel in this or that space. In the “Garden of Disorientation” (as I believe it is called) — an outdoor space with a grid of slanted concrete columns — there is a sign saying something like: “Mr. Libeskind expects you to feel disoriented ...”. Sorry, I felt bored. I also felt uneasy to express my feelings as at every corner there was a guard making sure that I did not take my jacket off (as it felt quite stuffy). “You should put your jacket on or give it in at the cloak room ...”
Thirdly, the circulation in this building is purely absurd. Every now and then there are circular red stickers on the floor with white arrows telling you where you should go. This is, to me, a symbol of the architecture’s failure to self-explain the building to the public. Libeskind has built three underground “roads” which are supposed to tell three different programmatic stories. He is certainly not original when he uses the term “road” with relation to long, narrow, boring and monotonous spaces that usually come under the term “corridors”. He is following in the footsteps of the “illustrious” Le Corbusier, who called his endless dark and threatening corridors that run along every third floor of his monstrous Unite d’Habitation “streets”. Both compensate for the poor performance of their architecture by using verbal terms that are supposed to convince the timid visitor that night is day.
Fourthly, the internal spaces of the museum are simplistic and rectangular. Libeskind “compensates” for his total lack of spatial understanding by perforating the elevation with diagonal slots for windows that relate to the outside composition of the elevation with no regard at all to their effect on the interior. This is the reason why many architects who experienced the building before, and after, the exhibition was installed say “it was better empty”. The exhibits are a real nuisance for the architecture and vice versa.
Despite all this, the Jewish Museum in Berlin has met with almost unanimous acclaim from both architectural critics and the public at large, which reflects the sad state the architectural profession finds itself at the beginning of the 21st Century. Architects are no longer required to meet the client’s needs. They are no longer responsible for the harmonious weaving of the building into an existing fabric. Success is assured by the mere shock effect a building creates. The stranger, the better. Cities across the world are looking for Jet-Set Starchitects to design for them a project that will “put them on the map”, a project the like of which was never seen before.
Again, this is a modern version of the “Emperor’s New Clothes”. Libeskind’s pseudo-philosophical thinking coupled with the right public relations effort can sell ice to the Eskimos. Architectural critics as well as the public at large are proved again to be fools. The world is in urgent need for a little boy ...
All the best