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Jewish Museum: A Journey into Somatic Manifestation of the Holocaust

Daniel Libeskind, a master architect, is one of many prime sources of inspiration for architecture students around the world. Indeed, seldom will we meet any student anywhere in the world who hasn't seen or heard about the project Jewish Museum. Out of the many architecural movements throughout history, he was amongst the eminent few who followed the annals of Deconstructivist style, and in this building one finds a culmination of the architect's years of theory, as well as laying a strong foundation for his later works.

It so happened that one day we, a friend and I, were in Berlin and I quickly suggestedlet's go check out what's so special about this "masterpiece", Libeskind's first major breakthrough after many years of architecture writing and research. En route, my friend mentioned to me a "did u know" fact, i.e. this new extension for the existing museum didn't have a formal entrance and was instead connected via an underground passage to the old Kollegienhaus, which was quite surprising considering the fact that it's one of the most visited museums in Germany, not to mention a major European tourist attraction. Any doubts I might have had were brushed aside when I realized, upon seeing the monochromatic zinc-clad exterior and outwardly random slit windows (based on Berlin's old map) of the Jewish Museum, nothing was odd, as the purpose was more clear as to emphasize subtlety, thus avoiding an extravaganza which might diminish the usability of the old museum building.

The concept, Between the Lines, has two lines, one straight and another zigzagging, which meet each other at 5 points of intersections creating "voids", empty spaces that were described by Mr. Libeskind as:

That which can never be exhibited when it comes to Jewish Berlin history: Humanity reduced to ashes.

Libeskind was concerned with the "metaphysics of presence", an important consideration in architectural deconstructivism which was reflected in his earlier ideas that were mostly in writing but also in lines of concrete poetry, a way of visually representing theories as opposed to verbal arts. All these ideas took form, coming into reality via his most celebrated work: the Jewish Museum.

We descend the stairs into the underground of the museum through the old baroque building, barely prepared for the intensity with which the jagged walls and slanting corridors greet us, causing us to lapse into a moment of turbulence as our minds are only prepared for a horizontal floor plate in a seemingly straight corridor. The Map shows us the three different axes born out of context to reflect the three historical references of Jewish life in Berlin: Continuity in German history, Emigration from Germany, and the Holocaust.

The first axis, anti-clockwise, Axis of Holocaust leads to a dead end where we are the subjects of an eerie silence. Once inside, in the concrete tower with doors closed, only the noise of occasional traffic can punctuate through. The only light source, a single slit on the roof, keeps us from falling prey to claustrophobia.

Following the Axis of Exile, we reach the Garden of Exile and Emigration, encountering a matrix of 49 concrete columns arranged on a sloping ground of 12°.  At no point in this grid are we made to feel at peace. These pillars towering over us create a flood of nauseating perspectives below, but on gazing upward we can glimpse the sky beyond through the green leaves of Russian olives atop each pillar.

The multimedia Rafael Roth Learning Center invites visitors to discover German-Jewish history and culture at 20 computer terminals.

Then at the end of the axes, we reach the grand staircase with skewed beams crisscrossing in a haphazard manner. We are drawn towards the top, but a signboard carrying "Memory Void" beckons us to explore. It is one of the most rattling spaces, a 66' high void running up to the height of entire building occupied by artist Menashe Kadishman's Shalechet (Fallen Leaves), over 10,000 circular, open-mouthed faces dedicated to the victims. A shuddering sound echoes from the black walls when the steel faces clang against one another as people walk over it.

The permanent exhibition, housed in an interior of an experience, wouldn't be perceived as drastically as the building itself. To understand the Holocaust's impact through physical participation and an evocative, emotional journey one has to apprehend what the architect wanted to convey.

The Jewish Museum is conceived as an emblem in which the Invisible and the Visible are the structural features which have been gathered in this space of Berlin and laid bare in an architecture where the unnamed remains the name which keeps still.

(Daniel Libeskind)

Fact File

Jewish Museum Berlin
Lindenstraße 9-14, 10969 Berlin

Permanent and Special Exhibitions
Museum ticket regular charge: €8
Museum ticket reduced charge: €3
Children (up to 6 years): free
Family ticket (2 adults, up to 4 children): €14

Opening Hours:           
Mon 10:00-22:00; entry granted until 21:00
Tue-Sun 10:00-20:00; entry granted until 19:00

By Vinayak Menon
Images © Vinayak Menon
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