Voorbij de muur. Daniel Libeskind in het NAi / Beyond the wall. Daniel Libeskind in the NAi

Exhibition is somewhat of an understatement: it has become a complete building, a hectic city, an arctic landscape full of icebergs..And there in between, in drawings and models, we catch sight of the exhibition. But before you get to exploring it you are already completely intoxicated by the overpowering message. Libeskind’s is a Different Architecture.

There is no need to explain who Libeskind is. He has long been familiar to us in the Netherlands. He has built in Groningen and Almere, he has delivered many lectures. But his reputation is founded less on his physical presence than on his status as an all- out phenomenon. Just as his work is beyond the wall, so he himself is beyond the architect. He is what one calls a personality. Whoever becomes a personality, enters quite a different domain of the building industry. Meanwhile Libeskind receives one commission after another, commissions that are given to him for other reasons altogether than the desire for a well-functioning building. He designs museums, theatres, monuments, architecture which must act as a cultural thermometer, as an icon of our time. Just as roman ‡ clefs exist, there is also key architecture. The question is then, what is it exactly that Libeskind unlocks?

An architect with the ambitions of authorship that Libeskind has, unlocks in the first place naturally himself. Everything that he says is from first to last autobiographical. If he takes his slogan for the exhibition to be that ‘my intention for this exhibition is to blur the lines dividing the disciplines of the arts, sciences and crafts in order to emphasize a new constellation of reality’, then it seems as though this constellation lies beyond him, but in reality of course it is his constellation. It concerns Libeskind’s own mental condition, a condition so versatile that it comes as no surprise to find him diligently working on dissolving the boundaries between the disciplines, which to him must seem no more than personal obstructions.

This observation of an autobiographical motivation would be an open and shut case, were it not for the fact that in Libeskind’s case there is more involved. For his personal life concurs with the development of a historical condition that, without exaggeration, can be described as universal: the diaspora.

We are all to an increasing extent travellers whose route is fragmented, whose experience is shattered. Libeskind is a rare case in where person and cultural history coincide, which means that we should take his work seriously. Whether we want to or not, we too must, indeed do, go daily beyond the wall.

The theme of the exhibition in the NAi is based on the design for the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, but the true key work in Libeskind’s oeuvre is the Jewish Museum in Berlin, which is now close to completion. Just as Libeskind coincides with the times in which he lives, so this building is a rare example of how the most profound thoughts can coincide with design talent and the unheimlich charge of an architectural programme. This is the first degree of tragedy encapsulated in this work. I cannot imagine Libeskind ever being able to achieve greater ‘depth’ than he has in the Jewish Museum.

But the design for Berlin itself is likewise impregnated with tragedy. A tragedy in which we share: this building unlocks us. We will wait a little longer before making an architectural and programmatic analysis of this building, until after it has been completed. As regards the wall, however, there is surely something to be said now that the exhibition in the NAi can clarify.

Libeskind doesn’t create architecture that makes people happy. Uncomplicated happiness ceased to exist when Auschwitz penetrated our collective consciousness. Since then, this ‘zero- point’ of history moralizes every attitude towards our era, towards culture and therefore also towards architecture. And although in many buildings this emptiness can be camouflaged with the requisite signs, this is hardly possible in the case of a Jewish Museum, especially when it is located a stone’s throw away from the place where the Holocaust was conceived and directed.

Even if new designs by Libeskind have something indisputably frivolous about them, the origins of his iconography plumbs depths too great to ever be forgotten. More than that, it is an iconography against forgetting in general.

With regard to the wall as the essence of separation, a few observations need making about the design for the Jewish Museum. First, the elevations are lightly cantilevered, contain surgical incisions and are clad in metal that evades a fixed silhouette. So the wall, as the boundary that distinguishes the object from the outside world, is stripped of its hardness in three ways. The angle of 90 degrees, the angle that in Aristotelian terms ‘brings man in contact with his shadow’, is avoided with the greatest tenacity. This building is indeed ‘beyond the wall’.

What is more, the interior spaces are characterized by absolute ‘voided void’. Slicing right through the zig-zag of the plan is a straight line – a ‘structural rib’ – accentuated at each intersection by a void. Remarkably, it is these voids that impact as ‘barriers’ along the route through the museum. They are separated from the rest of the building by glass, on which thousands of names from the Totenb, cher are recorded. Nothingness here is an obstacle; these voids, therefore, symbolize the decimated Jewish milieu in Berlin. Voids that one persistently comes up against in a historical sense as well. In this building, emptiness is the wall.

Before some pronouncement is made about the chaotic character of Libeskind’s architecture, it is sensible to fathom out the following paradox: that the museum’s iconography, though intended for exhibiting the living Jewish culture, is determined by the history of its destruction. Libeskind even goes a step further in his metaphor. It is not just the Jewish culture in its darkest hour that is commented upon within this space, the fate of us all is foreshadowed by Jewish history. ‘The Idea of the Berlin Museum is a model for the contemporary psyche, the state of the soul’.

1) Libeskind purports that the Shoah has ruled out every illusion of rootedness as well as the right to Raum attendant on this rootedness. Indeed, Raum is not for nothing to be found in the Wurterbuch des Unmenschen.

2) And the Mauer, as an instrument for defining territory, has to pay the price as well. This building, then, is not just a paradox of Libeskind, not just of Jewish culture, but of western society as a whole. It marks a point in history where history no longer exists. It concentrates a culture in an era in which the diaspora has become a universal condition. The building topologizes the impossibility of a topos. No wonder, then, that you have to go beyond the wall.

The exhibition in the NAI continues until 24 November.
On the NAI internet-site is a special section on this spectacular exhibition.

Pas op: consensus! Crimson en de geschiedenis van de Nederlandse stedebouw / Beware! Consensus! Crimson and the history of urbanism in the Netherlands