By Jed Bunkowski
Good art inspires. Whether it encourages viewers to act, to think, to judge or to feel is up to the artist. Good art expresses the inexpressible. Where words fail, art steps in and shares speechless thoughts. Berlin’s Jewish History Museum, designed by Daniel Libeskind, accomplishes both of these things. Formed as a piece of sculpture, the building proves that architecture can be art and that it has the power to affect us as much as any painting or song. As the name implies, the museum itself holds artifacts of the Jews living in Europe over the centuries, but here, the museum is not the focus. Through the design, Libeskind forces a dark history upon visitors that inspires them to examine their own role in the world in order to uplift and improve it.
From the exterior, the museum exerts an incredible power. Surrounded by older buildings dating to the 18th century, the blue-metal structure forces itself upon the city as it obviously does not fit in with the surroundings. The seemingly solid rectangular tube of the building is jolted and broken like a cartoonist’s lightning flash from above, and as a result, runs towards the street, then away, and then back again. The facades, completely wrapped in vertically applied zinc, have slashes cut through them at disturbing angles that make the jags of lightning seem pleasant. The exterior of the building pulls out hurtful and painful emotions even before its meaning and internal possessions are revealed.
Libeskind not only created an extraordinary piece of inhabitable sculpture, he also formed the way guests experience it. The new building is entered below ground, through an 18th century building that originally housed the museum’s artifacts. After descending, guests are given a series of choices, none of which seem to be an easy answer to the question of “Which way do I go?” Hallways that slowly rise or fall, narrow or widen, lead away from the bottom of the stairs. One leads to the Jewish Garden, one to the Exhibit Halls, and one to the Holocaust Tower.
The Jewish Garden and Exhibit Halls, as well as the stairs leading to them, are both laid out to inflict confusion on the visitors. Neither provides a clear way to experience the space, but rather removes all sense of direction, leaving guests helpless to find their own way through the exhibits.
Libeskind chose this kind of architecture and arrangement in order to recreate the emotions the European Jews have felt throughout their history on the continent. Although the Holocaust is the most notable event, they have been subject to hundreds of major disruptions during their stay. This uneasiness and hostility is manifested physically in the building of the museum.
The most powerful of these spaces is by far the Holocaust Tower, designed to give visitors a feel of what it was like for the Jews to be imprisoned. Entered below ground through a hallway barely tall enough to walk in, guards infrequently open and close the tower’s door to allow guests into and out of the bare concrete room. The only light in the room comes from a slit in the concrete that provides no view to those inside the tower. Muffled outside sounds, indirect light and air are the only things that move through the opening.
Libeskind accomplishes something with his architecture that is extremely difficult to do: the building as a piece of art itself, independent of the Jewish History Museum contained within it, causes just as much self-reflection as it does when its subject is revealed. The Holocaust Tower, though impacting as a monument to the Holocaust, would draw the same reactions if the two were not connected. Inside the space, we are instantly aware of ourselves, our lives and our perspectives on life. All of the different discourses Weedon claims we are part of come to mind, and we analyze them.
In a space where there is nothing to look at, nothing to do, no place to relax and no one to talk to, we have to evaluate our own lives. Add to that experience the room’s true meaning and purpose, and suddenly we are no longer part of the picture. Rather the millions of Jews who lost their lives come into focus. Then, slowly, we begin to wonder how we are connected. Libeskind has a deeper intention for the space than to simply allow visitors to feel the corporate solitude or imprisonment of the Jews on some Saturday afternoon museum visit.
Critics, theorists and artists alike debated art and its question of existence, what it is and what it should do, as long as it has existed. One such theorist is Matthew Arnold, who, in his book Culture and Anarchy, argues against the diffusion of society with his concepts of “sweetness and light,” an almost utopian thought of what the human race should be or represent: one unified society that embraces truth and beauty. Not surprisingly, he argues along the same lines that art exists to promote those things and uplift a society, to show it the ideals it should live for. Art should refine societies and show them how to become whole by sanding down their ugly and jagged pieces.
Every sliced window, piece of sunlight, and building material change roars at us to understand what is really behind it.
On the other side of the spectrum, Chris Weedon makes the argument in her book, Feminist Practice and Poststructuralist Theory, that art should pull at all individuals to focus on it and be truly affected by it as a person. She makes the point that we are who we are based on the different titles we bear. She argues that the many fragments of our lives, such as that of student, father, and employee combine to make complete people. At the same time, all of these pieces pull at us to give them exclusive attention, which is not an easy task considering all of the different roles we play. In the same manner, she claims that art should require more of us than a quick look, that each piece of artwork we experience would demand our full attention, introspection and, in effect, a deeper meaning of life. Where Arnold wants art to uplift, Weedon wants art to tear to the center of the viewer’s thoughts, emotions and ultimately life.
Somewhere in between Arnold and Weedon lies painfully beautiful art that does not portray an uplifting moment. There are plenty of lovely paintings, sculptures, and plays that, in their awe-inspiring technique and execution, draw out deep pains and hurts. The sweetness and light that Arnold looks for is masked by difficult emotion, under which lies a small bit of hope. However, the only way to discover that hope is to allow the art to move us in the way Weedon suggests. It demands our attention and makes claims on us until we discover the true meaning behind it, which is when it is finally possible to discover the hidden hope of an uplifting social oneness. It is this delicate balance that holds Libeskind’s Jewish History Museum, a piece of art that relies on the ideas put forth by Weedon to come to understand and embrace the ideals of Arnold.
The museum has to take us through an emotional journey that resonates with Weedon and her ideas insofar as the museum itself becomes a physical manifestation of the subjects that fight for our attention. Every sliced window, piece of sunlight, and building material change roars at us to understand what is really behind it. They each want all of our interest and insight because they were designed and put there for a purpose and work together, or against each other, to form one piece of art. For example, large openings on the exterior compete for our attention with other windows that slash through them in long, narrow cuts.
Similarly, the different subject positions we belong to work alternately against and for each other to make us whole. The experience in the architecture eventually forces the competing ideologies in our lives to become much sharper as we ask ourselves “what does this architecture really mean?” The difficult subject of Jewish history is forced upon us until we begin to see our lives in a different light. As we begin to understand the architecture, we begin to understand our lives better. This understanding is what good art inspires us to do.
Libeskind dissects us to the core and we realize how insignificant we are in the scope of the world, and yet how significant we can be in society. Through evaluating all of the subjects that pull at us, we can identify which destroy and which build up our culture. That is the exact point when Libeskind’s intentions emerge. He shows us that we cannot change the world, but we can have an influence on those around us by changing ourselves. This is the hope that is masked by the dark facade of the museum.
Through this journey as described by Weedon, we leave the museum in a strangely uplifting place, attained through self-reflection, that Arnold argues art can and must take us to. The museum has not changed, it still echoes the bloody history, but we have changed to understand its true purpose. Yes, it is there to show the painful history of the Jews, but more importantly, it is showing us the history so we understand it and learn how to improve the future, come together as a society, and support each other, to live in “sweetness and light.” Libeskind takes us down into the depths of our souls in order to show us the hope and the power of the future. There are some things of such magnitude that require a dive into our souls before we can be lifted up through them.
Not everyone who enters the museum comes out understanding the hopeful message behind it. Those who follow Arnold’s theories will not take the chance to deal with the pains of their lives because on the outside, the art is too depressing; such viewers simply want the art to enrich and uplift and will spend no time allowing it to churn in their stomachs. They will leave with despair and hopelessness, perhaps even embarrassment. On the other hand, those who allow the pressures of life to pull at them, such as Weedon suggests, will emerge hopeful and renewed. They will experience one of the darkest times of history, and yet they will understand it has passed. They will understand the future can be brighter by remembering the past and learning from it.
About the Author
Jed Bunkowski is a fifth-year architecture student at the University of Southern California. A semester-long field trip in 2003 gave him the opportunity to spend time in the great buildings of Europe, both old and new. During his career at USC, he has been involved with Campus Crusade for Christ and The Thornton School of Music. Bunkowski is originally from Minnesota and plans to return for a few weeks each year for a healthy dose of family, friends, snow, the lakes and hotdish.
Arnold, Matthew. “Excerpts from Culture and Anarchy.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 5th ed. Ed. M. H. Abrams. New York: Norton, 1986. 1359-1432.
Weedon, Chris. Feminist Practice and Poststructuralist Theory. Cambridge: Basil Blackwell, 1987.