Text description provided by the architects. In 1987, the Berlin government organized an anonymous competition for an expansion to the original Jewish Museum in Berlin that opened in 1933. The program wished to bring a Jewish presence back to Berlin after WWII. In 1988, Daniel Libeskind was chosen as the winner among several other internationally renowned architects; his design was the only project that implemented a radical, formal design as a conceptually expressive tool to represent the Jewish lifestyle before, during, and after the Holocaust.
The original Jewish Museum in Berlin was established in 1933, but it wasn’t open very long before it was closed during Nazi rule in 1938. Unfortunately, the museum remained vacant until 1975 when a Jewish cultural group vowed to reopen the museum attempting to bring a Jewish presence back to Berlin. It wouldn’t be until 2001 when Libeskind’s addition to the Jewish Museum finally opened (completed in 1999) that the museum would finally establish a Jewish presence embedded culturally and socially in Berlin.
For Libeskind, the extension to the Jewish Museum was much more than a competition/commission; it was about establishing and securing an identity within Berlin, which was lost during WWII. Conceptually, Libeskind wanted to express feelings of absence, emptiness, and invisibility – expressions of disappearance of the Jewish Culture. It was the act of using architecture as a means of narrative and emotion providing visitors with an experience of the effects of the Holocaust on both the Jewish culture and the city of Berlin.
The project begins to take its form from an abstracted Jewish Star of David that is stretched around the site and its context. The form is established through a process of connecting lines between locations of historical events that provide structure for the building resulting in a literal extrusion of those lines into a “zig-zag” building form.
Even though Libeskind’s extenstion appears as its own separate building, there is no formal exterior entrance to the building. In order to enter the new museum extension one must enter from the original Baroque museum in an underground corridor. A visitor must endure the anxiety of hiding and losing the sense of direction before coming to a cross roads of three routes. The three routes present opportunities to witness the Jewish experience through the continuity with German history, emigration from Germany, and the Holocaust. Libeskind creates a promenade that follows the “zig-zag” formation of the building for visitors to walk through and experience the spaces within.
From the exterior, the interior looks as if it will be similar to the exterior perimeter; however, the interior spaces are extremely complex. Libeskind’s formulated promenade leads people through galleries, empty spaces, and dead ends. A significant portion o f the extension is void of windows and difference in materiality.
The interior is composed of reinforced concrete which reinforces the moments of the empty spaces and dead ends where only a sliver of light is entering the space. It is a symbolic gesture by Libeskind for visitors to experience what the Jewish people during WWII felt, such that even in the darkest moments where you feel like you will never escape, a small trace of light restores hope.
One of the most emotional and powerful spaces in the building is a 66’ tall void that runs through the entire building. The concrete walls add a cold, overwhelming atmosphere to the space where the only light emanates from a small slit at the top of the space. The ground is covered in 10,000 coarse iron faces. A symbol of those lost during the Holocaust; the building is less of a museum but an experience depicting what most cannot understand.
Libeskind’s extension leads out into the Garden of Exile where once again the visitors feel lost among 49 tall concrete pillars that are covered with plants. The overbearing pillars make one lost and confused, but once looking up to an open sky there is a moment of exaltation. Libeskind’s Jewish Museum is an emotional journey through history. The architecture and the experience are a true testament to Daniel Libeskind’s ability to translate human experience into an architectural composition.
“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