Libeskind's new Jewish Museum | icon 016 | October 2004

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photo: Jan Bitter photo: Jan Bitter photo: Jan Bitter

words Alex Wiltshire

Daniel Libeskind's new museum in Copenhagen opened in June with publicity proclaiming it “Libeskind’s Danish Jewish Museum”, confirming not only the brand status of his name, but that he is the signature architect of Jewish museums.

His first, in Berlin, established his reputation and has been hugely successful, attracting 650,000 visitors in 2003. A third Jewish museum is planned for San Francisco, but is presently stuck in budgetary limbo. His chronicling of destruction has been exported to Manchester, for the Imperial War Museum North, and New York, for the Freedom Tower at Ground Zero. This concentration on memorials is apt: Libeskind was born in 1946 in Lodz, Poland, to a family decimated by the Holocaust.

While there are similarities with Berlin, the Copenhagen museum attempts to tell a markedly different story. Libeskind has named it Mitzvah, which is the Hebrew term for a commandment of Jewish law, and in Yiddish means to do a good deed through religious duty. It refers directly to the events of October 1943, when 7,200 Danish Jews escaped to Sweden from occupied Denmark after martial law was declared. The government had been warned about round-ups of Jews and alerted Jewish leaders in time.

The architectural conceits in the Berlin museum, such as the empty and unusable voids in the plan and the raked floor levels, were attempts to communicate the traumatic 20th-century history of German Jewry, but Copenhagen’s remit is to present a more uplifting Jewish story. Libeskind’s design for this converted 17th-century boathouse is centred around a plan based on the Hebrew letterforms for mitzvah, a metaphor for the experiences of Jews settling into the Danish cultural, social and economic world, enduringly jagged and ill-fitting.

Such a view seems inappropriate. Jewish history in Denmark is a story of extensive assimilation, and the country began accepting Jewish migrants in the 17th century, granting rights of citizenship in 1814. Integration with Danish society led to broad assimilation, intermarriage and conversion. By 1901, a fifth of all Danish Jewish marriages were with non-Jews and almost all lived in Copenhagen. The museum is proud to say that “Jewish life in Denmark was allowed to unfold almost unoppressed … Jewish life has … had to be spacious in itself, as even a small minority can be diverse and comprise a wide range of different adherences and ways of life”.

Yet the design of the museum’s interior does not corroborate this statement; rather, Libeskind’s formal language appears to attest to a more awkward history. Walls and floors are set in his trademark angles, leaning and jutting to form the interior volumes of the exhibition spaces and inset with askew lighting strips. No parts of the exhibition spaces are orthogonal. The entire plan is just 300sq m in total and the oblique walls make the interior feel contorted, disorientating and cramped. This is particularly apparent in the entrance area, which accommodates the cloakroom and cash desk – the narrowest corridor and necessarily the busiest. It’s not surprising that the museum is limited to 70 visitors at a time.

Blond birch plywood and an oak floor were chosen to reflect the boatbuilding past of the museum, and refer, perhaps, to more recent Scandinavian design orthodoxy. Outside, the original facade of the building, which is in the government quarter of Copenhagen and was used through the 20th century as the Royal Library, has been largely unaltered. The ground around it is paved in granite, dotted with monolithic granite benches and cut through with flush lighting strips that echo those inside. The effect is sombre and memorial, and forms a closing counterpoint to the approach through a grassy and quiet garden.

Libeskind has organised the uneven topography of the floors by four intersecting planes that he has named after the Jewish tenets of Exodus, Wilderness, the giving of the Law and the Promised Land. Manifested in the relationship of the floor with the projection of the walls, they are intended to create a feeling of imbalance. “They must keep us aware of our vulnerability,” Libeskind explains. “The architecture must communicate the emphatic experience of being on earth, not just abstract geometry.

“The sense of disorientation is directly to do with the Danish Jewish experience and the story of this particular place,” he continues. “The building is literally a story from which you can read aspects of their experience.” Few architects today are brave or foolhardy enough to claim for their buildings such literal communicative properties, preferring to couch meaning in abstraction or constructional strategies and arrangement. Here, though, such potent formal language feels inappropriate for the museum’s relatively modest scale and subject matter.

It is in the subtler and more intrinsic associations in the design that the Danish Jewish population is better expressed. Libeskind has written that the exhibition spaces are to be read as a “text within a text within a text”, a reference to its layers of heritage as a boathouse, library and museum. “You traverse the space like a book,” he explains. “The building itself is many layers – it’s a text that offers many interpretations, like the text in the Talmud is revealed by its relation to the commentaries around it on the page.” He illustrates this by drawing a direct comparison between the boats that took the Danish Jews to Sweden in 1943 and those that the original building housed.

The brick vaulted ceiling of the original building is exposed above the angled edges of Libeskind’s design. This is the only acknowledgement of the original fabric – Libeskind’s sharply angled plan for the exhibition spaces completely encloses most of the supporting columns inside the panelled walling. That the plan follows the letterforms of mitzvah is an evocative concept, but is invisible to the unenlightened. Libeskind is untroubled by this: “It’s not important for people to know [that it takes the form of mitzvah]. It’s like a fugue – it’s not necessary to understand the way it works to enjoy it.” Libeskind sees the plan as an underlying theme to the overall design in the way a fugue is built from a theme that is answered by several layered “voices” that imitate and echo it.

Like the Berlin museum, Mitzvah has an uneasy relationship with its exhibits. The specific remit of the museum is to document the Danish Jewish cultural heritage and life: displaying personal artefacts and telling personal stories. The trouble is twofold. On a practical level, the exhibition design is confusing, with a non-linear layout and display boxes that are difficult to see into, due to the oblique angles of the walls. The more serious charge is that the architecture imposes itself too much. Its deterministic emotional stance makes the Talmuds, candlesticks and photographs feel mundane, and tears them from their respective contexts, reducing their ability to discretely narrate their stories on their own terms. The tragedy of Berlin’s story and the size of the site allowed its architecture to take a central role in the museum’s discourse, but Copenhagen’s comparative modesty makes such an approach far more problematic. Indeed, when walking through its fragmented spaces, Libeskind himself feels more prominent than the fragments of Jewish Danish life on displays. No doubt his name will help draw the crowds, but it would be better if they could be drawn to a museum that allowed its subject more space to speak for itself.

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