Opened in 2001, the Jewish museum in Berlin exhibits the social, political and cultural history of the Jews in Germany. It showcases German Jewish cultural history and works of art. An architectural attraction in itself, the site comprises two primary structures. To clarify, these two structures are the old building, which was built in 1735 and houses the Berlin Museum and the new building, which houses the Jewish Museum. The Jewish museum originally opened in 1933. However, by 1938 it had to close due to Nazi rule. It sat vacant until a group of people vow to re-open in 1975. So, a design competition took place and Daniel Libeskind won and designed this iconic architectural piece.
The museum is a Jewish-German experience. In other words, the museum represents a horrific yet realistic experience as it translates different stages of the Holocaust horrors into an architectural journey. Therefore, the museum serves, in many ways, as a political/nostalgic screen telling the history of Jews in Germany.
Conceptually, Libeskind wanted to express feelings of absence, emptiness, and invisibility of the Jewish Culture. So, this piece of de-constructivist architecture speaks of brokenness and resistance. Libeskind titled his design “Between the Lines” because, according to him, it was about two lines. That is to say, one line is a straight line, but broken into fragments. The other is a torturous line, but continuing indefinitely. Both lines represent the story of Holocaust through an invisible and irrational matrix design of the museum.
The whole design was based on three experiences. Firstly, it is impossible to understand the history of Berlin without understanding the enormous contributions made by its Jewish citizens. Secondly, the meaning and feeling of the Holocaust which must be integrated into the consciousness and memory of the city of Berlin. Finally, acknowledging the void in Jewish life in Berlin and that the history of Germany and Europe can have a better future.
This museum was an act of using architecture as a means of narrative and emotion to visitors. The jagged floor plan is reminiscent of a fractured Star of David, standing for the Jews who were arrested in concentration camps to be assassinated in Nazi Germany. While developing the design the architect plotted the addresses of prominent Jewish and German citizens on a map of prewar Berlin. Then, he joined the points to form an “irrational and invisible matrix,” on which he based the geometry and shape of the building.
Floor Plan details
Above all, Libeskind’s designed the floor plan based on two lines: the building’s visible zigzagging line and an invisible straight line. These two lines intersect creating voids from the ground level to the roof. The crisscrossing is designed as an architectural language of loss and trauma portrayed through architectural expression of absence and void. So, the plan of the museum expresses the Jewish lifestyle before, during and after Holocaust.
The form is established through a process of connecting lines between locations of historical events. The crossing lines of the plan resulted in a literal extrusion of those lines into a “zig-zag” building form. As we mentioned above, this form is the deformed Star of David. The museum building has cracked lines on its exterior symbolizing the genocide of Jewish lineage. However, from the inside, it’s a straight path that expresses continuity and the hope of a better future.
Visitors enter the museum through the Baroque Kollegienhaus, a former courthouse. It’s worth mentioning that the two buildings only connect from the inside. To enter, visitors have t0 climb down the stairs to pass through an underground tunnel. In this long, human-scale, dark, concrete passage, the visitors encounter genocide stories of German Jews where they experience fear, confusion and loss of orientation.
As the building resembles an emotional embodiment of what the Jews faced, the sequence of spaces attempts to recreate these emotions for the visitor. So, after the passage, visitors have three different underground axes to choose from. To illustrate, each axis expresses a specific theme and connects with different parts of the complex. These three axes represent major experiences in German Judaism and symbolize three paths of Jewish life in Germany which are: Holocaust, Exile and Continuity
After passing through the underground passage the visitor’s first option is a dark-end axis leading to the Holocaust tower. Along this path, there are glass cases containing objects that belonged to some of the persons killed by the Nazis. This tower is high and dark with gray walls and a very dim light coming from a narrow above. It’s enclosed, unheated and entirely empty. The silent experience of the Holocaust Tower belittles you, makes you feel alone disturbed by isolation.
The second option is The “Axis of Emigration”, representing those who were forced to leave Germany. This axis leads to the garden of Exile and Emigration. The garden of Exile is a matrix of 49 sloped concrete blocks arranged in a 7×7 grid. 48 pillars represent the birth of Israel in 1948 and are filled with the soil of Berlin. The central 49th pillar is filled with the soil of Israel. These blocks contain a series of Russian willow oaks which grows atop. The garden’s columns are arranged in a square on a 12° gradient effectively disorienting and destabilizing you as you walk up and down the rows. The concept behind the garden was to make the visitors have a disorienting experience through its pillar arrangement.
The Stair of Continuity is the third option. It’s the only escape from the dark and uncomfortable underground places to a large naturally lit grand stairway. This axis leads to the exhibition galleries and symbolizes the continuum of history. For instance some of the galleries include: paintings, photos, sculptures, biographies, letters, etc of the German Jewish community through the past 2000 years. This axis of continuity directly leads to the interior of the museum. As one ascends these stairs, they are able to view the whole city of Berlin through the dramatic windows.
The Jewish museum consists of four main levels with different programs. To illustrate, these four levels are: The lower level, the ground level, level one and finally level two. The lower level or the underground level has the Raphael Roth Learning Center. The ground level has Eric Ross Gallery and Memory Void. In levels one and two there are permanent exhibitions. In addition to the galleries and the exhibitions, the Jewish museum in Berlin also encompasses the Garden of Exile and the Holocaust Tower.
To sum up, The Jewish museum in Berlin is less of a museum but rather an experience depicting what most cannot understand. So, You can head to Daniel Linbeskind’s website for more information about the museum. If you would like to read more about other interesting museums check: Gayer Anderson Museum.