William JR Curtis tracks the uneven trajectory of Daniel Libeskind’s career, from early success to later derailments
It is a curious experience to go back to Berlin after an absence of some 15 years. Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum was under construction when I was last there in 1995 but I did snatch a glimpse of the building with its zigzag plan and diagonal gashes of light. The themes of Walter Benjamin’s One-Way Street, and of the central void left by the Holocaust, were clear enough in the drawings and models but not yet perceptible in the construction.
Only days ago, I went back and experienced the finished building for the first time. It is now an established landmark in the city. The reaction was mixed. The leaning exterior is more subdued than many imagined and makes a dynamic foil to the old museum building of which it is an annexe. The theme of the street, with its three diagonal crossing points, one to annihilation, one to the diaspora and one to the future, is clearly spelt out. The void at the centre of the building, the dark tower chamber at the end of the Holocaust Street, and the tilting grid of stele in the Garden of Exile are strong spatial experiences, as is the central stair ending in a blank wall. But the route through the upstairs galleries is a muddle and the matter is not improved by the confused presentation, which is not worthy of its tragic subject matter.
Not everyone approves of Libeskind’s ‘theatrical’ rendition of a troubled past but the Jewish Museum in Berlin stands as a work full of promise, designed by an architect who was in his forties when he conceived the idea. This was not a matter of ‘Deconstructivist’ mannerisms that were so fashionable at the time, but of a narrative translated into abstract form, light and space through the medium of architecture. There was another Libeskind project of the early 1990s which revealed the potential of the relatively young architect, namely in the understated Garden of Love and Fire at Almere in the Netherlands.
Formed from a series of parallel metallic stele on a gritty base in the middle of an open green space, this haunting scheme no doubt owed a great deal to Richard Serra’s sculptures using steel blades and cuts; but it showed how Libeskind was capable of using abstraction to touch upon subliminal emotions, to stir memories and even to encourage meditation. Although small, the project possessed a restrained monumentality. These two works of the 1990s continued investigations launched a decade earlier in the sketches of the ‘Choral Works’, which explored a sort of visual equivalence to music in scores of a kind. The Berlin and Almere schemes call to mind Wittgenstein’s observation: ‘Remember the impression one gets from good architecture, that it expresses a thought. It makes one want to respond with a gesture.’
So what went wrong? Fast forward to this year’s Run Run Shaw Creative Media Centre for the City University of Hong Kong, a pile-up of Libeskindian clichés without sense, form or meaning − a reduction to caricature of all that the Jewish Museum set out to achieve. Or take the project for Gazprom City in St Petersburg of 2006, a 300m tall ‘tower’ that resembles a high heel shoe. Or the ‘Tangent’ facade for Hyundai Development Corporation Headquarters in Seoul of 2005, with its leering round mask, like a cartoon on a poster, but rendered in a visual language devaluing El Lissitzky: a colossal billboard shouting a trite and noisy corporate message across the mess of an East Asian city. Talk about an uneven trajectory. This was virtually a betrayal of all that Libeskind had stood for.
Maybe the trouble started with the famous ‘Freedom Tower’ fiasco in New York, the skyscraper which from a certain angle mimicked the upraised arm of the Statue of Liberty and announced its all-American credentials by being 1,776ft tall (the date of American Independence − 1776 and all that!). Suddenly, the Danny who had been all about cutting through the tangled suppressions of difficult European war memories seemed to let his architecture serve the dubious Neo-Con redefinition of 9/11 as an attack upon the ‘freedoms’ of the US, if not the ‘Western World’ in general.
As it turns out, these ‘freedoms’ included the ‘right’ to invade countries illegally, to set up prison camps and to muzzle the freedom of the press and the free expression of public opinion with the Patriot Act. Not Libeskind’s fault, of course, but he took a risk in playing along with a narrative embedded in half-truths and in a refusal to look critically at international political reality. You can wear ‘I love New York’ buttons and appear on TV chat shows but it turns out that NY does not love architecture. In the end, everything is reduced to the level of the real estate developer’s calculations. A skyscraper is just a skyscraper, after all, a banal stack of offices whatever cartoons, national myths, or twists and turns one may apply to it.
Education Cooper Union, Essex University
First break Garden of Love and Fire, Almere, The Netherlands (1992)
Key buildings Felix Nussbaum Haus, Osnabrück, Germany (1998) Jewish Museum, Berlin, Germany (1999) Imperial War Museum North, Manchester, UK (2002) Masterplan for the World Trade Center site, New York City, USA (2003)
Garlands AIA New York and the Center for Architecture Foundation President’s Award (2008) AIA New York Medal of Honor (2011)
Quote ‘To promote meaningful architecture is not to parody history but to articulate it’
So Libeskind hit the big time and became a ‘success story’ and an international brand in the global star system. But perhaps he lost his architectural soul in the process, like so many other architects of his generation once trumpeted as being part of the supposedly ‘critical avant-garde’. One thinks of Coop Himmelb(l)au, the Rolling Stones of Vienna with their Blue Angel creeping over a rooftop, then the monstrosity of its recent skyscraper for Shenzhen; of Peter Eisenman’s theorising snatched from Derrida, then the catastrophic reality of the City of Culture in Galicia; of Zaha Hadid with her neo-Lissitzky paintings of the Hong Kong Peak project, then the jumble of computer-generated formalism being dumped all around the world, promoted by specious comparisons with gladioli or seashores. Oh the delights of Parametricism and computers, which make the bad easy and the good as hard as ever. We hear ad nauseam about ‘complexity’ but most of it is simple-minded. Never in the history of humanity has so much meaningless geometry been produced by so few architects.
Then a flashback to a warm afternoon in New York in 1988… a visit to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) to see the ‘Deconstructivist’ show. I join Joseph Giovannini, former critic of the LA Times, who was miles ahead of Mark Wigley and Aaron Betsky in sensing new directions. Of course, Philip Johnson was pulling the strings behind the scenes and MoMA was serving as the willing fashion boutique promoting new hemlines. What fun to pull the rug out from under Postmodern Classicism when you had been one of the proponents and just when the corporate US was settling into a banquet of pink keystones. What fun as well to dress the whole thing up in radical chic theorising and to compromise academia in the process: ‘Deconstructivism’ = Neo-Constructivist formalism + a dose of ‘Decon’ philosophy… geddit?
Of course, the best of the lot was Frank Gehry, who hardly opened a theory book in his life. A nice bit of packaging then for a new generation and in the middle of the show Libeskind’s ‘City Edge’ project for Berlin, all about cuts, fracturing and difficult historical memories in a divided city, a divided Europe, a divided world. So the wall came down in 1989 and the capitalism of the ‘free world’ went on the rampage with social fractures and urban fragmentation of its own, and on a large scale all over the place. And the ‘radicals’ all became conservatives putting their flamboyant gestures and fractured shards in the service of the unfettered forces of the market. ‘Freedom’ or slavery?
Jonathan Farr • See more work on his website
From the AR Archives: William Curtis argues that the Post-Modern Classicists, far from re-interpreting history effectively as they claim, have succeeded in capturing outward appearance only in Principles V Pastiche, Perspectives on Some Recent Classicisms.