Magazine article The Spectator

A Place to Muse

Magazine article The Spectator

A Place to Muse

Article excerpt

A few weeks ago I flew to Berlin to join some 2,000 others from all over the world in celebrations marking the completion of Daniel Libeskind's Jewish Museum.

Waiting to cross the Lindenstrasse to the museum, a Japanese visitor crenellated with cameras pointed at its subtly weathering zinc skin and said, `That is the most significant building of the 20th century.' Dazzled, as on my two previous visits, I hazarded that it is the century's greatest work of art. 'A great work of art,' declared Coleridge, 'must contain within itself why it is so and not otherwise' -- precisely what Libeskind's design, a broken but infinitely reflective star, achieves.

A prodigious accordion player; in 1959 the 13-year-old Daniel Libeskind, together with Daniel Barenboim, Itzhak Perlman and Pichas Zuckerman, won the AmericaIsrael Foundation Prize but soon abandoned music as a profession because he hated life as a performer. But the discipline drew him to mathematics, to drawing and then into architecture which offered him the scope to articulate a uniquely complex response to the deepest mysteries of human history. The process of exploring, of collecting and re-collecting, of connecting and reconnecting past to future, of establishing a proper relation between them, compels a wholly original use of techniques and materials.

Hanging in the underground passage which joins the Berlin Museum with the Jewish Museum, two white banners bear a revised version in German and English of BETWEEN THE LINES, Daniel Libeskind's own description of his building. 'This was not,' he explains, 'a programme I had to invent or a building I had to research, rather one in which I was implicated from the beginning, having lost most of my family in the Holocaust and myself having been born only a few hundred kilometres east of Berlin in Lodz, Poland.'

Anti-Semitism, then, was a reality of Libeskind's childhood. But where the direct experience of such prejudice enables him to project the reality of the Void (a line of empty concrete spaces), of the absent presence of the murdered 6 million, his vision simultaneously recognised that 'only through the acknowledgement and incorporation of this erasure . . . can the history of Berlin and Europe have a human future'. Such commitment to the present and to the future born of an unflinching meeting with the past inevitably precludes making concessions to those who would prefer to impose a 19th-century `image in denial' on Germany's regenerating capital. …

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