Modern Architecture

Memory in postmodern architecture: A study of the Jewish Museum, Berlin

Since the Cold War period there has been a surge of interest in memory discourse and increasingly anxious debate regarding the suitability of long-established and outdated commemorative methods. Traditional types of war memorial have not only proven ineffective (for example in preventing the recurrence of war in Europe after WWI) but can also be seen to have played a role in manipulating collective memory and endorsing militaristic rhetoric of colonialism, dominance and power – the same ideologies which drove fascism and other totalitarian regimes to commit atrocities during the 20th century.

Artists and architects are now therefore faced with the challenge of conveying memory through new channels, no longer creating memorials which propagate glory, heroism and prestige but ones which are principally non-triumphalist, apologetic and conscious of their own meta-language and its political connotations. Good examples of such memorials are Maya Lin’s “Vietnam Veterans Memorial” (1982) in Washington or Peter Eisenman’s “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe” (2003-4) in Berlin. These are not so much monuments as they are counter-monuments; subverting the normal enactment of memory and its rituals.


The same question of how to articulate memory has arisen in architecture; although here memory must be assimilated into a language which is primarily functional and serves a structural purpose. This is the case with the Jewish Museum, which resides adjacent to the Old Kollegienhaus in southern Berlin. Its function is to display both permanent and temporary exhibitions educating its visitors on the rich cultural heritage of the Jewish people and their historic presence in Europe, however equally the design of the building serves as a visual metaphor for the trauma inflicted by WWII and the Holocaust on the Jewish community. Thus the museum not only houses memory through its exhibits and artifacts, but becomes itself a symbol of national remembrance and self-understanding.

When the building was proposed in 1988 by the Berlin government it presented a number of challenges in terms of its conceptual specifications. Even the basics had to be carefully considered: was the new building to be attached or separated from the already standing Berlin museum within the Kollegienhaus, if they were joined together might it denote an unwarranted sense of reconciliation, and would keeping them apart perpetuate damaging notions of racial segregation? Furthermore how can a museum go about providing a material presence, a “home” for the Jews within a city and a nation from which they have been so violently displaced, which is essentially marred by their absence.


Daniel Libeskind won the commission for the building and his design (finally completed in 1999 and opened two years later) was the embodiment of this theoretical dilemma. It is representative of a Deconstructivist style architecture characterized by fragmentation and unpredictability which breaks from conventional forms and planning methods, in an attempt, perhaps, to express the inexpressible. The building is 15000 square metres arranged in a dramatic zig-zag shape which has been said to be reminiscent of an abstracted Star of David.

The plan is composed of two parts, the architect states, “one is a straight line, but broken into many fragments, the other is a tortuous line, but continuing indefinitely.” The first line, also referred to as the Axis of Continuity, cuts through the second, which is the serpentine body of the building itself. At the intersection where these lines cross “voids” rising vertically from the ground to the roof about 20 metres tall, cut through the building. The presence of the voids (one of which is filled at its base with Menashe Kadishman’s “Fallen leaves” sculptural installation – 10,000 coarse iron faces representing Jewish lives lost) disrupts any sense of continuity within the structure. This cavity running through the Jewish Museum has become symbolic for the Holocaust itself, a visible, shadowy rift in the nation’s history. In formal terms it becomes the silent eye of reflection at the heart of the maelstrom building.



The museums exterior takes on a fortress like appearance, sharp and angular; its windows penetrate the walls randomly at different orientations. A thin layer of zinc coats the facade, which will oxidize and turn colour as it weathers and gives the building the look of an industrial factory-like edifice which radically departs from its surroundings and the customary stone-clad buildings of Berlin. When viewed from above it leaves an open grey wound on the landscape.


To get into the museum you must enter through the main Berlin Museum’s Baroque wing and travel through an underground tunnel, descending into a cold dark space which invokes a sense of anxiety. Then the visitor is met with a crossroads of tunnels, the Three Axis which underwrite the museum’s purpose. The first as already mentioned is the Axis of Continuity, which represents the path to the present day and to uncertain times ahead, this line runs from the Kollegienhaus entrance and leads up a long stairway (with looming concrete supports overhead) into the exhibition spaces. The exhibition rooms and galleries are sometimes closed off or exhibit-less, pierced by intersecting walls or voids, again emphasising the irrational fragmentation and splintering of spaces.

The second Axis Of Emigration connects the Museum to the outside Garden of Exile, via a corridor which is uneven and grows progressively narrower. The Garden itself is a land sculpture which is elevated at a 12 degree gradient and filled with rows of forty-nine close together concrete columns which the visitor must try to negotiate through, olive branches sprout from the top representing peace and hope, but from the ground these seem remote. It acts as a memorial for all the Jews forced out of Germany and into exile; a stagnant and sorrowful place which speaks of the sort of uneasy purgatory a refugee faces. The final underground Axis is that of The Holocaust which leads to a dead end; through a heavy door is the Holocaust Tower, which is a 24 m tall empty concrete silo lit only by a narrow split in its roof and forms a foreboding, dark, claustrophobic chamber which remains cool and damp all year round.



These three underground tunnels leading in different directions act to put the emphasis on each individual visitor’s experience, asking them to make their own choices and tread their own path. Like other postmodern monuments, such as the “Vietnam Veterans Memorial” or the “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe” the memory here is not prescribed or otherwise mediated, but rather enacted through the spectator and through their personal interactions with the space and its meanings.

The Jewish Museum seems to me to signify the anxiety which is deeply embedded in the modern human condition regarding how we should preserve, retain and convey sensitive memories. Anxieties which are in this case crystallized by the fact that Germany’s void is one that is self-inflicted, and that the memory of the Holocaust carries not only pain but guilt and responsibility. Libeskind’s building can provide no resolution to this crisis – only offer a reminder of how difficult it is to manifest the past not only conceptually, but, in the wake of revisionist and post-structural theory, also practically; after appraising traditional commemorative forms what are we left with to effectively communicate memory today?

The Museum attempts to address that question, in offering a refreshing glimpse at the potential of architecture which, once all the conventional paradigms of monumentality, symmetry and order have been overcome, reveals itself as a forcefully expressive and self-critical memorial site capable of holding a mirror up to the complexity of history rather than simply telling it.


© 2014, Kat Isaac. All rights to written content reserved.