Architecture: A monument to truth and reconciliation

Daniel Libeskind's Jewish Museum in Berlin is already the most talked-about building in the world and a huge success with the German public. Not bad when you consider that it doesn't even open until next June.
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The building of the century isn't going to be Mies van der Rohe's Barcelona pavilion, or Frank Lloyd Wright's Falling Water. It will be the Jewish Museum in Berlin by Daniel Libeskind. With its skewed, acutely angled walls, vertiginous heights and dead ends, this extraordinary building seeks to address the history of Jewish people in Berlin, and set it in cement. The architect began with a museum and ended with a monument.

Yet it stands empty. A museum without one single thing in it. The Jewish Museum has been finished since January, it won't open until next June and contains nothing to see, but it has received over 100,000 visitors booking themselves on a tour "by special appointment". What's going on? Has style finally triumphed over content?

Daniel Libeskind sincerely hopes not. He is looking forward to the contents that Michael Blumenthal is piecing together to flesh out the building. At the moment, on a purely architectural tour, he feels too much weight is given to the airless, claustrophobic chamber which he calls the Holocaust Tower. "It is just one aspect of the history. It frightens some people but in the end they stand uplifted." Three routes lead through the building like an inverted A - or the folded Star of David. The shortest passage leads to the Holocaust Tower, the second to the Garden of Exile with 49 leaning towers tilting the horizon, and the longest road up stairs on what he calls the Stairs of Continuity under a white light to the galleries.

The narrowing route that ends at the Holocaust Tower has a grill laid over a gap in the floor like a cattle grid at its threshold. No one can avoid its rattle as they enter - Libeskind was a child prodigy pianist and sound within his buildings is critical. A huge, thick door swings silently open upon an enormous hinge, and closes with a dull click. Inside the chamber, bare, concrete, windowless walls soar 27 metres to an acutely angled corner with two tiny windows that let a shaft of light play upon the walls. Sounds of the city - traffic, muffled cries from the nearby school - distort inside this echo chamber. A narrow ladder beyond reach offers no escape. Claustrophobics have to leave but nobody entering this space ever speaks, says the museum's director Tom Freudenkamp. He believes that Libeskind's building tells stories "of fear and incarceration, of human loss and orientation, of joy and hope".

At times this concrete reminder of the wrongs of a nation has been more difficult for the Germans than Libeskind's geometry. But last week he was honoured with the German Prize for Architecture 1999 for the museum's "convincing architectural design that gives the warning `never again'," as the President of Germany, Johannes Rau, told the audience. "As President," he said, "I wondered what I could say about politics and architecture. But it is clear that there is a complicated relationship, since historically many politicians try to abuse architecture. Yet architecture, of all the arts, has the most responsibility. When architecture is made human, it is the opposite to the State terror that wanted to eliminate a whole people. We've begun to build bridges and have begun to walk over those bridges again. I believe, and I hope, that the Jewish Museum will tell the pain of our German history and bring us back to the humanity and richness that we lost."

This is an extraordinary speech to make at the turn of the century. Especially spoken to the architect, who is the son of a Holocaust survivor. On the day the German Prize was announced, the Berliner Morgenpost newspaper expressed the ardent hope that Libeskind "would stop playing the Jewish card at every possible occasion". At the prizegiving, Libeskind in turn expressed his hope that the museum "will communicate memory across receding distances and erasures, across a landscape both vivid and imaginary, across light both dim and exhilarating".

Not only does his building bring a new understanding of history, but it encourages a new relationship between programming, curatorship and architectural space. He has shown that you can open without a full house and still play to packed audiences, if you don't talk down to them: "I believe this building is robust enough to take any number of exhibits. I never conceived of it as empty. I want to see it full of people learning about Jewish history from the things they see around them."

Things such as the incredible collection of toys made by Jewish craftsmen still in storage in the Berlin Museum next door; clothes made by seamstresses who dominated commercial life in the Thirties; costumes and film clips inherited from film and theatre moguls such as Fritz Lang working out of Babelsberg, then Berlin's Hollywood.

At the start of the project in 1990, Libeskind patiently plotted all the addresses of Jewish families living in Berlin in the Thirties and used that trajectory to place the windows, shaped like shards that seem to shatter upon the zinc-clad building. Inside, things fall apart. Straight lines are only ever used to end something, or propel it forwards, up-or down stairs. Everything is on the diagonal. Libeskind says: "Intellectual enterprises from astro-physics to genetics, from economy to cybernetics, present a radically new picture of an emerging world. Yet architecture, framed by tradition and bound by convention, struggles to break out into the contemporary."

However much the building startles, no gimmicks have been used. There is nothing schmaltzy to interfere with the power of his building. It has complete integrity which is why, in the decade since he won the competition for the Jewish Museum, it has survived six governments, five name changes, four museum directors, three window companies, and two sides of Berlin coming together.

He has just finished creating pared-down galleries and lifting the ceiling on the attic inside the Berlin Museum next door, which is the entrance to the Jewish Museum. The Jewish Museum was intended to be small, no more than an extension to this baroque building. But the newcomer has overpowered its genteel and elderly neighbour. The original competition to find an architect for the Jewish Museum called the project "the exterior to the Berlin Museum, the Jewish Museum Department", which shows how times - and labels - have changed. Now the Jewish Museum is seen as so important that far from it being a mere extension, it is rumoured the Mayor of Berlin will hand over the Berlin Museum to the Jewish Museum to decide its contents. That should take the pressure off to stuff the Libeskind museum with too many artefacts. If you want to see it empty, hurry. It will close at the end of December until next June.

Libeskind hates the label "deconstruction" that sticks to his work from people puzzling over its fragmentation: "Wrong. I like piecing things together but showing the impact and implosion upon history. I'm the most traditional of all the architects I know. My architecture is all about tradition," he says.

It's just that nobody realises it. Sometimes Libeskind longs for an easy life, like Frank Gehry, who gets the Guggenheim, while he gets the most politically sensitive buildings, with the biggest struggles over funding, and the most criticism. But he never moans about a real challenge. "Anything worth doing is worth fighting for. Mediocre work never attracts criticism," he says.

The Jewish Museum ends the century on a note of truth and reconciliation. No matter how much of a dazzling performance in confrontation Libeskind gives, all along it was the building that was the real star, strong enough to shine through. It does not cower in denial of history. It is the one real cultural truth of our time by the only modernist to deal with the Holocaust.