Brutal? Only the critics

Daniel Libeskind's design for the V&A extension is brilliant despite the howls of outrage. Jonathan Glancey talks to the architect
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The Independent Online
If Daniel Libeskind is the devil, then I am more than happy to sup with him using the shortest spoon of all. Libeskind is the architect of the V&A's remarkable new pounds 42m extension which, all being well, will open in 2001. But last week, when his challenging but brilliant designs were presented to the public, a familiar reaction followed.

Critics, led by Lord Rees-Mogg, the Times columnist, rubbished it mercilessly. Rees-Mogg, absurdly, would have us believe that Libeskind travels in infernal fellowship with Chairman Mao and Jean-Paul Sartre, inviting us "to take a walk in the desert with the Devil for the good of our souls ... Sartre, Mao and Libeskind stand for the belief that a great new eruption through barbarism is the only to a brave new world." Utter nonsense.

To call Daniel Libeskind a barbarian is stupid. The Polish-born architect, a US citizen since 1965 and now living and working in Berlin, is one of the most civilised people an English peer of the realm could hope to meet. Libeskind is no closet Maoist, no fan of Pol Pot. He is not even a good old fashioned iconoclast.

A man whose family was destroyed by the Holocaust and whose country of birth was ravaged by Nazi and Communist alike, he believes passionately in building up European civilisation, not in tearing it down. That his buildings are unexpected and largely unprecedented and thus difficult to grasp or like at first is not the same thing as saying that they are in any way brutal. They are not.

"There are two words engraved on the outside of the V&A that struck me when I first looked afresh at the museum last year," says Libeskind taking me on a detailed tour of the competition models of the proposed Boilerhouse Gallery. "These are Inspiration and Knowledge, and I guess these are what I'm trying to represent in the new building. It is like the V&A as a whole, a container of knowledge built up over centuries and across civilisations; at the same time, the museum is there to inspire. Well this new building is going to try and do just that.

"When visitors come in from the street, they will be whooshed up in fast lifts to a great glazed tetrahedron on top of the building. This is a kind of dome of discovery, where the latest forms of information technology will offer a bespoke guide through the museum's vast collection to everyone who comes here. That should inspire them, I hope. Then, they can go up to the cafe at the very top and look across an extraordinary vista of Victorian domes and spires, a wonderland of architectural ideas and inspiration from around the globe and across time."

As they descend, the complex and inspirational logic of Libeskind's design will become clear to those with open minds and eyes that see the seven storey building is a great concrete spiral, although the floors, despite what the unorthodox appearance of the building suggests, are on the level and nothing like, say, the awkward ramp that winds visitors up and around Frank Lloyd right's Guggenheim Museum in New York.

An architectural junction box, the Boilerhouse will connect the various parts of the labyrinthine V&A, as well as providing considerable space for temporary exhibitions and displays of contemporary arts, crafts and decorative arts.

Because the Boilerhouse will serve first and foremost as a gallery of things yet to come, the V&A has chosen a building that looks wholly to the future. No, it does not "fit in" with the existing streetscape; but then what exactly is there for an architect to "fit in" with in South Kensington's audacious and gloriously eclectic museum land?

The Boilerhouse is meant to be different. It does, however, take a major expenditure of the imagination to translate the pictures of the apparently wayward model seen in the newspapers into the workable and enjoyable gallery it promises to be. But, imagine its crystal-like intersection of walls made of shimmering terracotta tiles, slit through with elongated windows allowing views through, up and down and into the heart of the new structure. Imagine people sitting below the Boilerhouse, lit ingeniously by lasers at night, on a custom designed bench running the length of the building - this will be one of the places to meet in the capital for Londoners and tourists alike.

When the V&A first approached the Millennium Commission for help with its original Boilerhouse project, the plans were rejected on grounds of being "insufficiently distinctive". This was before Libeskind. Hopefully, the commission will change its mind after Libeskind. Unless, of course, it decides to side with Lord Rees-Mogg and thus confuse one of the most likeable and civilised architects with Chairman Mao and his vicious and destructive Cultural Revolution.

Rees-Mogg has based his demolition of a humane and talented architect on a misunderstanding of the term "deconstructionist" which is loosely tied to any building that appears to be an explosion of tectonic forms rather than a neat and orderly resolution of conventional facades and floors. Rees-Mogg imagines that this term, borrowed from the philosophy of Jacques Derrida, implies the emergence of the "ante-building" (sic), a thing designed to be "ugly because that is what the architect wants to be".

This is simply untrue. Libeskind's controversial Jewish Museum, his first major building and an extension to the existing Berlin Museum, is due to open next summer. Designed in the guise of a three-dimensional bolt of lightning, it is striking, but far from ugly. The Boilerhouse Gallery at the V&A will not be ugly either. Those who base unfounded criticism of the design on a cursory glance at the plastic and cardboard models submitted to the V&A's selection committee are rushing to false judgement when they call the proposal devilish and ugly.

Libeskind's Jewish Museum in Berlin began life by winning the vote of the young and the censure of those who saw themselves as guardians of the classical values that have underpinned European civilisation. Initial hostility to the Berlin design has given way, slowly, to admiration. Politicians and officials have begun to see method in Libeskind's "deconstructionism" now that what had appeared at first to be a crazy set of squiggles on paper is emerging as a thrilling, practical, beautiful and above all inspirational building.

While Little Englanders continue to beef over the merits of the V&A's brave new extension, the Germans, suspicious until so recently of Daniel Libeskind, have commissioned the architect to build an art museum in Osnabruck, a "music hall" in Bremen and a major urban development which takes in the side of the Sachsenshusen concentration camp on the fringe of Berlin itself. Only an architect of Libeskind's sensitivity, sense of history and deep humanity was to have been allowed to build on a site that has embarrassed the once and future German capital for more than 50 years. Clearly, there are two Daniel Libeskinds: the architect who will give Britain one of its most adventurous and enjoyable public buildings in years, and the diabolic barbarian of the imagination of those for whom words (like "deconstructionism") account for more than deeds.