A new building was opened in Berlin last month that has set the architectural world buzzing. If architecture is “frozen music,” wrote one observer, citing Friedrich von Schelling’s famous dictum, then Berlin’s new Jewish Museum is “a truly dissonant piece.”
Designed to embody what it memorializes, the building itself — as opposed to what it merely exhibits — is said to deliver quite a jolt. Its zigzag shape suggests the lightning-bolt logo of the Nazi SS, and its metal skin is split and slashed by numerous slitlike windows. Inside, the visitor starts out in a black and white labyrinth, deprived of directions. Corridors or “roads” lead off, going who knows where; one of them, re-enacting the Holocaust, finishes in a claustrophobic dead end. If this is music solidified, then what architect Daniel Libeskind has composed is a John Cage piece in cement, zinc and glass, where there is nothing to be heard but the sounds in the surrounding air and remembered or imagined sounds from the past.
It seems clear that the Jewish Museum in Berlin will take its place among the world’s notable architectural structures, those in which form most memorably follows function. The Sydney Opera House, with its soaring, earlike shells; Washington’s Vietnam Memorial, that V-shaped black gash in the earth; the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, with its four towers like open books standing on end; Tokyo’s own almond-shaped International Forum, sleekly mimicking the curve of the shinkansen tracks on its eastern edge: All these stand out like jewels amid the dull office blocks and skyscrapers (or, in the case of resurgent Berlin, the cranes and scaffolding) of the cities they now help to define. They are the Mozarts and Stravinskys and Ellingtons of architecture, redrawing the boundaries of the field for professionals and ordinary people alike, and it is naturally exciting when a new peak appears in the landscape.
And yet architecture is, or should be, much more than a series of stunning single structures, no matter how effective or photogenic. Acclaim for outstanding achievements is understandable and deserved, but it is also potentially destructive. In a field where what is most needed is a sense of context, a vision of cities as blended wholes and a willingness to think and plan cooperatively, celebrity-driven architecture only encourages the kind of maverick individualism that is so depressingly evident in contemporary Tokyo. Residents are proud of this city’s architectural gems, but they also have good reason to regret the trickle-down influence on all the local would-be Kenzo Tanges, I.M. Peis and Norman Fosters who have crammed the streets with pretentious buildings while ignoring the most elementary notions of town planning or urban harmony.
Forgetting that most of the world’s genuinely distinguished structures are public buildings commanding an appropriate amount of space — concert halls, libraries, museums, monuments and the like — these lesser lights have tried to recreate on slivers of private land, in this most crowded of cities, the cutting-edge ideas of the stars. The result is the typical Tokyo streetscape: rows of narrow, ill-matched buildings clad in pockmarked cement or patches of rusted metal or what look like leftover bathroom tiles, all competing for attention like so many paralyzed prima donnas. In many instances, form is blithely severed from function: Exterior steps go nowhere, a diving board hangs over nothing, cement cascades down a wall like an alien growth. If the intent, like the effect, is to suggest urban angst or postmodern anomie, that seems a rather heavy load of meaning to impose on a humble office building. Worse, where an imaginative or well-designed building does catch the eye, it is likely to be overwhelmed by its neighbors, not to mention the traffic and jumbled wires that are sure to obscure it from every angle.
There is no questioning the excellence of contemporary Japanese architecture. At the same time, there is no denying the visual incoherence of contemporary Japanese cities. It is an aesthetic disjunction that particularly shocks the visitor expecting to find here the spare grace and formal restraint of well-known Japanese buildings reproduced in the country’s urban centers. It is not, however, a problem that architects should be expected to solve unaided; it will take an unprecedented creative partnership between academics, architects, town planners and government bureaucrats.
That is why, as the world applauds Mr. Libeskind’s achievement, people interested in the life of cities everywhere will also be keeping an eye on the backdrop to his remarkable museum, watching to see how Berlin itself will look after the sea of cranes and scaffolding disappears. In many ways, that is the greater architectural challenge.
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