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Tracing the empathy of an architect

Jewish Museum and Felix Nussbaum House illustrate the talent of Daniel Libeskind, who is redesigning the World Trade Center site.

April 06, 2003|Stanley Meisler | Special to The Times

Berlin — American architect Daniel Libeskind is a master at relating the beauty of a building to its meaning and purpose. His works are a blend of space and story -- the reason he won the intense, highly publicized competition earlier this year to redesign the World Trade Center site in New York.

It may take a decade before his exciting complex is complete. But Americans can see what may be in store for New York with his two earliest works in Germany: the acclaimed Jewish Museum Berlin and the little-known Felix Nussbaum House in the northwestern town of Osnabruck. Visiting them is an emotional, even wrenching, experience.

It's easy to see both on a visit to Germany, as I did on a trip last year while gathering material for a profile of Libeskind. It was the beginning of my research, and I was no better informed than the average tourist. I had read news stories about the opening of the Jewish Museum in September 2001, but I knew little about the Felix Nussbaum House. The effect these two wondrous works of architecture had on my feelings was greater than I could have imagined.

I started my research in Berlin. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and reunification, the German capital has reveled in nonstop construction and restoration, much of it in the hands of the world's finest architects. Norman Foster, who designed the Great Court at London's British Museum, restored the Reichstag, the old German parliament building, and Frank Gehry designed the DG Bank Building, with its enormous sculpture of a horse hovering over the atrium.

Neither of these works has had as much effect as Libeskind's Jewish Museum. Many critics place it alongside Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, as one of the most exciting architectural achievements of the last 10 years.

The Jewish Museum was the first architectural commission awarded to the 56-year-old Libeskind, the Polish-born son of Holocaust survivors. It's one of Berlin's most popular attractions, averaging 2,000 visitors a day. The steady stream of people, most of them German, makes the museum feel busy and dynamic but not crowded because there are so many byways and passages.

From the outside, the museum is spectacular. Libeskind has restored a Baroque 18th century stone Prussian courthouse and placed alongside it a gleaming zinc-clad building that zigs and zags like a thunderbolt. He describes it as "a compressed and distorted" six-pointed Jewish star.

The shape has become the museum's symbol; almost every scrap of paper, including entry tickets, badges and brochures, is stamped with a red logo repeating the thunderbolt-like Jewish star.

To get a full sense of the twists and size of the star, I walked around it. In all, the building covers 150,000 square feet. It's almost a full city block-- a wondrous structure of many angles glinting in the sun, enhanced by strange windows. Libeskind has pierced the zinc with slashes of glass that streak in different directions. They are designed to make you feel uneasy, and they do.

If you try to enter the zinc building, as I did, you will be disappointed. It has no public entrance. The entrance is in the old Prussian courthouse, which houses the museum's ticket booth, cafe, gift shop, auditorium and information counter. A visitor to new Germany must pass through old Germany first.

A staircase in the courthouse takes a visitor down to an underground passageway in the new building. The passageway leads to another staircase that takes you up to two floors of exhibits.

But there are two detours -- slightly sloping corridors, hazy in subdued light, that cut across the main passage and lead elsewhere. Because of the slope, walking upward can be a strain and walking downward can be slippery.

I took one of the corridors. It led to the Holocaust Tower.

The tower is a cold, dark concrete chamber with an iron door that clangs shut after you enter. The chamber, an appendage to the zinc building, is unheated. The only light comes from a slit in the ceiling.

The scene is eerie, designed to make you think what it might have been like to enter a Nazi concentration camp for the first time. The tower doesn't attempt to replicate the horrors of the Holocaust, but for a fleeting moment, I could feel the frightening clang of imprisonment.

Returning to the main passageway, I took the second detour, a corridor leading outdoors to a strange garden.

Libeskind calls this the Garden of Exile, commemorating the thousands of Jews who fled Germany during the Nazi years and settled elsewhere. He said the garden is "an attempt to completely disorient the visitor" because "it represents a shipwreck of history."

As Libeskind intended, the garden is disturbing and unpleasant. It is slightly sloped, making it difficult to stay balanced. Rows of ugly 20-foot-high concrete columns dominate the view, and fern-like plants sprout from the top of each. The columns, 49 in all, are filled with dirt -- 48 with earth from Berlin, the 49th with earth from Jerusalem.

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