October 20, 2003,
BERLIN Imagine my frustration at facing the closed doors of the Jewish Museum here when I arrived one recent Sunday. Thanks to Rosh Hashanah, the facility was shut the entire weekend. Three busy days of meetings with German newsmakers, organized for an American delegation by the free-market Friedrich Naumann Foundation, already had precluded an earlier visit. Now, rather than accommodate my schedule, the museum yielded to the Jewish calendar.
While I cannot comment on the museum's contents, its five-year-old extension is highly relevant to the debate over the new World Trade Center. As it happens, the Jewish Museum was designed by Daniel Libeskind, the same architect who New York officials chose to supervise rebuilding at Ground Zero. If Libeskind's past is prologue, those 16 acres in Lower Manhattan will remain grim for decades.
It may seem unfair to compare Libeskind's plans for high-rise offices with a museum that documents 1,600 years of Judaic history and the Jews' near-extinction by the Nazis. In fact, Libeskind's work surely is influenced by the fact that 85 of the Polish-born architect's relatives were slaughtered on Adolf Hitler's orders. Still, what occupies these grounds on a quiet street here loudly echoes Libeskind's collection of jarring polygons that was picked to replace the sleek, majestic Twin Towers.
The Jewish Museum's three-story-high modern wing includes six interlocking sections that confront each other at odd angles. The building is clad in a corrugated skin of untreated zinc and titanium alloy. Libeskind intended for this mainly gray surface to corrode into a dull brown, and it has started to do so. The exterior walls have narrow windows, perhaps a foot high, that slash into the metal as if from sharp, random trajectories. Some windows have curtains; others are bare. Tiny dots run parallel to the glass slits. They may represent air holes. Or bullet holes. Even more ruptures seem to have been made with a jumbo can opener.
As I absorbed all of this, the screechy-violin score from Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho burst into my head.
A few evenly sized metal cuts intersect perpendicularly with each other. Perhaps these crosses reflect Christianity's interplay with Judaism. Maybe they mean nothing at all. Libeskind himself has said that his building's scattered composition represents a "compressed and distorted" Star of David.
The shape of Libeskind's building amplifies his cold, stark vision. It zigzags in every possible direction, respecting neither Linden Strasse's lines, nor anything else. At one spot, two walls and the roof converge at a point targeted like a menacing scalpel at an apartment complex just across Neuenburger Strasse. Its tenants deserve a rent reduction. Feng shui rarely gets worse than this.
Libeskind's project was completed in late 1998. After some 300,000 people visited the then-empty property, it closed in 1999 while the exhibition was installed within. Interestingly enough, it was scheduled to open to the general public on September 11, 2001. In deference to al Qaeda's attack on America, the Jewish Museum opened Libeskind's extension two days later.
In that connection, Libeskind's Ground Sculpture eerily foresaw Ground Zero. As the museum's description states:
"Three angles of the building enclose a courtyard where architect Daniel Libeskind has made a rough-textured sculpture of basalt and granite on the ground surface. Its mosaic-like face passes through a passage to the other side of the building, and shards of it lie fragmented in several directions, so that the building rises from a broken landscape."
There is a speck of sunshine amid these slivers of doom. His name is David Childs. Last July, Manhattan real-estate tycoon Larry Silverstein who bought the 99-year lease on the WTC when then-mayor Rudy Giuliani privatized it in July 2001 selected Childs to lead redevelopment at Ground Zero. His job seems to be to chaperone Libeskind through the reconstruction process. This is wise, as Libeskind has never erected anything higher than five stories and now is responsible for replacing two 110-story skyscrapers and five adjacent buildings totaling ten million square feet. Since Childs came aboard, Libeskind's plan has lost some of its edge, literally. The new WTC's lacerating, steak-knife-sharp angles could have made its blueprints cause paper cuts. Thankfully, these structures have been smoothed down a bit. They now are better-suited to slice through salmon rather than sirloin.
While this is an improvement, one hopes Childs will babysit Libeskind into irrelevance.
I have argued repeatedly that the Twin Towers should rise as before, only stronger, or al Qaeda wins. And, once again, I plead for this to happen.
Failing that, Childs (with Libeskind in tow) could learn plenty by touring Potsdamer Platz. This area, which saw Europe's first traffic lights in 1924, was the heart of 1930s Berlin. But Allied bombs and Russian shells soon leveled it during World War II. The Berlin Wall then divided this area in 1961. Today, just steps from what was Hitler's Fuhrerbunker, corporate headquarters have risen from the rubble.
Architect Renzo Piano's wood-toned head office for Daimler-Chrysler exudes far more warmth than one might expect from an automotive engineering company. The surrounding hotel, retail, and entertainment establishments are all friendly, vibrant and easy on the eyes.
The nearby Sony Center elegantly combines office space with an eight-screen movie house, a cinematic museum (complete with Marlene Dietrich's archive), and open-air restaurants beneath a modern steeple of sorts: a set of white fiberglass membranes suspended over a dining courtyard and offices. In architect Helmut Jahn's stroke of genius, they rise to a peak patterned after Japan's Mount Fuji.
Immediately adjacent stand the headquarters of Deutsche Bahn, Germany's national railway. Sparkling like a gem, its gently curved glass curtain almost billows about the edges of its 26 floors. A few stretches of glass rise above the roof line in another grace note. The DB Tower shines beautifully at night as the lights from within glimmer through the floor-to-ceiling window panes.
Renzo Piano and Helmut Jahn conceived much of the bold, optimistic layout and edifices that converted Potsdamer Platz from a Cold War relic into the crossroads of a free Europe. Imagine what they could do with, say, a 1,400-foot-tall assignment. These joyous designers should be in Manhattan, rebuilding what once reached for the stars on the east side of West Street.