Saying what can't be said

Nicola Sullivan, 20.07.2016
How museum architecture can evoke strong emotional responses
On a recent visit to the Jewish Museum Berlin in Germany I was struck by how powerfully architecture and space can be used to connect with visitors on an emotional level. 

Designed by Daniel Libeskind, the unfathomable building weaves across its quiet location near the centre of the city like a huge snake. The zinc-coated facade seems almost impenetrable, the daylight inside strictly rationed by a series of window slits, their seemingly random nature giving the overall effect of slash marks or wounds.

However, the positioning of the windows and the geometry and shape of the building is nothing but precise. The museum was designed in accordance to a matrix Libeskind created by plotting the addresses of prominent Jewish and German citizens on a map of Berlin before the second world war.
The museum’s permanent exhibition on Jewish history starts in the basement, where visitors are confronted with three paths. The Axis of Continuity connects the old part of the building with the main staircase leading up to the exhibition floors and is designed to represent the continuation of Berlin’s history.

Meanwhile the Axis of Emigration – a narrow corridor with an ascending floor and walls that close in towards the far end - leads to the Garden of Exile, comprising 49 rectangular pillars built on uneven ground, and designed to embody the instability faced by Jewish people who were forced to flee Germany.

Walking through the pillars was so disorientating that I felt nauseous, disturbed by how such a quiet, peaceful place could feel so profoundly wrong and disjointed. Looking up I could see the Russian willow oak trees growing on top the pillars – a symbol of hope, my audio-guide told me. But I also felt this alien manipulation of the traditional garden landscape conveyed irreconcilable loss and the struggle to adapt to a new normal.

The Axis of the Holocaust becomes darker and narrower as it leads to the Holocaust Tower, a separate building that is completely dark apart from a chink of light that comes through a slit in the far corner.

Standing in this cold environment and listening to the hum of the city outside conjures up a palpable feeling of absence, the burden of it is heavy and its permanence pressing and tangible.  

Similarly, areas known as Voids – spaces with bare concrete walls that run vertically through the building – represent the space left by lives that were not lived.

The architecture of the Jewish Museum Berlin manages to draw out such base emotional responses from visitors that their exploration of its collections becomes unforgettably life-changing.