Monday 8 July 2013

The Danish Jewish Museum

It took us absolutely ages to find the Jewish Museum in Copenhagen. After walking literally for an hour, and having asked for directions twice, we ended up where we had started from,

the garden of the Royal Library. The map was not very clear, and then both people we asked for directions sent us outside the garden so that by the time we finally found it, we were quite frustrated.

The garden itself is very beautiful - a calm little oasis at the back of the Royal Library, in the middle of the Christiansborg complex.

I think part of the problem was that we were expecting a modernist building, but instead,

the Jewish Museum is on the left hand side of this building (the library)

and this pillar

and this narrow, low door are the only external signs of the Museum.

Libeskind designed such a narrow, low, small door into the museum because he sees it as an entrance to a treasury and the treasure is there because such a large part of the Jewish cultural heritage in Denmark has been preserved, unlike the other countries in Europe, where, when the displaced and dispossessed Jewish people returned to their homes all of their possessions had been pilfered or destroyed. The Danish neighbours of the Returned on the other hand had preserved, saved and nurtured the possessions of their neighbours.

What happened in Denmark during WWII is something remarkable and unique in the history of Europe at that time. After the occupation of Denmark, on October 1 1943, Hitler ordered Danish Jews to be arrested and deported. Despite great personal risk, the Danish resistance movement with the assistance of many ordinary Danish citizens took part in a collective effort to evacuate about 7,800 Jews of Denmark by sea to nearby neutral Sweden. The rescue allowed the vast majority of the Jewish population to avoid capture by the Nazis and is considered to be one of the largest actions of collective resistance to repression in the countries occupied by Nazi Germany. As a result of the rescue over 99% of Denmark's Jewish population survived the Holocaust.

When we entered the Museum, one of the first things we did was watch a film where Libeskind outlined his vision for the Museum. The first question he asked himself was: 'what does a Jewish Museum mean in this city which is so different to other cities?'

He decided that the concept at the root of the design would be 'Mitzvah', the Hebrew word for 'good deed' to celebrate the good deed that the Danes carried out on those nights in 1943.

Mitzvah is not only the objective of the Museum, but it is also at the root of the spatial design of the building so that the word is spelled out in the plan of the tiny museum as shown here by the red marks on this map, as drawn for me by a member of staff.

I was very lucky to have the opportunity to have a fascinating conversation with one of the people who work in the museum, who sat me down and spent almost an hour explaining all the symbolic references of the building. The conversation was so interesting that we were joined by another member of the staff, and we covered all sort of topics from the rescue of the Jewish people in Denmark, to architecture, art, anti-semitism in Europe today, the Libeskind Museum in Berlin, the Jewish cemetery in Prague, and lots more. He had an interesting analysis of anti-semitism in Europe. He said that in countries like in Greece and Hungary anti-semitism originates/is based around fascist groups, while in the rest of Europe it is masked under the guise of anti-Zionism - it gave me food for thought.

But, I digress.

In the video we watched, Libeskind said that 'architecture tells a story'. I don't know if that is true of all architecture, but his buildings certainly do. Libeskind is a visionary, a true artist, and his buildings are full of symbolism.

This is how Sten Moller expressed it: 'Whenever I look at Daniel Libeskind's architecture, in my mind's eye I see an onion. An onion ready to be peeled - not without pain and tears. Layer by layer. Once one layer has been peeled, I am ready for the next. In to the very heart. Libeskind's work is not merely an exterior skin, as is the case with so much new architecture. No, there are many layers. I even imagine they might be never-ending. Every time you see his architecture, and lose yourself in it, something new is revealed, added meaning, yet another emotion, and also a new context. Daniel Libeskind is a great storyteller...

Libeskind speaks to the world. What is more, he tells one of the most profound stories of our times, and in his work he releases architecture from the huge shadow cast by 20th century exploitation of the art form for political ends. Instead of shadow, he sheds a ray of light in the darkness. He approaches architecture as a thinker, subtle, sharp and quick, a storyteller with a taste for heroism and sentiment. But he does not nurture the idioms and forms of the past, he uses his own contemporary language'.

I want to give just one example of his genius before continuing about the Jewish Museum in Copenhagen.

The seminal Jewish Museum in Berlin. The imposing building which is clad in zinc has no visitors' entrance: access to the story of Jewish culture and history in Germany is through the Museum of German history. But not only does the visitor have to symbolically pass through German history in order to reach the story and exhibition of Jewish culture, they also have to walk down a flight of steps, down to the basement, to go underground before having access to what they went there for. How inspired is that!

'On the urban level, the Danish Jewish Museum ties the old Royal Library building to the new Royal Danish Library, known as the Black Diamond and activates the pedestrian walk in the Royal Library Garden along the Proviantgarden, where one of its internal planes becomes an outdoor urban space in which water and a rowboat dramatically recall the means by which the Danish Jewish community was saved'. (Daniel Libeskind).

(another photograph of the map for easy access)

'A matrix is organised by four planes that intersect in the floor structure... The four planes I have called 'Exodus', 'Wilderness', 'Giving of the Law' and 'Promised Land'. (Daniel Libeskind). Invoking the Talmud.

'Exodus' is the story of leaving Egypt and the museum has chosen to interpret this theme as the story of Jewish immigration to Denmark and voyage as a common Jewish experience. 'Wilderness' is the story of the journey through the wilderness, and in the exhibition the theme focuses on the many standpoints which influence the Jewish community in Denmark. 'The Giving of the Law' is the story of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments. 'The Promised Land' in the museum's exhibition is the story of this destination as more than a possibility - the desire for achievements and recognition on an equal footing with other citizens in Denmark.

So, this is the content of the exhibits, but there is more to the structure inside, to the exhibition halls, which according to Libeskind are 'both written and read like a text within a text within a text'.

The walls and the floors are clad in Swedish wood symbolising the night trips to Sweden in 1943. The floor is made of oak planks and it has a slant, the slightly sloping floor being reminiscent of the deck of a boat. The feeling of disorientation, not unlike standing on a ship moving through rolling waves, is also meant to be a reminder of the Jewish condition in general.

The aggressively acute, almost jagged angles serve as reminders of the senseless destruction, the irreparability of the Holocaust, the irredeemable destruction of Europe's Jews, the forever shattered past. This is an abandonment of traditional architecture practice, an embracing of architecture as fragmentation, de-centredness and loss, that reflects the reality of the postmodern, post-humanist, post-Holocaust world.

These slicing, intersecting planes open the concrete world of here and now to an abstract, spiritual dimension.

'Architecture seeks to explore the deeper order rooted not only in visible forms, but in the invisible and hidden sources which nourish culture itself, in its thought, art, literature, song and movement. It considers history and tradition as a body whose memories and dreams cannot be simply reconstructed. Such an approach does not wish to reduce the visible to a thought, and architecture to a mere construction', wrote Libeskind in his essay Symbol and Interpretation.

This is a strong expressive space - a space that makes itself felt with sloping floors, slanting walls and sharply-cut lines of light moving up and down the walls in a striking rhythm. Libeskind's overall concept in terms of content is interwoven with his architectural design, and fragments of this concept crop up everywhere. It's a museum that rouses emotions - strong emotions - and provokes thought.

The Mitzvah configuration on the walls.

It's the work of a poet, a genius, a visionary and in my view, the greatest architect of our time.


Daniel Libeskind and the Contemporary Jewish Museum, ed. Connie Wolf
The Danish Jewish Museum and Daniel Libeskind, ed. Sten Moller.


  1. A brilliant post - it explains the Jewish museum in excellent detail and the photos and maps portray the text perfectly.

  2. Daniel Libeskind is the most pretentious architect of our time. If his "architecture" is like an onion, it is only for the layers of BS warapping corny symbolism and cheap gimmicks. The absence of inrtellectual content is his only trademark.

    1. An interesting view Adrian - you obviously do not like his work. Thanks for your comment.