When Architecture Pays Tribute to Tragedy

January 25, 2017 architecture 0 Comments

By way of illustration, architecture magazine Dezeen reports master builder Daniel Libeskind saying that architecture is “a field of repression” and that those who practice that art need to make “more confrontational buildings.”

Clearly he’s smarting from bad press for his Jewish Museum Berlin design faulting him for the building’s jagged and pointy shape. Defending it to Dezeen, he said, “When you look at the news and all that’s happening, all the events in this world, we can’t just pretend that we’re living in another era.” Clearly he’s referring to all the architecture nowadays that leans so heavily on the distant past for its designs.

While Libeskind’s points about our terror-fraught world and our over-dependence on historic architecture are well-taken, his point that architecture needs to be more confrontational is not. Has he forgotten all the in-your-face work by Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry? Talk about jagged and pointy, what’s not confrontational about Hadid’s dizzying zigzags that house the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University? The building has nothing to do with the Holocaust, yet it’s as hard to look at as Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin.

And what about Frank Gehry’s convulsive Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain or his Walt Disney Concert Hall in L.A. and all his other unrelenting efforts to take apart buildings and leave them fragmented?

As for Libeskind’s point that buildings should reflect the turmoil of the world, this column agrees. But why can’t the signs of turmoil in such buildings be artfully expressed – the way of all great art? After all, peril is not always obvious or in your face. It can come at you in insidious ways and more endangering like this.

A good example of an imaginative memorial is the entrance to The Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida. Its tribute to tragedy comes in the form of a triangular opening that looks hacked out of the building like a gaping gash- a clear but quiet pronouncement of pain. The deep slicing into the face of a building makes you want to run for bandages. In the words of its architect Nick Benjacob, the triangular entry is a purposeful shape intended to clue visitors into the goings-on inside the building:

“The era of World War II is so depressing that I did not want to do anything with either circles or squares, because they are whole shapes, I wanted a broken shape. A triangle is a suppressing shape, it is a hard shape, and I wanted to design a feeling for the visitors before they even entered the museum…this is from the heart.”

Certainly giving a Holocaust museum a broken shape for its entrance is as emotive as making an entire building spiky – especially since you can see similar spikiness on Michigan State’s art museum.