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The Future of Ground Zero

Tuesday, June 1, 2004

An architect from Berlin has received the commission for the most spectacular and surely also the most delicate building project in the world,” a news anchor announces. The “architect from Berlin” is Daniel Libeskind, and his commission is “to put something new in the place of the World Trade Center.” There follow the well-known images of the World Trade towers imploding. “It was a murderous visitation as on September 11, 2001 the twin towers of the World Trade Center were reduced to rubble,” the voiceover explains in distinctly religious tones: “The limitless drive upwards, the optimistic vitality of this city seemed broken. Now it has a new vision — thanks to Daniel Libeskind, the winner of the competition for the reconstruction of Ground Zero.” The earlier scenes of destruction are replaced by images of glittering skyscrapers encircling a verdant field where happy families stroll — this is no mere reconstruction, it would seem, but the veritable resurrection of New York. “The decision was made unanimously by the jury,” the voiceover continues. The report dates from February 27, 2003, and it comes from the German public television channel zdf. It was recently shown in a continuous loop as part of the exhibition “Counterpoint: The Architecture of Daniel Libeskind” at the Jewish Museum in Berlin.

But there is one problem with the report: As most New Yorkers will recall, the decision in favor of Libeskind was hardly unanimous. Indeed, on February 25, just two days before the announcement of the selection of the Libeskind design, the site planning committee of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, the body specifically created to oversee the reconstruction of downtown Manhattan in the aftermath of 9-11, decided against the latter and in favor of the rival proposal from Raphael Viñoly and Frederic Schwartz’s “think” architectural team. Despite a massive and sometimes sordid public relations effort by the Libeskind camp — including a campaign to get a prominent critic in the press fired and an apparent attempt to pad support for the Libeskind entry in two high-profile web-based polls — this choice seemed to reflect the tendency of public opinion, which the lmdc had been specifically tasked to canvas. Although neither of the two design competition finalists ever managed to generate much enthusiasm among New Yorkers, when, for instance, Jennifer Rainville of the local television news station ny1 reported from the opening of an lmdc-sponsored exhibition of the two models on February 4, she found a strong movement of support toward the think design and its lattice-work invocation of the old twin towers. Yet, belying repeated assurances about the “open” and “democratic” character of the process of deliberations on the future of Ground Zero, New York Governor George Pataki and Mayor Michael Bloomberg chose to ignore the lmdc recommendation and go with the Libeskind design anyway.

Why was there this misrepresentation in the zdf report, and why was it allowed to stand in the Libeskind exhibition at Berlin’s Jewish Museum when the curators surely were aware of the controversy surrounding the selection? To answer that question is to consider the exalted status enjoyed by Daniel Libeskind in contemporary German public discourse. It was his work in Germany, after all, that established Libeskind’s “worldwide renown,” as Jewish Museum director Michael Blumenthal has put it. In fact, up until now Libeskind has been known, first and foremost, as the designer of the Jewish Museum itself. Before winning the design competition for the latter, Libeskind’s designs had been widely regarded as unbuildable. Still today, his resume of built designs includes only museums or museum extensions and an artist’s studio on Mallorca.

To reflect on the sources of Libeskind’s German success might also help us understand how a supposed architectural “visionary” with no relevant experience in urban planning or skyscraper design should have been entrusted with devising the “master plan” for a massive complex of high-rise office buildings and pedestrian spaces upon which the revitalization of southern Manhattan and, to a certain extent, the future of New York itself will depend. The consequences of this odd choice have already been somewhat attenuated thanks largely to the interventions of developer Larry Silverstein, the leaseholder of the World Trade Center site. It was Silverstein who brought in architect David Childs of Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill to “give form” to Libeskind’s “idea” for the so-called Freedom Tower, the soaring “skyline element” included in the Libeskind site plan in accordance with lmdc specifications. At the December 19, 2003 news conference unveiling the revised Freedom Tower model, Libeskind stated flatly (whether out of graciousness, as some have suggested, or in an outburst of spleen), “I’m not the architect of this building.” Nonetheless, he has insisted that his signature remain visible on the tower in certain stylistic or ostensibly “symbolic” details: the off-center spire meeting the “need” for asymmetry, the sloping roof topping off the solid part of the structure, and, of course, the seemingly all-important and patriotic requirement that the building plus its spire measure out to exactly 1,776 feet in order to mark the year of the Declaration of Independence. “It’s not a date,” Libeskind has remarked cryptically, “a number that will ever be surpassed in world history.” That an adequate proportion be maintained between the spire and the subjacent building structure is another point on which Libeskind has insisted: this too by reason of Libeskind’s novel brand of esoteric Americana, since only thus can the off-center spire be regarded as mirroring the upraised arm of the Statue of Liberty.

In all these regards, Libeskind, not so subtly evoking the threat of legal action by bringing his lawyer to design meetings and with the apparently unwavering support of Governor Pataki, has had his way. Furthermore, casting himself in the role of defender of the common man, Libeskind has promised to continue to assert his authority as the “guardian” of the “master plan” for the World Trade Center site as a whole: “When the politicians and architects and developers have all gone home, I’ll still be there making sure that everything that is built on this site is right because it is . . . Ground Zero.”

There are numerous indications that the lmdc is prepared to indulge Libeskind’s pretensions on this head. Thus, just days after his “Reflecting Absence” design was announced as the winner of the World Trade Center memorial competition last January, Michael Arad put in a visit to Libeskind’s Rector Street office to discuss modifications of his proposal. The placement of the new downtown Path Station is even said somehow to reflect the requirements of the famous “Wedge of Light” where, Libeskind has promised, “Each year on September 11th between the hours of 8:46 am, when the first airplane hit, and 10:28 am, when the second tower collapsed, the sun will shine without shadow.” Architect Eli Attia has long since demonstrated that the “Wedge” was a hoax and that, supposing the sun shines at all between the appointed times, the area demarcated in Libeskind’s original model will be increasingly covered in shadow. But this fact seems not to have diminished the willingness of city officials to play along. Further compromises between Daniel Libeskind’s “vision” and the real needs of downtown redevelopment are presumably yet to come.

It is, then, long overdue that New Yorkers and Americans generally come to know something about the sources of Libeskind’s prestige in the country that made him famous. Along the way, we will also learn more about the “philosophy” ostensibly underlying his architecture. As we will see, the mystical or metaphysical bent that is so much celebrated by Libeskind’s admirers and that recently has had him seeking some occult significance in shapes and numbers and angles in lower Manhattan also had him perceiving a cosmic significance in the 9-11 attacks themselves. In fact, the meaning that the “master planner” of the new World Trade Center finds in the destruction of the old is seemingly no different from the meaning that virtually all apologists for the attacks claim to have found therein.

 

The Jewish Museum in Berlin

It was berlin’s Jewish Museum that created the Libeskind aura. He won the competition to design it in 1989, whereupon he moved to Berlin to oversee the project. It was thus that Libeskind, an American citizen who was born in Poland and whose only “architecture” consisted of sketches, became an “architect from Berlin.” In fact, Libeskind’s original brief was to design an extension to the already existing Berlin Museum. The extension was intended to house a museum division specifically devoted to Jewish history in Berlin. In the intervening years, however, the extension came to overshadow, with regard to both form and function, the original building. By the time Libeskind’s extension was completed, the erstwhile Berlin Museum, a dignified specimen of Berlin baroque dating from 1735, had been downgraded to the entry hall for the Jewish Museum, and its contents had been shipped out.

The Jewish Museum opened for public viewing in January 1999 without any exhibition yet installed. Libeskind’s building was supposed itself to be the attraction, and indeed over the next two years hundreds of thousands came to wander through its empty spaces. Many commentators in the German media pleaded for the building to be left empty, sometimes admitting that its irregular layout made it unsuitable for a museum but arguing that in its emptiness it nonetheless provided a fitting memorial to German-Jewish history and its violent consummation in the Holocaust. That Libeskind had not been commissioned to design a memorial seemed not to matter. The seriousness with which the suggestion was entertained at the outset revealed that the museum’s management did not have any clear idea of how the building should be used — or even any collection to put in it. In an architectural variation on Marshall McLuhan’s famous dictum “the medium is the message,” here the building was evidently supposed to be the function of the building — or, more precisely, the building was the message.

Libeskind gave ample encouragement to the notion that his design meant something, which is not to say merely that it symbolized something, but rather that it was itself the crystallization of some profound historical meaning — the crystallization of nothing less than the entirety of German-Jewish history. Calling the project “Between the Lines,” as if it were an independent artwork requiring a title, Libeskind claimed to have sensed in the area of the Berlin building site “an invisible matrix . . . of relationships, which I discovered not only among German and Jewish figures, but also between the municipal history of Berlin and the history of Jews in Germany and in Berlin. I recognized that certain people, in particular certain scientists, composers, artists, and poets, were the links between Jewish tradition and German culture. I found these connections and I plotted an irrational matrix in the form of a system of right-angled triangles, which would yield reference to the emblematics of a compressed and distorted star: the yellow star that was so frequently worn on this very site.”1 In order to uncover this “matrix,” Libeskind claimed even to have sought out the Berlin addresses at which various “famous Germans” and “famous Jews” had once lived. Throughout, Libeskind employed the categories “German” and “Jew” as if they were mutually exclusive — thus, in a macabre reflection of Nazi racial ideology, stripping figures like Heinrich Heine or Walter Benjamin, whose names he mentioned, of their “Germanness.” “I was astonished,” he says, “that it was not at all difficult to hear and to note the addresses of these people: they formed a wholly specific urban and cultural constellation of world history” — which is apparently to say that the configuration of the physical locations of their addresses formed this constellation.

The outcome of this seemingly intricate procedure is the elongated, zigzagging structure of the Jewish Museum, which contains no recognizable right angles and which no one would know “yields reference” to a Star of David — much less a “yellow” Star of David as worn by Jews under the Third Reich — who had not been so informed by the architect or other cognoscenti. To the uninitiated the shape of the building will appear like a simple doodle: the product not of the careful “plotting” of an “irrational matrix,” but of arbitrary scribbling. But this doodle is seemingly so revered by the members of Germany’s cultural establishment that museum management has seen fit to elevate it to the status of the emblem for the museum itself. It is featured on the signposts leading to the museum, on the museum stationery, and on the museum homepage. It even serves as the motif on the red silk scarves worn by the youthful guides stationed throughout the museum (and which are also available to visitors in the Museum Shop starting at €19,90). Inasmuch as it is the emblem of the “Jewish Museum Berlin,” it is almost as if Daniel Libeskind’s doodle had replaced the traditional symbol of Judaism to which it allegedly “yields reference” or, perhaps more precisely, had some sort of superior and runic significance all its own: presumably, the significance of German-Jewish history, which Libeskind himself claims to have “found” but does not pronounce.

The greatest irony is that virtually no one will ever actually see the celebrated shape of Libeskind’s building first-hand — unless, that is, by somehow hovering over it. Nothing expresses more clearly just how detached is the abstruse metaphysics of Libeskind’s architecture from the ordinary requirements of building design — which is to say from the practical needs of human beings, for whose purposes a building is ordinarily built, and their aesthetic sensibilities, to which its form would ordinarily be expected to respond. The shape of Libeskind’s Jewish Museum constitutes an outright nuisance for visitors, who walk through seemingly interminable halls before retracing their steps, descending and ascending two enormous stairwells, to reach the exit. For passers-by, on the other hand, it is an irrelevance. Even admirers of Libeskind have conceded that from street level the building, with its boxish facades and drab grey-silver siding, resembles a bunker. The sliver-like windows, which like so many gun holes criss-cross the building, give further sustenance to this comparison. (Unlike the layout of the building as such, the pattern formed by the windows on the museum’s most prominent surface on the Lindenstrasse does seem to “refer to” a Star of David.) Nonetheless, a more accurate comparison might be a warehouse, such as those one sees driving past the cargo area of almost any large municipal airport.

Libeskind’s esoteric interpretation of spatial configurations is also on evidence in the interior of the Jewish Museum. The basement of the museum is arranged into three intersecting corridors, which are designated the “Axis of Holocaust,” the “Axis of Exile,” and the “Axis of Continuity.” To help orient visitors, diagrams on the walls display the arrangement of the three axes with a red dot indicating “you are here.” The “Axis of Holocaust” contains several display cases exhibiting personal artifacts of Jews who perished in the death camps. Under the title “The Number of Murdered Jews in Europe,” a map of Europe hangs on a wall, on which is indicated how many Jews from each European country were killed. Strangely, one of the orientation maps of the museum basement hangs directly next to it and, more strangely, the outline of the arrangement formed by the three axes on the orientation map reappears dimly superimposed on the map of the “Murdered Jews in Europe” — as if the former had something to do with the latter. Since indeed there is no other explanatory information given regarding the map of “Murdered Jews” (on its other side, there is a plaque concerning the fate of specifically German Jews), it would seem that Libeskind’s system of “axes” is all the explanation required. This impression is reinforced by the fact that plaques found throughout the museum refer to “symbolic” features of the building itself and what, seemingly by the personal fiat of the architect, they should inspire visitors to “think about,” as in “The Axis of Exile and the Axis of Holocaust cut across your path and lead to the Garden of Exile and the Holocaust Tower. [Here] Architect Daniel Libeskind asks us to think about the Holocaust and those people deported to their deaths.”

The Jewish Museum’s own blurb on the “Counterpoint” exhibition speaks of Libeskind as a “visionary” whose “philosophical approach connects architecture and urban planning with their social function and develops them in constant dialogue with the people” — though the German reads “den Menschen,” literally “human beings” and with the connotation here of “ordinary people.” In light of his inexperience in the matter, the reference to “urban planning” is curious. The Jewish Museum is conspicuously located in a huge otherwise empty lot, such that there is no possibility of its winding design interfering with its environment as in any built environment it invariably would. Libeskind did submit a design proposal — titled, characteristically, “Ten Thunderbolts of Absolute Absence” — for the rebuilding of Berlin’s central Potsdamer Platz, which, lying at the fault line between East and West Berlin, had fallen into disuse for over 40 years. But while Berlin’s cultural elites may be thrilled that Libeskind won the competition to rebuild downtown Manhattan, Berlin’s city planners knew better than to entrust him with an analogous responsibility in their own city.

Far from showing solicitude for the human occupants of built space, moreover, Libeskind’s “philosophical approach” to architecture, precisely by so brazenly disdaining function in favor of “meaning,” shows persistent contempt for them. Perhaps the most telling example of such contempt in the Jewish Museum is provided by the so-called Garden of Exile, to which the Axis of Exile leads. The Garden consists of 49 square concrete columns, six meters high and arranged into a closely packed 7x7 square grid. What appears from below like shrubbery — in winter dead shrubbery — juts out over the top of each column. The ground is paved in smallish cobblestones, and a narrow path goes around the perimeter of the Garden, itself partially enclosed by a low angular concrete barrier over which there is a drop onto another stone surface bordered by concrete walls. In case it was not already hazardous enough to have visitors walking outdoors on a cobblestone surface among concrete slabs or between them and something like a pit, Libeskind has placed the Garden on a dual set of inclines.

An informational plaque explains: “Here, architect Daniel Libeskind asks us to think about the disorientation that exile brings. The 49 columns are filled with earth in which willow oak grows. Forty-eight of the columns contain earth of Berlin and stand for 1948 and the formation of the state of Israel. The central and forty-ninth pillar is filled with earth from Jerusalem and stands for Berlin itself.” The German version implies more strongly that it is the Garden itself that will induce us to “think about” the requisite topic, if not necessarily the associated numerology. Visitors will find some more immediately relevant practical advice on a paper sign posted directly in front of the door leading to the “Garden”: “Enter the Garden of Exile at your own risk! Slippery underfoot. Please walk carefully.”

 

Ground Zero

Whatever inconveniences or worse may have been created by the architecture of Libeskind’s Jewish Museum, they pale in comparison to the damage that New York and New Yorkers would suffer if his “master plan” for the World Trade Center site were ever to be implemented. The modifications to aspects of the Libeskind design that have been quietly made as planning advances, and the notably loose interpretation that has been given to others, suggest that city planners are not wholly insensitive to its practical failings and risks. Libeskind’s original submission famously called for the excavated “bathtub” of the old World Trade Center to be left empty: a 70-foot-deep, 4.7-acre crater, replete with an exposed slurry wall flanking the Hudson on its western edge. The latter element was supposed to serve as a symbol for the resilience of American democracy, according to Libeskind, even though engineers warned that without the lateral support formerly provided by the basement levels of the World Trade Center it was destined to collapse. The morbidly permanent crater was Libeskind’s response to the lmdc’s requirement that submitted designs include an appropriate context for a World Trade Center memorial. Libeskind, however, spoke of it as if it were, without further ado, already such a memorial. Indeed, he titled his overall site design “Memory Foundations,” as if the point of downtown reconstruction as a whole was eternally to remind people of the death and destruction caused by the 9-11 attacks — to invite them to “think about” it, in the style of Libeskind’s Jewish Museum — rather than to rebuild and to revitalize a part of the city that had been decimated by the attacks. By the time the Libeskind proposal was anointed the winner of the design competition, the floor of the crater had been brought up to a “mere” 30 feet below ground level. But as critics pointed out, even at a more modest depth, Libeskind’s crater would represent a massive obstacle to pedestrian flow on the southern tip of Manhattan and as such a permanent impediment to downtown redevelopment.

Mercifully, Michael Arad’s winning design proposal for the World Trade Center memorial now brings the memorial site up to street level. The crater, however, continues to be invoked by the memorial itself, consisting of two reflecting pools embedded 30 feet below street level into the footprints of the twin towers. In a single gesture, Arad’s design manages simultaneously to satisfy the lmdc’s requirement that the tower footprints remain visible and to limit the harmful effects of Libeskind’s original proposal. It can nonetheless be wondered how leaving any void where the towers once stood represents a tribute to the victims of the 9-11 attacks rather than to the perpetrators, who are, after all, the real architects of that void. Following World War ii, Poles did not leave the void created by the German Wehrmacht where Warsaw once stood. In defiance of their aggressors, they rebuilt their capital to its former condition. By contrast, the “absence” preserved in the World Trade Center memorial site suggests a certain indulgence toward the aggressor.

Arad has been compelled to make a more obvious concession to the cultish spirit of Libeskind’s original design by adding a deep ravine along the site’s western edge in order to permit viewing of the slurry wall. An adjacent stairwell will lead 70 feet down to a so-called interpretive center at bedrock level, where visitors will be able to “view many preserved artifacts from the twin towers: twisted steel beams, a crushed fire truck, and personal effects.” Furthermore, whereas Arad’s original submission included a long, thin “cultural building” along the site’s western perimeter, the revised version made public after his consultations with Libeskind includes instead two squat angular buildings on the site’s northeast quadrant. These rudely occupy almost half the space that Arad’s original model had reserved for pedestrian use and they feature Libeskind’s signature sloping roofs.

Like the Freedom Tower, the other four buildings in the so-called spiral of skyscrapers surrounding the memorial site in Libeskind’s “master plan” are also supposed to have sloping roofs. Given the potential risks from sliding snow and ice in winter, this arrangement displays a remarkable callousness toward the well-being of pedestrians below. But there is a further consideration militating against the use of sloping roofs on high-rise structures that one could have imagined would be especially obvious to planners in this specific context. Flat roofs, unlike sloping ones, permit evacuations in the event of an emergency. Indeed, when the first attack on the World Trade Towers occurred in 1993, members of the nypd transported by helicopter entered the buildings and evacuated occupants from their roofs. Governor Pataki has stated, “All that we do in Lower Manhattan is in memory of those we lost on September 11th and in the 1993 bombing.” If city and state officials permit fidelity to the “vision” of Daniel Libeskind to override basic safety considerations, there will be reason to doubt that this is in fact so.

 

More than mere museum

Oddly enough, the Jewish Museum Berlin, now finally outfitted with an exhibition, was scheduled to have its opening on September 11, 2001. The opening was postponed on account of the attacks in the United States. Two days before, a “gala dinner” was held to mark the occasion. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, one of the few German papers willing to maintain a certain ironic reserve in its treatment of Libeskind and the museum project, ran a photo essay on the event under the title “The First General Assembly of a Happier World.” The guest list of some 850 luminaries included German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, President Johannes Rau, Chief Justice of the German Supreme Court Jutta Limbach, and Interior Minister Otto Schilly, as well as prominent members of parliament from all of Germany’s major parties and the ceos of leading German firms such as Siemens, Daimler-Chrysler, Deutsche Telekom, and Bertelsmann. Having reportedly been personally urged to attend by German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, Henry Kissinger was also on hand. Munich’s Süddeutsche Zeitung, the daily paper of choice for Germany’s Social Democratic establishment, identified him as one of “several very prominent representatives of American Jews” in attendance. The paper seemingly included under this heading several other people whose only apparent representative function vis-à-vis “American Jews” was that they are American and Jewish.

The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung described the event as “the unofficial founding act of the New Germany” and went on to explain, “Even if the museum portrays the entire history of Jews in Germany, its focal point is, nonetheless, the remembrance of the Holocaust. It is in this remembrance that the recovery of national sovereignty begins, of which the evening was supposed to provide a discreet but firm demonstration.” In these words, the irony was gone. The unusually frank and dispassionate assessment accurately reflected the importance of the museum for the political ambitions of post-reunification Germany or, more precisely, its elites. Germany had not only to commemorate. Germany had to be seen to commemorate by the rest of the world. In the early 1990s, the museum project had in fact foundered and even seen its funding briefly cut by the financially strapped Berlin municipal government. Meanwhile, however, reports of mounting attacks on Turkish “guest workers” and foreign asylum seekers were again sullying Germany’s image abroad, and class-action suits in American courts related to Nazi-era claims were threatening the balance sheets of German firms at home. The fate of the Jewish Museum could not be left to the parochial calculations of local Berlin politicians. Just as much as the “slave-labor fund” devised by the Schröder government in an attempt to limit German corporate liability, and indeed in a certain measure as the symbolic counterpart to the latter, Berlin’s Jewish Museum had become an affair of state.

The Jewish Museum did not only respond, however, to the political exigencies of the German elites. As attested by the hundreds of thousands of Germans who have flocked to it, with or without an exhibition, it also seemed to respond to an affective need of large segments of the German public. Whereas the Nazi past represented a political burden to German elites hoping for Germany again to play a forceful role in world affairs, it represented a psychological burden to many ordinary Germans hoping finally to be released from the sins of their parents’ and grandparents’ generation. By paying spectacular homage to Jews as the archetypal victims of Nazi crimes, the Jewish Museum held out the promise of the burden being lifted. “The Germans are crazy about this museum,” an unnamed German scholar of anti-Semitism was quoted as saying in the Jewish Press. When asked why, he explained that it represented for them a “final act of absolution.”

In remarks that were appreciatively cited in the German papers, museum director Michael Blumenthal spoke to the aspirations of his powerful guests at the opening ceremony: “Inasmuch as you face the past, attempt to make amends, support this museum and other similar institutions in the capital, you have given a sign and earned the moral right to figure among the leaders in the worldwide struggle against racism, for religious tolerance, for the rights of all minorities and human rights. I hope that the Federal Republic will assume this role with energy and determination.” “The war,” Blumenthal concluded, “has been over for more than 50 years; modest diffidence is no longer called for in this area.”

Blumenthal, U.S. secretary of the Treasury in the Carter administration, was born in the Oranienburg suburb of Berlin and fled Germany with his parents after the 1938 Kristallnacht. Before being appointed director of the Jewish Museum, he had neither a curatorial background nor any particular expertise in German-Jewish history. But he had the right biography for the symbolism with which the project was being invested. Indeed, it was another former American secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau, who on account of the so-called Morgenthau Plan — denounced by Goebbels in a 1944 tirade as a plan to turn a conquered Germany into “one big potato farm” — had long incarnated the role of the “avenging Jew” in German popular mythology. Now, however, Blumenthal was returning home not in a reprise of this latter role, but in a role which had hitherto been imagined only in the most extravagant of German fantasies: Absolution was wanted, and Michael Blumenthal was dispensing absolution.

Perhaps not coincidentally, only some two months and a day after the Jewish Museum building first opened for viewing in January 1999, German Tornado fighter jets were bombing Belgrade in the first deployment of German combat forces outside of Germany since the end of World War ii and in the name precisely of the “struggle for minority rights.” Amidst so much state-sponsored “remembrance,” the fact that German Jews had not by and large considered themselves a “minority,” nor demanded any “minority rights,” but struggled under the Third Reich quite simply to retain their rights as Germans seemed to have been forgotten. It was likewise forgotten that the defense of allegedly “oppressed minorities” — notably, the ethnic German “minorities” of Czechoslovakia and Poland — had also been a leitmotif of Nazi foreign policy and served as the major pretext for Nazi aggression.

 

The iconography of victimhood

It was the complex of political and affective expediency described above that assured the success of Libeskind’s “commemorative architecture” in Germany. As in the case of Blumenthal, the assumed appropriateness of Libeskind’s biography clearly contributed to the expiatory effect that the museum project was supposed to produce. The very first plaque a visitor sees upon entering the Jewish Museum is devoted to the building’s architect and specifies that he lost most of his family in the Holocaust. The statement, which Libeskind himself frequently repeats, is rather puzzling, since he was born after the war. His parents were Polish Jews who escaped to Soviet territories and survived.

But while his identity imbued his ostensible work of commemoration with the aura of authenticity, it was the grandiose and mystifying character of the work itself that secured for Libeskind the adulation of so much of the German public. The pathetic iconography of victimhood he built into the Jewish Museum poses no uncomfortable questions about perpetrators. Indeed, the plaques installed along the “axes” of the museum’s basement tactfully avoid using the word “Germans” in connection with the persecution of the Jews, speaking only of “Nazis” as if the latter had been alien to German society or only card-carrying party members were implicated in the actions of the Nazi state.

Above all, the mysticism involved in both the attribution of some transcendent “meaning” to the slaughter of European Jews and the pretense that this meaning could somehow be evoked by — or even condensed into — the physical contours of a building short circuits any effort at rationally grasping the direct political antecedents, historical roots, and ideological underpinnings of the Third Reich’s exterminationist Jewish policy. In the absence of such an effort, the Holocaust gets sacralized into a kind of negative miracle whose very incomprehensibility leaves it perfectly sealed off from the rest of German history and even from all other aspects of the Nazi regime. By attributing “meaning” to the Holocaust, moreover, the sacred history which Libeskind substitutes for mundane history constitutes, in effect, a sort of divine justification for it. The convoluted symbolism of Libeskind’s “Garden of Exile” — with its 48 “Israeli” pillars filled with “earth from Berlin” and its 49th “and central” pillar “standing for Berlin” and filled with “earth from Jerusalem” — seems to suggest finally that the Nazi persecution of the Jews served some sort of higher redemptive purpose, since without it, after all, Israel might never have been created.

 

The sacralization of 9-11

But if the sacralization of the Holocaust in Libeskind’s Jewish Museum offers expiation for the German public, the sacralization of the September 11 attacks on New York in his “master plan” for the new World Trade Center has very different implications for Americans. Americans were, after all, the targets of the September 11 attacks. If the attacks served some higher redemptive purpose, then it is the deaths of those who were trapped in the towers that is, in effect, provided a transcendent justification. On the other hand, it is precisely the members of al Qaeda, i.e. the perpetrators of the attacks, who must have worked here as the presumably unknowing instruments of some divine plan. The overwrought symbolism proposed by Libeskind for the World Trade Center site suggests just such a perverse metaphysical interpretation of 9-11. Why, after all, supposing Libeskind’s “Wedge of Light” was what he said it was, should the sun be compelled to “shine without shadow” from 8:46 am to 10:28 am on every September 11? Why should New Yorkers — or even nature itself — be made to commemorate with such morbid precision the darkest moments in the city’s history?

In his original submission, moreover, Libeskind proposed to include what he called a “museum of the event” at the “epicenter” of the World Trade Center site. The idea is retained in the revised site plan in the form of the underground “interpretive center,” with its “crushed fire truck” and “personal effects.” The stylization of the September 11 attacks into “the” event, singular and definitive, seems to elevate them to the status of a sort of New Age apocalypse, presumably possessed of some revelatory significance. But what could this significance be? Why should New Yorkers and Americans have required such a rude awakening?

An interview Libeskind gave to the Süddeutsche Zeitung in June 2002 — i.e., before the announcement of the World Trade Center design competition — provides some clues. In it, the interviewer reminds Libeskind that he had elsewhere remarked that after September 11 “everything must change.” A sort of muddled millenarianism has, of course, been extremely common in the aftermath of 9-11. It has been especially so among those who, either ignoring the stated motivations of the assailants or tacitly approving of them, locate what they call the “causes” of the attacks in some perceived iniquity of the world or the United States or, typically, both — inasmuch as global order is assumed in this style of discourse to be merely an extension of American “empire.” But commenting on what the interviewer called a “longing for spirituality,” Libeskind also indicated wherein the iniquity of the world might be supposed to lie: “Materialist capitalist culture calls forth in human beings a demand for something different. The excesses of capitalism and globalization elicit a radical response. The spiritual is always tied to the political. It is always bound together with the emergence of totalitarian powers, which give the human soul the impulse to unveil itself and its forces.”

Note that Libeskind here, some nine months after the 9-11 attacks, uses the expression “totalitarian” not in connection with Islamism, an ideology whose totalizing pretensions could hardly be more explicit, but rather in connection with “materialist capitalist culture” — the very “materialist capitalist culture” which, according to the screeds of anti-globalization militants worldwide, is epitomized by America and is supposed to have been symbolized by the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center. The allusion to the “radical response” elicited by capitalist “excesses” is particularly chilling. Although the immediate context for the remarks is a discussion of “spirituality” in art, it should be noted that the interview closes with Libeskind, who has recently taken to directing opera, enthusing over the prospect of being able to stage a series of operas by the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen — the same Karlheinz Stockhausen who famously pronounced the 9-11 attacks “the greatest work of art there has ever been.”2

It is perhaps clearer now why Daniel Libeskind wanted the sun “to shine without shadow” from 8:46 am to 10:28 am on every September 11, why he proposed to leave a crater in downtown Manhattan where the World Trade Center once stood, and why he insists that visitors to the new World Trade Center should view artifacts of the destruction wrought by the 9-11 attacks. These and other features of his “master plan” for the site suggest a special sort of memorialization that in German is called Mahnung, implying not just an incitement to remember, but to remember and take heed. A Mahnmal serves at once as reminder and warning: like the ruins of the Kaiser Wilhelm church on the Breitscheidplatz in downtown Berlin, which stand to this day as a reminder of the devastation that German militarism once brought down upon Germany itself. Stripped of the pseudo-patriotic packaging in which he sought to market it, the basic conception of Libeskind’s World Trade Center “master plan” addresses a similar message to New Yorkers and Americans, implying that they were themselves responsible for the fate that befell them on September 11, 2001 and that they must atone for the wrongs which elicited the catastrophe. It is a tribute to America’s enemies and an insult to the memory of those who were killed in the attacks.

1 From a December 12, 1989 lecture at the University of Hannover, reproduced in Kristin Feireiss, ed., Daniel Libeskind: Erweiterung des Berlin Museums mit Abteilung Jüdisches Museum (Berlin: Ernst & Sohn, 1992). Libeskind has used essentially the same formulation in numerous lectures and published works.

2 Symptomatically, when, in a more recent interview with the Neue Züricher Zeitung (April 7, 2003) the interviewer remarked that “as the nodal point of global finance” the old World Trade Center “was certainly not a place of innocence,” Libeskind did not protest, but merely noted that in his design he had tried to master “all the contradictions . . . of the site.”