Archis 1998 #7

Het bouwen van afwezigheid. De joodse samenzwering in de architectuur / Building absence. The Jewish Conspiracy in Architecture

— by

Jews are everywhere, at least in architecture. Now that they no longer control world finances as part of their evil plot to subjugate all God-fearing Christians, they have resorted to taking over the little world of architecture – or so it would seem to some. The two most famous architects of the moment are Frank Gehry (nee Goldberg), and Richard Meier. Add in such luminaries as Peter Eisenman, Robert Stern, Bernard Tschumi, Daniel Libeskind and many lesser lights, and you have quite a cabal. The three most interesting architects in Mexico, of all places (Enrique Norten, Alberto Kalach and Itzak Broid), are Jewish. The Pope himself even turned to a Jew, Richard Meier, to design the Church for the Millenium in a working class suburb outside Rome. They (we, actually, since this author is Jewish) are everywhere in the hallowed halls of yellow trace and AutoCad.

So what is our agenda? Is there something peculiarly Jewish about buildings designed by Jews? How does one compare the work of Stern, Libeskind and Gehry? If it is a plot, then what is the motivation or the goal? The idea that there is a Jewishness to architecture designed by those born as Jews is, at first glance, absurd. Even the architecture critic for The New York Times, Herbert Muschamp, who wrote a front-page article on the topic last year, couldn’t come up with anything that unified either their styles or their motives. Yet there is something about the traditions of Judaism that seems to have a peculiar relationship to architecture. From the philosophical premises of the religion that is the supposed unifying force of this group of people, to the cultural traditions of exile and learning, to the professional choices Jews were forced to make based on which careers were open to them, there is a Jewishness in architecture.
Ironically, there is little of an architectural tradition in Jewish history. Jews were a nomadic people who settled in one part of the Middle East and built one great city, King David’s Jerusalem. King Solomon later graced this ‘city on a hill’ with one monumental structure that was itself the solidification of a tent (where the Ark of the Covenant was kept) and whose central space was inaccessible to all but high priests. After the Diaspora, Jews had, almost by definition, no architecture. As the architectural historian Carol Herselle Krinsky has pointed out in her brilliant Synagogues of Europe: Architecture, History, Meaning (Cambridge, Mass./London, The MIT Press, 1985), synagogues, the meeting places that were themselves inventions of the dispersal, had to be anonymous and humble in their appearance. Inside, they replaced the devotional focus of churches and the communal spaces of the mosque with the tension between the binah, the place from which the scripture was read, and the ark, the container for the Torah. Only when Jews became thoroughly assimilated did they create more monumental structures. Yet these nineteenth and twentieth century synagogues were, as in the great temple of Berlin that is currently being restored, attempts to adapt Christian and Islamic forms to the synagogue type.
The same assimilationist tendency also marks a vernacular tradition that is completely indistinguishable from those of the countries in which Jews settled. In fact, such architecture remained so rooted in place that it did not even take on the cohesive and mobile collage of terms and phrases that marks the Jiddish language. There would seem to be no architectural tradition proper to the Jewish people. It was Christians who tried to reconstruct the Temple of Solomon (a particular obsession of King Philip II, for instance) or define Judaic properties to particular buildings, as did critics of the palaces of the French branch of the Rothschilds. This is not a situation proper only to the Jews. In a similar manner, the Diaspora of Western African slaves stripped those people of whatever architectural traditions were native to them and left them with a culture almost entirely invested in more mobile forms of cultural expression, such as language and music.

Monuments

It took the Holocaust to create a Jewish architecture. The camps became the physical and spatial expression of what makes somebody Jewish in a negative sense (even though, of course, they contained not only Jews).
They thus finally fixed centuries of oppression into a rational form. Out of this form came the great monuments of remembrance, such as Israel’s Yad va-Shem and the countless other memorials that now dot Europe. They are empty, dead-end spaces where one confronts only loss and almost forgotten violence, not the lives that were extinguished in the camps.
In the last decade, the creation of such monuments has become quite a fashion in the United States. Since James Inigo Freed designed the mothership of all Holocaust memorials in Washington, D.C. almost ten years ago, cities from Boston to Houston to New York have built their own stark, fractured towers of memory. Often these memorials are not just objects, but interactive display fairs filled with stark photos, the voices of survivors and gimmicks such as ‘death passes’ that allow a visitor to identify with those shipped off to the camps.
If this is Jewish architecture, we are in trouble. The exteriors of almost all of these structures exhibit the kind of stripped-down neo-classicism that may be the only lasting legacy of Postmodernism. They convey our inability to confidently embellish our central places of remembrance with a commonly understood architectural language as much as they do our inability to afford, even in such quasi-sacred settings, the full treatment of an architectural style. Bland boxes of absence, they are awkward piles of concrete with paper-thin veneers of stone. They have nothing to do with anything that one might think of as a Jewish tradition. On the inside, exhibition designers have turned them into ‘rides’ that replace Star Wars or Mickey Mouse with extermination as their theme. They might be effective, but this is an awful trivialization.

Judaism

Very few Jewish architects, meanwhile, are doing anything that gives any hint of their heritage. Richard Meier and Robert Stern have both adapted the opposite poles of what have become the grand styles of global capitalism, namely meaningless modernism and themed vernacular. Frank Gehry is doing strange and beautiful things, but it would be difficult to find anything about his curvaceous explosions that we might term Judaic. He does, however, claim that his love for the fish as a form – a predilection that lies at the base of much of his formal vocabulary of the last fifteen years – is based on his memory of playing as a child with carp that his grandmother then turned into ‘gefillte fisch’. Even the most notable American synagogues of the post-War era have been designed by non-Jews from Frank Lloyd Wright (outside of Philadelphia) to William Bruder (in Phoenix).
There are, however, a few architects who theorize the central place of Judaism in their work. The most obvious of these is Daniel Libeskind, who has finally finished what may become the cultural equivalent to the Temple of Solomon, the Jewish Museum in Berlin. One might say that the building tends towards theming in its use of the Star of David in plan and its pathway to annihilation that crosses the other circulation routes. At the same time, it remains a strange, harrowing and highly original reworking of the tension between objects of learning and interpretive focal points, the notion of pathway over place, and the places of hiding that rise up into expressions of construction as a form of writing. To Libeskind, architecture is a form of writing that sings alive what otherwise would be forgotten, rather than a translation of place, type and use into solid form. As such, it is a form of questioning that asks us to define who we are in a land in which we are always alien, in exile, and awaiting redemption.
Libeskind is indeed building a kind of answer to the Temple of Solomon. This is an activity that, as Robert Jan van Pelt pointed out in his 1984 thesis, Tempel van de Wereld: De Kosmische Symboliek van de Tempel van Salomo (Utrecht, 1984), is central to the history of architecture from Holbein’s backdrops to Jefferson’s designs for the University of Virginia. Such a search is not just a scholarly pursuit, however. It is a questioning as to whether, as Joseph Rykwert put it in On Adam’s House in Paradise (New York, The Museum of Modern Art, 1972), ‘Adam had a house in Paradise … and whether we can regain it’. The architect Stanley Tigerman made such questions explicit in his The Architecture of Exile (New York, Rizzoli, 1988). He posits that the ideal forms of architecture all ‘refer to the first garden whose perfect sign is signed in Genesis – that simple, unique but unknowable place denied by God to humanity but reverently, relentlessly sought nonetheless. The perfect place uninhabited by challenge plagues our consciousness, only to leave us baffled by the omnipotent presence of the challenge itself. Apparently the only knowable sign is reflected in the curse of continuous challenge, as we move inexorably toward our own finitude.’
Tigerman thus flips around the question of what makes an architecture Jewish by claiming that the very act of design is an attempt to sign the covenant, to get back home, and to end the exile that is the general state of humanity. The utopian impulse that, as Manfredo Tafuri often pointed out, is the false consciousness allowing architecture to exist in the first place, is a Jewish one, according to Tigerman. In a world in which we have little faith in either God or utopia, architecture then becomes ‘tikkun’, the ‘failed attempt to heal an irreparable wound’. This is the title of the book he is currently writing, but its fancy phrasing is perhaps summed up more succinctly in the title of the novel Salman Rushdie wrote about a half-Jewish Indian who is dying from the moment he is born, while dreaming of a utopia that turns out to be his death camp: The Moor’s Last Sigh.
Tigerman is pointing to a metaphysics at the basis of Judaism that does have a particular relevance to the current state of architecture. I should point out that it is one that is peculiarly acute in an America that is, as he points out, ‘a land of foundlings and orphans, who are detached from their proper parenthood and wander in search of legitimacy in a world of other histories of longer periods of time’. It is in general the simple fact of the presence of absence as a (if not the) central fact of modernity and perhaps humanity that wells up in any attempt to apply the Jewish tradition to architecture. Judaism never had a body of Christ with which we could identify. It never asserted a place as home other than one that was far away. It could point to no sense of sedimentation of history into a fixed form. It always priviliged the word over the image. It proposed the continual hiding of the God whose name could not even be spoken, the absence of one’s land, and the sense of movement. Architecture existed only as a celebration of community, memory and loss. It was essentially a memorial: a way of adopting and adapting whatever space one was given into a place in which one could remember and project.
It sounds trendy, but is ancient. It makes us think about the fact that space is only a world for the void, nothingness, or the potential of action. It makes us realize that buildings are only structures, but that whatever meaning we ascribe to them is mobile, mnemonic and, at times, metaphysical. It makes us wonder whether at the core of architecture is not type, function, or form, but the search for all of these in a world in which how we understand, use and build our homes, offices and places of pleasure is continually in flux. Monument making in the sense of creating a focal point for communal memory is at the heart of this search, as is the realization that all architecture is essentially a reconstruction of the social self.
There is not a great deal of great Jewish architecture out there. There are some great architects who are Jewish, and many more who are not. There are not many good synagogues or holocaust memorials one can point to, but there are some buildings, such as Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim or Eisenman’s Wexner Center for the Arts, that do ask questions in connection with experiencing a kind of essential nothingness.
‘To create architecture, you may even have to commit a murder,’ Bernard Tschumi once said. One might answer this by saying: ‘To make architecture, you may even have to be Jewish.’ There may be an actual Jewish conspiracy, created by all those for whom architecture is not just a way of making money or having a profession. It is a plot to make us engage in architecture as a question, and to erect structures for the search for redemption out of the very absence that is the essence of all space.