Architecture Driven By Egoism Cultural Studies Essay

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This paper determines whether contemporary architecture is driven by egoism at the cost of functionality. It is human nature to feel some form of personal emotion when entering different spacial volumes. But for every person to be driven to feel the same emotion in given spaces, could it be the expectations of ego-centric designer?

This paper mainly focuses on the design approach of two prominent architects and their interpretation of museum design to argue the research statement. The choice of museum design seemed appropriate as the writer's own project is a Human Trafficking Combat Center with a gallery space which plays a pivotal role in setting the mood when navigating through the rest of the spaces.

What is a museum?

A museum is a "permanent institution in the service of society and of its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment, for the purposes of education, study, and enjoyment", as defined by the International Council of Museums.

The UK Museums Association definition (adopted 1998) is: "Museums enable people to explore collections for inspiration, learning and enjoyment. They are institutions that collect, safeguard and make accessible artefacts and specimens, which they hold in trust for society."

In recent times museum architecture has undergone many changes, but the fundamental principles of what a museum design ought to contain remains the same. At a rudimentary level, museum spaces should be versatile, envolve and interact with the art projected.

The Jewish People

The two museums that would play a central role in the study would be Daniel Libeskind's Jewish Museum and Moshe Safdie's Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem in Berlin.

Holocaust Survivor, Judith Altmann, Auschwitz 1944 Hermann Langbein: Menschen in Auschwitz

Jewish people have suffered exceptionally at the hands of history so any form of homage to this community is bound to evoke strong emotions. An analysis on how these two Jewish architects have addressed this in their museum design is a rather fascinating study.

Daniel Libeskind

Daniel Libeskind, Architect of Berlin Jewish Museum (Public Source Photography)

Berlin Jewish Museum (Public Source Photography)

Libeskind's a Polish-American Jew who began his career as an architectural academic and only built his first building at the age of 52. He is of the mindset that 'A building can be experienced as an unfinished journey. It can awaken our desires, propose imaginary conclusions. It is not about form, image or text, but about the experience, which is not to be simulated. A building can awaken us to the fact that it has never been anything more than a huge question mark. I believe that this project joins Architecture to questions that are now relevant to all people.'

Basically when taken in the context of museum design Libeskind's statement can be interpreted as his building is a work of art that requires no art within it. One is immediately prompted to question would this be at the cost of functionalism?

The zigzag form of the Berlin Jewish Museum (Public Source Photography)

The Berlin Jewish museum is no doubt splendid and innovative in its use of form and material, strutting as a twisted metal zigzag along the Berlin landscape, in stark contrast to the adjacent Baroque style German museum. But it is believed to confuse laymen whilst navigating the structure, with large redundant voids at the expense of spacious galleries.

Berlin Jewish Museum

Considering that the core idea of Libeskind's approach to building the Jewish museum was the shattered Star of David, it becomes clear that this was never going to be a traditional museum. The entire building is clad with zinc platting because Libeskind wanted the exterior surface to evolve with time because the slit windows would then become more apparent thus changing the entire appearance of the building.

Zinc clad surface (Public Source Photography)

The windows are another innovative feature of this museum as they are mere slits that are randomly placed, so much so, the technology came from windscreen design. But when you delve deeper the pattern has some logic behind it as it is a contemporary street map of all Jewish occupants of Berlin. But in his innovative drive, Libeskind, seems have ignored that covering entire walls with slits would limit museum display space.

The window opening at Berlin Jewish museum (Public Source Photography)

The German museum (Public Source Photography)

This building cannot be entered directly from the street. The entrance is from the adjoining Baroque style German museum; this was done by erecting a triangular structure scaling the entire old museum height and housing a narrow stairway leading down into Libeskind's museum. This was intentionally done to symbolize the merging of the German and Jewish history with all its atrocities. Had any thought been given to the functionality of this decision because it is a well researched fact that museum entrances are bottlenecks with many a tour group trying to navigate the spaces like headless chicken.

Arial model view of entire museum depicting the three Axis(Public Source Photography)

The narrow never ending stairway leads to the Berlin Jewish museum. At the end of the staircase there is three-way fork called the axis: The Axis of Death, ends at void concrete tower, called The Holocaust Tower.

Holocaust tower (Public Source photography)

Garden of Exile (Public Source photography)

The Axis of Exile, which leads to an open garden courtyard which contains a square platform with forty nine concrete columns. The platform has been tilted at one end to create a degree of disorientation in all who walk through them. This has been named the Garden of Exile; and The Axis of Continuity, that intersects through the other two being wiped out by out by the Holocaust or driven out for being Jews.

Stairway in to the Berlin Jewish Museum from the German Museum (Public Source photography)

When one describes the Berlin Jewish Museum it is apparent that this building was always going to overpower anything displayed within it thus breaking the number one rule of museum design. Is this a museum or a house of horrors? Is it a museum or a monument?' The critics were not alone in voicing this opinion there were others too who felt that this was almost a Disney interpretation of something so dark in history, thus generating a negative vibe. Europeans, in general, would not understand the Americanised interpretation, resulting in the trivializing of an unforgivable period in history.

Take for example the American sense of humour; it is literal in its delivery and appreciation. One would call it 'slapstick' for a better word. Whilst the European sense of humour is more satirical and subtle in its delivery. Thus leaving it up to the viewer to interpret what is being communicated.

American slapstick humour Photographer, Martin Skoog, free web distribution)

British Humour, source: friends of irony, free web distribution

And rather than feeling something profound, you almost expect moving platforms and leaping ghosts, as in an amusement park's house of horrors.' This reaction was reached due to the excessive symbolising of certain aspects of the Jewish struggles like the anguished faces named the 'fallen leaves' representing all the lives lost and the choice of narration.

Fallen leaves (Public Source photography)

Narratives seem to intrude into the viewer's grasp of the projected art, where quietness and reflection would have enhanced the personal experience the distraction leaves the viewer disappointed.

The 'fallen leaves' covers the entire corridor (Public Source photography)

Libeskind is said to have lost family members in the Holocaust, did this attribute to his need to turn a Jewish history and interracial tolerance museum into a Holocaust sculptor? Thus negating the artefacts displayed and is better served as a Holocaust memorial.

Libeskind tilts the walls and floor in the odd shaped spaces whilst the journeying through the building. This has been created to disorient and invade the personal space of the viewer in order to give them an added physical experience as they view the artefacts but in most cases since the museum was to showcase tolerance between races and just not only remind the viewer of the Holocaust at this point a conflict arises.

The gallery spaces (Public Source photography)

'It isn't even a real museum - thus violating its brief -- rather it's a monument to Libeskind's own view of Jewish history'. Basically this museum forces the viewer to view Libeskind's interpretation of history rather than with your own eyes, full of the architect's bias and curtailed by the restricted views. This in principle is violation of a viewer's fundamental rights when visiting a museum. One could easily sit at home or watch on TV about the media or an author's interpretation of the holocaust. Rather one visits a museum to observe experience and draw their personal conclusion on any given aspect of the holocaust.

Moshe Safdie

Let us study the other holocaust museum, this time in Israel, by architect Moshe Safdie. As the Jewish living memorial to the holocaust, Yad Vashem on the mount of rememberance in the eternal city of Jerusalem stands guard to the memory of the past and imparts its meaning to future generations. This memorial contains commemeration, education, documentation and research on the holocaust. As a result it has become a dynamic and vital place for intergenerational and international encounters.

Moshe Safdie, Architect of Yad Vashem holocaust museum (Public Source photography)

Plan View of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum(Public Source photography)

Moshe Safdie, a Canadian Jew, spent his formative years in Israel and from an early age wanted to design his own Kibbutz which would be affordable, practical and offer greater interaction. Here was a man who said 'It is inconceivable that something which is not functional should be beautiful ' .Safdie's approach to design involves working with the landscape and neighbourhood.

This is in stark contrast to I.M Pei's Louvre glass pyramid which interrupts the surrounding of French Baroque architecture and stands out like a sore thumb.

I.M Pei's Lourve Pyramid ( Public Source photography ) The spiral staircase at the Pyramid (Public Source photography)

The glass pyramid as an individual element has been identified for its beauty but falls short on practicality with its single spiral staircase as the main access to the structure and the galleries beneath.

Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum

In the case of the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum with its site being a delicate hill, Safdie could not envisage placing 50,000 sq ft of built space on this hill, he saw it as disruption to the surrounding, ultimately, leaving the the visitor distracted.

As a result he decided to carve through the hill and generate a series of chambers on either side of the passage to hold the artefacts. This experience gives the visitor a perception of travelling into galleries embedded deeper and deeper within the mountain.

Early sketches of Yad Vashem Holocaust museum by Moshe Safdie (Public Source photography)

Taking into consideration that group tours are popular visitors to museums, he created a separate mevoah which is an arcaded pavilion reception with trellised ceiling which cast and interesting play of light with restaurants and toilets and car parking underground. The Holocaust Museum is linked to the reception by a wide bridge.


Bridge to prism cantilevering prism (Public Source photography)

The museum is a prism-shaped triangular concrete structure that cuts through the entire hill and emerges unexpectedly as a cantilevered structure overlooking the valley. The sensitive introduction of a mystical atmosphere was integrated into the museum's design to gently enable the visitor to get a feel for the past and its events. Inside the museum, on either sides of the central hallway which spans the entire prism lie easily accessible sixty-foot high gallery spaces. These underground galleries are meant to represent the episodes of a nine hour documentary on the Holocaust by Claude Lanzmann called Shoah.

Gallery spaces (Public Source photography)

Central hallway

Skylight into the hallway (Public Source photography)

The slightly tilted floor and decreasing central hallway with the changing narrative, gives the impression that one is travelling deeper into the mountain. Different aspects of the Holocaust are portrayed through the use of original artefacts, documentation, testimonies, film, literature, diaries, letters, and works of art.

Safdie has been accused of building monumental buildings like the Ontario National Gallery and the Sikh Museum in India but here the spaces are appropriate to convey the enormity of Jewish identity. The spaces themselves enhance the artefacts within the museum.

The building plays homage to Jewish struggle by celebrating the occupied state of Israel by means of a cantilevered deck at the end of the pyramid overlooking the valley.

By designing these vistas the architect has given the visitor the freedom to determine the level of emotion and control over their observation and deduction. Thus, making a visit to this museum a very personal experience for the visitor.


iew over the valley at the end of the prism (Public Source photography)

The funnel containing picture of the victims (Public Source photography)

When considering Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Bilbao museum, it certainly is revolutionary piece of work, so it became an instant hit that lead to the town of Bilbao being discovered by world media. It has been implied that "the time in Bilbao can now be regarded as BG and AG (before Guggenheim & after Guggenheim), and millions of tourists flocked to Bilbao just to visit that museum" Bilbao could have had no greater jackpot.

In the late nineties, Guggenheim Bilbao was the talk of the town; media bandwagon went on overdrive, as a result, Frank Gehry's popularity quadrupled. This is proof enough that great buildings can raise the international profile of the place that they are situated in and as a result positively impact the developmental growth of the place.

Guggenhiem Bilbao(Public Source photography)

What made this building so exceptional? One can only assume that Frank Gehry through his ingenuity, after all one has to give the devil its due credit, designed with the intention of capturing the viewer's attention with a single glance. So much so, that every media engine that carried an image of Guggenheim Bilbao was so impressed that it automatically become the coffee table conversation from that day forward.

Gehry had the foresight to predict that in order to grab instant attention he had to create something weird and wonderful. But did he go too far with Guggenheim Bilbao and end up with a piece of art instead of a building. This was structure that challenged our perception towards the so-modernist, square buildings.

The Guggenheim Bilbao is extremely warped in shape, extravagant in material choice; the light reflected on the Guggenheim Bilbao is so spectacular and unusual that the closest comparison to the titanium would be shinny fish scales. On further consideration, one could easily describe the Guggenheim Bilbao as a slithering eel because of its form and texture.

The titanium cladding at Guggenheim Bilbao Close-up of a fish scale (Public Source photography)

But, that is just on first impression. But with all its popularity Guggenheim Bilbao is a highly flawed piece of work.

As a result, Guggenheim Bilbao has also been heavily criticised. "Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Bilbao and Daniel Libeskind's Jewish Museum in Berlin, while recognized as often drawing mass appeal and admiration, such buildings may also fight against the other agendas of the museum, confirming to the broad public that museums are not for the public " (Macleod, Suzanne,2005, pg 2). Yet again, its architectural forms might be great, but not its architectural spaces.

Guggenheim: The River side The zigzag railing staircase (Public Source photography)

It has been claimed by many that Guggenheim Bilbao is very hostile to the viewer up close and personal. The monumentary scale has just simply forsaken the relationship with human perception. The river frontage of the Guggenheim Bilbao is so void of emotion that it hardly draws people. Is architecture in this scenario evoking unwanted issue rather than solving them.

The use of a zigzag railing with wide steps in a public place seems bizarre and a health hazard. It has been observed that when there is a crowd that these staircase turns into a bottleneck. The steps are very wide have a small height difference between them.

Overall, Frank Gehry has done justice to Bilbao, and how he captured the viewer's instant attention is amazing. On second thoughts, one is compelled dislike the 'disjointedness' in architecture, not really on the appearance itself, but more towards the design considerations, it can be easily be labelled 'artsy'.

In Conclusion

One can satisfactorily conclude that there seems to be a trend towards contemporary architecture being overwhelmed by egoism at the cost of functionality by the few elitist. Just look at Vegas where each structure is monumental and makes its own statement without any consideration for its neighbourhood.

Las Vegas Skyline (Public Source photography)

But everything has its limits like in Jerusalem, Frank Gehry's design for the Tolerance museum was shot down like a bullet by the client as it was deemed to be way too extravagant and costly. It is high time architects comprehend client needs before stroking their ego. Moshe Safdie in his Museum design seems to have arrived at a fair medium whilst the Yad Vashem Holocaust has addressed all function al issue in no way has it compromised on its design aesthetics and remains a striking testament to the Jewish race.

But let us be fair to the flip-side of the argument, restricting creativity of the architect might be considered as curtailing progress. After all, from new endeavours and challenges rises new concepts otherwise we would be stuck in a time warp in terms of architectural development. A prime example of forward thinking architecture would have to be Frank Lloyd Wright's Falling Water. This was a work of a genius who blended enormous cantilevered concrete structure so sublimely in to the landscape. Functionally this building had many flaws specially when it rained and the downpour affected the building. In a sense this was like a challenge left by Frank Lloyd Wright to the modern day contemporary architects. When functionality becomes the main focus there is tendency to churn out 'atypical' structures that fail to kindle our imagination.

Falling Water (Public Source photography)

The writer's own design direction for her project was inspired by Daniel Libeskind's Berlin Jewish museum. Libeskind has broken all the principles of a gallery design and in the process accomplished the task heightening emotions to varying form from the visitor. Perhaps the existence of a few egoistical architects who overlook aspects of functionality in order to create visual wonders may be judged a good thing for the progress of contemporary architecture.

But like life itself anything in excess is bad, if a majority of contemporary architects decide to stroke their egos and create unique building with no consideration for the surrounding, this would considered a fool-hardly short-sighted way forward because functional buildings give rise to communities.

Daniel Libeskind is said to have laughed at all the architects who bid for the Jewish museum project, as they were busy photographing the site and the surroundings prior to design. He believed his design idea for the Jewish museum could be built on any site. Do we consider this mode of thinking the mindset of a genius or a madman? Unfortunately there is no sufficient answer to put our minds at rest and there is a high likelihood that one will only know the answer after the damage has been done to our city skylines.

Daniel Libeskind's development proposal in Malaysia (Public Source photography)

Contemporary architecture needs to learn from the cycle of life. Any creation flawed at conception is going to result in defective adults however beautiful they might be on the surface and as a result never reaching their full potential, in ones opinion, buildings are no different.

Finally the writer would like to leave the reader with this thought. Would you like your neighbourhood to look like a busy day at the scrap yard? This would be a case is ego overtakes common sense.

What if this happens...? (Public Source photography)

Work Cited


Fodor , 2009 , Fodor's Spain 2010, Fodor's Travel Publications, ISBN 1400008646, 9781400008643

Davenport, P, 2001, Interview with Daniel Libeskind, Trafford Today Newspaper, tm, 24.1.2001

Libeskind, D, 2001, The Space of Encounter, London: Thames & Hudson

Macleod, S, 2005, reshaping museum space: architecture, design, exhibitions, Taylor & Francis


Cattermole, P; Ian Westwell, 2007, Bizarre Buildings, Firefly Books (September 14, 2007)

Libeskind, D, 1999, Jewish Museum Berlin, Verlag der Kunst (June 1999), ISBN: 9057012529

Mathewson, C, 2007, Frank O. Gehry: Selected Works: 1969 to Today, Firefly Books (October 12, 2007)

Metzinger, T, 2010, The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self, Basic Books; First Trade Paper Edition edition (July 27, 2010)

Ockman,J ; Safdie, M; Shalev, A; Wiesel E, 2006,Yad Vashem: Moshe Safdie - The Architecture of Memory ,Lars Müller Publishers; 1 edition (Oct 20 2006)

Schneider, B; Libeskind D, 1999, Daniel Libeskind Jewish Museum Berlin: Jewish Museum Berlin: Between the Lines (Architecture), Prestel Publishing; illustrated edition edition (May 1999)