Contemporary Architecture Egoism And Functionality Cultural Studies Essay

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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 [1] .

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." [2] 

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.

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.' [3] 

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.

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.

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.

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?' [4] 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.