Ten Canonical Buildings – Daniel Libeskind, Jewish Museum (1989-99)

Having recently purchased Peter Eisenman’s recent “Ten Canonical Buildings 1950-2000”, I’ll be making 10 posts (possibly 11 with an extra post being about the foreword provided by Stan Allen) about Eisenman’s choice of buildings and key themes and figures that he relates to the buildings chosen.

The first of the series that I have chosen to write about is Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum. Within the book, Peter Eisenman labels this chapter as “The Deconstruction of the Axis“. In the opening of this analysis Eisenman makes reference to two lectures presented by Rosalind Krauss called “Notes on the Index“. For those familiar with American Semiotics they will recognise the term Index similar to that established by Charles Sanders Peirce and the distinctions against Icon and Symbol.

For those slightly unfamilar with such topics, please feel free to click on the following link to be shown a fantastic short animation to understand the very basics of Semiotics:

Peirce (although pronounced “Purse“) suggests that an icon retains some sort of resemblance or likeliness to its object while a symbol operates on the basis of an agreed conventional understanding. An index can be considered as a trace or record of an actual event of process, an example of this being smoke as the index of fire. Architecturally, such notions of index can prove relevant with regards to absence/presence. Eisenman posits the notion of footprints on a beach as signifying a presence to have taken place with traces being apparent in the imprints on the sand, introducing a notion of time between the event and it’s absence.

The idea of privileging absence in architecture is one that denies the metaphysical fullness that architecture currently bases itself on in physical terms, the index denies this by operating as a referent to a prior condition or some other object and not a sign or representation of itself.

Another example of the operation of the index presented by Krauss is in the form of photography, similarly to those presented by Roland Barthes in Camera Lucinda. The photograph demonstrates both process and absence, in that the relation to the actual event is signified is an absent one and by doing so it undercuts fullness. This compared to more architectural example with the work of Gordon Matta-Clark, whose cuttings wholes through floors and roofs represented the ultimate icon for an indexical architecture.

Gordon Matta-Clark - Indexical Openings

These openings function similarly to a linguistic shifter such as this table or this chair in the sense that the actual word signifies to a referent while remaining entirely empty in itself, in Krauss’s terms “an empty pronominal sign”. In doing so, these absent events empty the building of its metaphysical content. Defying the building of its ability to shelter effectively, its functions are emptied thus shattering any meanings and replacing the building as an abstract object.

The logic of such indexical signs seeks to undermine the iconic and symbolic, yet the index itself can easily be transformed into an icon of its own indexicality. Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum can be registered as a project that does just that. Rather differently though, Libeskind adopts the indexicality as a means of critiquing certain architectural persistancies, more specifically the adherence to linear axiality which is considered fundamental to classical and cartesian space.

The earliest of experiments of these took place in the form of Daniel Libeskind’s Micromegas, drawings that began to attempt to question Cartesian space, the denial of a precise set of co-ordinates or picture plane.

Daniel Libeskind, Macromegas, 1978

What Libeskind begins to criticise is the idea that all sites contain an axes and if site specificity is the relation of a building to to a site, then all buildings contain axes which relate building to the subject’s movement through it. This is done through with the introduction of the notion of the axis as an inaccessible void that is formed in discontinuous segments, an index of of this axes. This stands in response to one of architectures most common persistancies, the traditional movement of the subject from the entry of the building through all the major spaces, typically realised in symmetrical sequences. Such an exploration of disrupting one of architectures major persistancies is with Libeskind’s larger City Edge Competition.

Where this idea is most apparent though is in Daniel Libeskind’s installation called Line of Fire at Le Corbusier’s unite d’Habitation in Brien-en-Foret. Typical of most Modernist architecture, some sort of axial space is defined and in this case of the ground floor of this building it is Le Corbusier’s signature pilotis that indicated a formal axis of procession through the building. The installation looked to disrupt to movement of the subject, creating a disjunction between the time of the subject’s movement and the object (or the buildings physical) axis.

What Libeskind begins to suggest is that this axis can begin to make reference to other exterior conditions, in this case the historical circumstance of destinations of deported jews in Nazi Germany. From an aerial view, one can notice the original axis that traces through the zigzag form. Quite similarly, performing an indexical relationship somewhat similar to Matta-Clark’s openings are the apertures on the facade that disregard any formal respective window to room correlation, bearing no relationship to the interior spaces. While it may be argued that these arbitrary openings on the facade delineate from a metaphorical comparison to the arbitrary and random execution of Jews by the German state under Hitler,  it is important to recognise that these traces also operate “meaning-lessly” like those murdered.

The traditional relationship of the object/subject operating on a continuous horizontal datum is denied in this project through the sequence of inaccessible voids, interrupted levels and stairs that disembark members of the public of any form of continuous route. All of this is implemented as a means of critiquing the Cartesian axiality present in everyday architecture. These disruptions in turn ultimately deny any of the parts to formally relate to a fully functioning whole and while Libeskind’s later works suggest predominately symbolic characteristics, the Jewish museum can be described as representing the cusp of a relationship between the indexical and the iconic.

JS

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