with Daniel Libeskind

Christopher Langer
Ulrike Steglich

This interview was conducted on September 6th, 1995 at Libeskind's office in Berlin by Christopher Langer, who asked the questions in English, and Ullrike Steglich, who asked the questions in German, with responses in English. It was previously published both in scheinschlag #19/1995, an alternative newspaper, and in the weekly journal, Freitag #40/1995.

Warum haben sie diese Ausstellung in Berlin gemacht? Was war das Motiv?
(Why did you decide to create the design for this exhibition in Berlin? What was your motive?)

Very simple. I was asked to do it and it is a very important topic, Moscow-Berlin, a topic that I have been affected by, since part of my family's fatality had to do with the Holocaust and part with the Gulag Archipelego. It's not just the decoration for an exhibition.

Es sind also persönliche Motive?
(And personal motives?)

Yes, the motive is certainly that such a relationship needs to be expressed in a certain way through exhibition design and that is why I made my suggestions to the Berlinische Galerie to alter the original concept. The original idea was that the center of the exhibit would be the Hitler and Stalin paintings: that was a very controversial and important element of the exhibit. But I thought that that should not really be centered and what should really be central to the understanding of the public was to be the exiles, the exile of Berliners in Moscow and the Russians in Berlin. If you ask for a motive, it is to express what I think is important about that relationship in Berlin and Moscow, for those artists and cultural figures who never had a chance in the future.

Es ist interessant, daß die Kunstwerke hier relativ gleichberechtigt gehängt sind, sowohl die der Emigranten als auch die der herrschenden Kunst. Wie beurteilen sie diese Hängung?
(It is interesting to see that the works of art, whether they originate from emigrants or represent official art, are hung in a manner that gives them equal value. What is your opinion of this type of presentation?)

The rest of the huge exhibition is just shown as a history of the first half of the twentieth century. The only interjection is a disruption of this history through these orginizing wedges, the red and the black, which, on both levels, alter the conception of that continuity. It is an interuption and a discontinuity and it is also a sign of how one might enter the central space in which there is really nothing. As opposed to having the center be the focal point of weight of the show. First of all, visually, there is nothing there: when you come in you only see the exterior of the history, and on the interior you don't have the same magnitude, you have a kind of emptiness, both formal and philosophical.

It was noted quite often at the press conference and in the context of the exhibition that before you had created the architectural struture of the exhibition, they were at a bit of a loss as to how to successfully display this variety of works. Are you happy to take on the role of structuring an exhibition that is unstructured?

No, it was not my job and I was kind of shocked at one point when I realized it. It is not enough to just have incredible paintings and works of art and important objects. I'm only an exhibition designer; I'm not an historian and I'm not responsible for the content, nor have I worked for five years on this exhibition. But it was clear that it was very difficult for them to agree on the shape it would have at the end. There is an incredible density of material in the rooms. I can only do a limited intervention to give a sign of an attitude to what one sees in all these rooms and how that might be reinterpreted by what one doesn't see in those rooms: those literary, documentary ideas which come to a closure in the wedge.

Are you satisfied with the way it has been received ?

I think it works. I think people are sort of stunned because it is a disruption of a certain kind. It is also a connection too, both formally and in a philosophical way. Too many of the critics do it in an aesthetic way, or because they see red wedges in Russian art. But there is more to red and black. I said this in the press conference: the quality of light on black and red is the definition of civilization. That is a quote from Mandelstam. It is the quality of light on those two colors that gives you the moment: that is what it really is. The kind of light that falls there is varied, depending on from where you have come, what you have seen, and how you have moved about the rest of the exhibit. I can't say whether I am happy or not. I think it does what I set out to do.

Hat die Kunst,die dort ausgestellt ist , einfluß auf Ihrer architektonische Arbeit?
(Does the art that is shown here have an influence on your architectural work?)

I know the materials very intimately. Not as a historian, but I know them: I know the letters, I know the musical scores, I know the paintings and I know the graphic works. In a way I share an affinity with the works, of both the Russian and the Berlin works of the time. Of course, that is also the reason why I suggested not to concentrate on the art of the later thirties and not to make that into a polemic about the big ideological systems, but rather to show that it is not about ideological systems. It is about human beings who are trying to come out of closed ideological systems.

Können sie konkreter beschreiben wie das in ihre Werke einfließt?
(Can you give us a concrete description of how this flows into your works?)

I am the wrong person to say how it influences my work: it is best for someone else to say that. But I am certainly affected by it, in every way.

Are there any specific works in this exhibition which are especially important to you?

Yes, of course. How could you live without Tatlin, Lissitzky... I was only disappointed that some of the works I had expected to find weren't all there. The Letatlin, for example. That would have been really fantastic with the wedges. A bicycle for the proletarians to fly out of the whole exhibit through the roof of the Martin-Gropius-Bau.

It is a veritable bank of spiritual and formal vocabularies that have not yet lived their lives out. That is part of the beauty of this material: none of it was ever built, none of it was ever realized, none of it ever succeeded. But that exactly has been its success. It was a mysterious penetration into the psyche and continues to be. So all these pseudo constructivist works are not the right inheritors of these materials. There will be different works where this will really be located. I couldn't say that for deconstructivism.

If we look at contemporary Berlin, there are a number of different levels at which the city functions: on the level of architectural planning, but also on the level of politics. Architects like you are in a political context. How would you see or perceive you role in this exhibition: how would place this role in the context of contemporary Berlin, but also in the context of a Berlin that is developing?

First of all, it is good to be asked, because when you don't have buildings, you do installations. But that is exactly what happenned to Lissitzky and Tatlin: they hardly did anything more than exhibitions, although the gap between their urbanistic visions and their buildings is that much more poignant and ironic, because they were given nothing more than exhibitions. I do exhibitions because I like it, I had the time to do it, because I have nothing really more to do in Berlin outside of one project which is being finished, the Jewish Museum. It is not just a filler; it is a temporary form, it goes up and comes down. But the images remain. One of the reasons I am not building so much here is because I do believe that architecture has a political role, although it is not politics. It is part of a political understanding of how a city develops and to my regret Berlin has been developing rather in a dull and not the most inspired way given its history and the kind of character the city has in the minds of those who love it, as I do, and in the minds of those who love what they see here: this kind of variety and tension on a world scale.

Sie verteidigen Architektur als Baukunst. Wie definieren sie die Freiräume, auf die sie sich berufen?
(You defend architecture as "Baukunst" (the art of construction; as an art). How would you define the freedom within space, implicit in the concept of architecture as art, that you refer to?)

It is not only architecture as an art, but also as a culture. Unless architecture is not just understood to be square meters to be developed, not just in a pure capitalist way of investment and return. It is seen as one of the necessary things for the survival of human beings, as spiritual beings. Without that you cannot really develop a good city. Perhaps the euphoria of development, of just building, is obliterating a large aspect of what is important in the city, which you see in the exhibition in both positive and negative ways. That brings it close to the people as they walk through the exhibit and think about the development that is going on around them, which might never hang in such an exhibit again, which might become some other development of which we are a part but which we don't understand.

With this example of the Friedrichstr: what you see there are completed building that don't have their uses yet in a street that is completely empty. I am very sceptical about whether the community or the people living in the community or the residents of Berlin will be able to gain the space or make the space their own. Would you wager a critique on the Friedrichstr. and its development? We have very famous architects who are placing some very "important" works there.

I think it's not so much about architecture. It's the attitude or culture of building and what it means in the greater context. I've been a critic of the buildings there and I'm tired of being in that role. It's Realpolitik, that is what is happening. I've said what I want to say about it, and I'd rather go on and say Berlin needs a new chance to have a public space that is interesting, that is not developed in a cynical way through formulas, but that is really adequate to the intelligence and aspirations of people who know the history of the city. That is not a secret; you don't have to go to a university to know about a city, you don't have to go to the Moscow-Berlin exhibition to know what the pulse and texture of the city is. You can see it everywhere, in the energy that the city possesses. It is also true that one can eliminate that energy, one can kill it, because it is very vulnerable and fragile. We can learn the lessons of history from other cities, how quickly it can disappear through acts which are not very sensitized to that dimension of public space that you are referring to when you speak of a street. It's easy to kill a street, but it's hard to get it back. Buildings are not like works of art: works of art can be taken off the walls and stored in museums, but buildings can not be put in storage. They are there for a long, long time.

So you definitely build for the long term, or "Ewigkeit", so to speak.

I think you have to.

This is not like Tokyo.

No, even when I build in Tokyo I'm not one of those architects that believes that architecture is just a commodity, a disposal item and you should calculate how much it costs to demolish it now because it's going to be demolished tomorrow. I'm not obsessed with technology and all these myths about the future being solved through technological intervention or building. I think one has to worry about what is fable in all this change that is taking place. I find it interesting in the exhibition Moscow-Berlin how you see through all the catastrophic instabilty also a stability of a relationship in a certain sad and poignant way which goes on across the gulags and the concentration camps. That is the stable part and that comes to a sort of zero-point in this exhibit. That is also true about the city: a city has a stability and one should worry about the stability rather than just discuss the rules of stability.

Although when you are dealing with the situation that we have now, which is a new, but a very different "Gründerzeit", you have enormous surfaces in the city - especially in East Berlin - that are now free. Is a certain amount of control possible? desirable? in what context?

When you have empty space, and you fill it, it doesn't mean that you eliminate the emptiness. You can fill the space and create more emptiness than you would have had by not building at all. It is how you deal with space. I'm working on a big project on the Landsberger Allee which offers an alternative view of public space, to how important pubilc space is. That, for example, streets are not just a grid of communications for cars and people to go as fast as possible from point A to point B. Streets are a part of the public space. That is what we own as citizens of a city: we own the streets. They belong to us, to the citizens. They are not just technical infrastructure to be laid out for business to succeed. I'm taking great care to redesign, in a completely new way - which is also a traditional way, ironically - that the street belongs to people: what happens on a street, the shape of streets, the rhythm of streets, the time of streets. It is an artistic endeavor, a cultural endeavor. It is not a technical endeavor. Most people think of traffic as a technical thing, they forget that the streets belong to them. So they cross at the red light, for example, they are controlled by idiotic things, they don't see that the streets belong to them, the way they still do in China, or in primitive villages where people have command of their public space. I'm trying in my work on the Landsberger Allee to repossess as much space as possible and articulate it for public use. Of course one has to organize in a rational way modern business and industry and how they function, but it is really to bring the heterogeneous dimensions of the city and make it all work together as an interesting place to be. I am using much more of the history of the area, relying on the use by people over the last fifty years. It is not a tabula rasa, and that has been my point: nothing really is a tabula rasa. Even the revolution, as you see in Berlin-Moscow, can't really create a tabula rasa; there is always the outside of the wedge, or there is always the inside of the wedge, let us put it this way. Some work on the inside, some work on the outside.

It strikes me that you are wavering along a definition between tradition, on the one hand, but also forms that are very extreme on the other. For example the Jewish Museum: it received a certain amount of critique because of the form, that it was slashed into the property.

Bernhard Schneider, a well-known historian, wrote an article about how this is, urbanistically, the most traditional Berlin space. It was perhaps not my view, but all I want to say is that tradition and revolution are inter-related. Tradition, or belonging, and something new act together. You cannot have something new without being in a tradition. Part of the pathology of contemporary culture is the disconnection of these fields of experience. People think there is such a thing as tradition without the new, or they think there is something like avant-garde which destroys the past. This is a misunderstanding. There is a mutual reciprocity and a mutual need between freedom and belonging: these are the two categories. Freedom to breathe a new breath and see something new and to be able to do something else, and the need to belong, to have a place. I do not believe that these are exclusive categories. On the contrary, I would like to show in my work that these things are integrated and blurred together.

Sie sagten vorhin Stabilität. Sie kritisieren die Architektur die rund um das Regierungsviertel usw. entsteht. Sie beklage diese pseudo Sicherheit. Ich denke, daß es auch sehr viel mit Angst zu tun hat. Für mich ist es eine Architektur der Angst.
(You mentioned stability earlier. You criticize the architecture that is being realized around the governmental district. You object to the false security being presented there. I have the sense that it has a lot to do with (Angst) fear. For me it is an architecture of fear.)

I totally agree with you. The contemporary understanding of stability is phony. Building buildings that look like they are made out of stone doesn't make them stable. Making huge masses, regularly divided, and standing on quasi or pseudo traditional patterns doesn't make them any more believable. We see in history books and in this exhibition how these illusions work for about ten years and then it's over. If you really think of what these arcchitects and planners thought Moscow and Berlin were going to be designed along these models, you see how hollow the whole thing was. Between 1933 and 1945: that was the length of this whole thousand-year idea. But I think that normal people, who have some connection to the city, understand what is wrong with that. I think a lot of it is just anxiety. I hope that Berlin will come out of this period of anxiety and fear and parochialism and will embrace its authentic mission, which is that it is one of the great cities. Everbody knows it, and everyone is making bets on it in different ways. Maybe it was inevitable that such a period would come of closure, of regression, of retreat of small, administrative bureaucracy taking over cultural issues. How long it will last depends on so many factors. But I'm optimistic.

So you are an active optimist.

I'm always optimistic because look at those artists and architects in that show: can you believe how hard they worked just to lift their paintbrush after the NEP of Lenin and after Plotonoff's speeches about the end of indulgence? And somehow they still lived. A sad life, I'd have to say when I see those last works of Lissitzky which are completely subdued. He is virtually dead, mentally. It is sad. But the willingness to still put, even if it is dark brown or violet, on the canvas; the poignancy of it still has to do with the human spirit. Majakowsky committed suicide, and Jessenin and some of the Berlin artists too, but you can see that a majority of the artists still lived through some sort of a hope. If it exists in such dark times, then we should not complain at all. We should be happy and optimistic that this city has a great future.

In producing works as an architect you become public property to a certain degree.

If you allow it. It depends. You see how some of those artists and architects in the exhibition failed because they became spokesmen for political ideologies. Others succeeded through a different kind of failure, through a failure of printing their works, and some suffered death or were physically eliminated because they never became the mechanisms of ideology. That is what this exhibition is to me and what my installation is about: the closure and openness of the horizon and the fact that they flip-flop. What appears open is closed--the Rundgang, so to speak--and what appears closed is open, the sharpest point in the red and the black which you can't get into. That reversibility has to do with the relationship between political power, art, and culture. Art is the one thing that undermines and is completely free of being a political tool or being used as a political weapon. The whole exhibition really poses that question about the artists and these works, and what future do these have and what future does modernity have, nevermind those red and black and white spaces in this exhibit which are very coherently accessible. When architects just work and happily implement their plans and come into no conflicts with anybody, they should think about it. They are in trouble.

Aber ich denke, daß Kunst ebenso wie politische Macht an Menschen vorbeigehen kann, sie ignorieren kann. Mich würde interessieren, wen meinen Sie, wenn Sie bauen? Für wen bauen Sie?
(I believe that art as well as political power can completely ignore people. I would be interested to hear who you have in mind when you create a building. For whom do you build?)

I have to say, I have thought about that. I think every building is addressed to someone, who is not here. It is not addressed like a poem or a work of art. They are never done for the people in the exhibition going around and looking at the works. Look at those works: they are addressed to someone unborn. Every building that is good is not addressed to the public, that they walk around and find themselves to be comfortable. It is addressed to those who are unborn, in both senses: of the past and in the future. I think that is who they address and that is what makes them important. To that extent, every human being is really unborn. And if a building or a work of art is good, it might actually bring to life a dimension that was not there before, something that was not yet clear or not yet articulated, that was only potentially there. Good buildings do that all the time, good cities. People suddenly discover possibilities that they had other than before they were in those cities. They offer a different kind of freedom. That is who it is addressed to. It's never addressed to some politicians or some developer or some lobby groups, even if they are on your side.

Copyright 1996 by Christopher Langer and Ulrike Steglich

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