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Jewish Social Studies 6.2 (2000) 1-23

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Daniel Libeskind's Jewish Museum in Berlin: The Uncanny Arts of Memorial Architecture

James E. Young

[According to Schelling], the uncanny [is] something which ought to have remained hidden but has come to light.

--Sigmund Freud, "The Uncanny"

How does a city "house" the memory of a people no longer at "home" there? How does a city like Berlin invite a people like the Jews back into its official past after having driven them so murderously from it? Such questions may suggest their own, uncanny answers: a "Jewish Museum" in the capital city of a nation that not so long ago voided itself of Jews, making them alien strangers in a land they had considered "home," will not by definition be heimlich but must be re-garded as unheimlich--or, as our translation would have it, uncanny. The dilemma facing the designer of such a museum thus becomes how to embody this sense of unheimlichkeit, or uncanniness, in a medium like architecture, which has its own long tradition of heimlichkeit, or homeliness. Moreover, can the construction of a contemporary architecture remain entirely distinct from, even oblivious to, the history it shelters? Is its spatial existence ever really independent of its contents?

In their initial conception of what they then regarded as a Jewish Museum "extension" to the Berlin Museum, city planners hoped to recognize both the role Jews had once played as co-creators of Berlin's history and culture and that the city was fundamentally haunted by its [End Page 1] Jewish absence. Yet the very notion of an "autonomous" Jewish Museum struck them as problematic: the museum wanted to show the importance and far-reaching effect of Jewish culture on the city's history, to give it the prominence it deserved. But many also feared dividing German from Jewish history, inadvertently recapitulating the Nazis' own segregation of Jewish culture from German. This would have been to reimpose a distinct line between the history and cultures of two people--Germans and Jews--whose fates had been inextricably mingled for centuries in Berlin. From the beginning, planners realized that this would be no mere reintroduction of Jewish memory into Berlin's civic landscape but an excavation of memory already there, though long suppressed.

Freud may have described such a phenomenon best: "This uncanny is in reality nothing new or alien, but something which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression. . . . The uncanny [is] something which ought to have remained hidden but has come to light." 1 Thus would Berlin's Jewish Museum generate its own sense of a disquieting return, the sudden revelation of a previously buried past. Indeed, if the very idea of the uncanny arises, as Freud suggests, from the transformation of something that once seemed familiar and homely into something strange and "unhomely," then how better to describe the larger plight of Jewish memory in Germany today? Moreover, if "unhomeliness" for Freud was, as Anthony Vidler suggests, "the fundamental propensity of the familiar to turn on its owners, suddenly to become defamiliarized, derealized, as if in a dream," 2 then how better to describe contemporary Germany's relationship with its own Jewish past? At least part of the uncanniness in such a project stems from the sense that at any moment the "familiar alien" will burst forth, even when it never does, thus leaving one always ill at ease, even a little frightened with anticipation--hence, the constant, free-floating anxiety that seems to accompany every act of Jewish memorialization in Germany today.

After Vidler's magnificent reading of the "architectural uncanny," I would also approach what I am calling an "uncanny memorial architecture" as "a metaphor for a fundamentally unlivable modern condition." 3 But rather than looking for uncanny memory per se, or uncanny memorials or architecture, we might (after Vidler) look only for those uncanny qualities in memorial architecture. In fact, what Robin Lydenberg aptly sees in "uncanny...


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