Published  09/09/2003

Daniel Libeskind: Felix Nussbaum Museum in Osnabrück

Daniel Libeskind: Felix Nussbaum Museum in Osnabrück

Felix Nussbaum Museum, Osnabrück, Germany
Architect: Daniel Libeskind

Daniel Libeskind won the competition to build the Felix Nussbaum Museum in Osnabrück in 1995. As can be guessed from the timing, and from the oblique language that is common to both buildings, the design for Osnabrück was developed alongside that of the Jewish Museum in Berlin but was completed last year, becoming Libeskind's first finished work. Woven into the architecture of both buildings is a narrative that draws on the particular to illuminate a general truth - that in the interests of humanity, the Holocaust and the murder of millions should never be forgotten.

Perception of that truth lay behind Osnabrück’s decision to dedicate a new museum to Felix Nussbaum who was a native of the town and fatal victim of Nazi persecution. Nussbaum's international renown is relatively recent, but his works are generally considered some of the finest examples of German Expressionism; the very existence of the later paintings is a poignant testament to the power of the human spirit to transcend adversity. Nussbaum was born in Osnabrück in 1904, the son of a middle-class Jewish merchant.

During the '20s he studied art in Berlin, subsequently becoming part of a celebrated coterie of young artists. Early paintings were compared with Van Gogh and Rousseau, but with the rise of National Socialism and comcomitant anti-semitism his work became increasingly charged with uncertainty and lurking menace. From 1933 onwards he and the artist, Felka Platek, led a fugitive existence, fleeing through Europe to Brussels, to be finally betrayed, deported to Auschwitz and murdered in 1944.

Most remarkably, almost until his deportation Nussbaum continued to paint. The Nussbaum museum is part of the Cultural History Museum, a palatial nineteenth-century building outside the town wall. It stands opposite the Schlikker'sche Villa which, now a folk museum, served as the local Nazi party headquarters from 1933 to 1945. Three rectangular volumes make up the museum complex, each one given a separate external identity. Together they form an irregular triangle which outlines the paths of intersecting axes evolved by Libeskind and invested with meaning.

Of these volumes, the main one is the Nussbaum Haus on an east-west axis leading to the site of the old synagogue (burned down on Kristallnacht in 1938). Its oak-clad exterior is cut open by the asymmetrical patterns of windows and scored in now-familiar fashion by Libeskind's oblique seams - conceptual leylines that are supposed to terminate in significant places in Nussbaum's life: Berlin, Brussels, Auschwitz.

Out of the gloom

A gallery for the main collection - paintings of the 1920s and '30s depicting family life and tranquil landscapes - occupies the ground floor together with a lecture theatre and café. On the mezzanine there are offices and a gallery for graphic works; on the first floor a large gallery provides space for temporary exhibitions. The most eerie component of the trio is a narrow horizontal concrete monolith shooting towards the Schlikker÷sche Villa and known as the Nussbaum Gang. At 11m high, 2m wide and 70m long it encloses two sepulchral corridors, one on top of another and dimly lit from above.

Out of the gloom emerge the later paintings, charnel house visions of desolation. The remaining element of the composition, by which the new museum is hinged off the east wing of the old, is the elevated zinc-clad bridge. This has galleries on two levels, the lower one for the recently discovered paintings, the upper one for temporary exhibitions. Existing as a metaphor for connection of the past with the present, the structure crashes through the Gang to collide with the Haus, linking in each case with the upper levels of the building.

Revelation of the past

The complex is surrounded by and visually tied to the detritus of history. Nussbaum Gang, slicing past the western end of Nussbaum Haus, is itself sliced on plan by the remnants of a seventeenth-century bridge. Revealed during excavation, it led to the ravelin protecting the city gate. A new path raised over the vaults takes visitors left to the museum's main entrance at the head of Nussbaum Gang, or straight on to a dead end, the restored wall of an alleyway that once led to the lost synagogue.

The cut through Nussbaum Gang isolates a notional fragment of it. Forming a concrete tower for temporary installations it stands sentinel opposite the massive front door. Like a tapestry woven around the buildings, fragments of the old and new are part of new gardens criss-crossed by paths. The graphic simplicity of a carpet of dwarf sunflowers (a motif borrowed from Nussbaum's paintings), brilliant against green grass and stone, is really delightful.

The exposure of history

More history is exposed in a litter of stone columns in a courtyard between old and new museums. Without knowing the symbolism inherent in the parts you can appreciate the painterly composition that has the sculptural power of the buildings as its focus. It is the interiors that raise difficulties. They are derived from an inevitable tension between the architect÷s passionate desire to convey a message, almost literally, through architecture and the fundamental purpose of a gallery to show pictures.1 Libeskind's museum is a disconcerting place in which to contemplate paintings. Volumes are distorted, walls slashed by oblique window slits, and floors raked; ceilings are scored by lighting tracks and (on the top floors) fissures of glass.

The staircase on the south side of the Nussbaum Haus projects at a deliberately sharp angle into the galleries to leave a triangle of space too acute to accommodate anything much. Libeskind has set out to convey disorientation, restlessness, the absence of rules, so that normality no longer exists and reality is difficult to judge. Considered simply as a building, the spaces it contains can at times seem bleak and irritatingly confusing. Libeskind÷s subversion of promenades architecturales has produced a circulation system so labyrinthine as to defeat even the most determined first-time visitor. (It is made more confusing by the fire doors obstructing passage from one building to another.) Steel mesh panels set into floors do allow glimpses of other rooms, above or below, but how to reach them?

Electronic acoustic installation

On the day the museum opened, discomfort was heightened by Hans Peter Kuhn's weird electronic acoustics reverberating around you. Undeniably powerful with its fractured walls and challenging volumes, the place must be a curator÷s nightmare. Admittedly on opening day the collection was not yet in place but sight of the few paintings on show huddled in inhospitable corners was not encouraging. Nussbaum's paintings are intricately composed, and quiet study is required to realize their expression of humanity and tenderness, the depths of their desolation and despair. Of the two artists involved in this scheme, it is the architect who seems to be striving for effect.

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