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The voice of pain

Kate Clare

Hearing voices is most commonly associated with insanity and lunacy. Daniel Libeskind, the iconic US-based architect, artist and designer turned this notion on its head at the RIBA’s Annual Stephen Lawrence Memorial lecture at 66 Portland Place.

In architecture school, we are taught site responds too, and has a conversation with, historical, current and future environments. But what Daniel Libeskind outlines in his lecture is architecture’s dialogue with our human emotions, that architecture is a tool which embodies trauma and manifests itself on site speaking to us through the tangible; walls, floors and materials.   

Libeskind began the lecture with an image of his densely used passport. He used this to discuss his Polish Jewish descent and family connections to the Holocaust. Libeskind first showed the room his Jewish museum, Berlin. Libeskind discussed the 24m void of the Holocaust Tower which visitors are guided to by an axial shard of light. Shutting people in a void with no ‘artwork’ or ‘relic’ is unheard of. However, this un-conditioned, vacant space becomes a space for the user to experience the silence, and begin to imagine the voices of the victims of the Nazi regime. 

Stark slides headed each section of Libeskind’s talk, a simple white word in his own hand, written on the black. ‘Hunted’ covered the Libeskind’s second project, the Felix Nussbaum Haus, a memorial to the German-Jewish surrealist painter. Nature was discussed, in particular the sunflowers that line the periphery of the site that respond to the sun, just as architecture should. Libeskind discussed the Nussebaum walkway as ‘uncomfortable’ and ‘dark’, words not commonly associated with public architecture. The narrative produced by such spaces begins the conversation with the user as they enter the building.

 ‘Trauma’, covered his third project, the Imperial War Museum North, Manchester. The famous ‘shattered globe’ concept that the buildings plan is based upon and walked us, the audience, through the buildings narrative discussing previous architectural critic views, both positive and negative. Libeskind boldly stated ‘almost all art is a result of war’.

For his fourth and final theme, ‘Fault Lines’, Libeskind showed the audience a slide of his favorite book, I Will Bear Witness 1942-1945: A Diary of the Nazi Years by Victor Klemperer, an acute testament from Hitler’s Germany. A common theme through the evening was remembrance and the conversation with memorial spaces. It was this, through nature, music, literature and importantly architecture, which led us finally onto the iconic 9/11 site of Ground Zero. The acoustics of Ground Zero, shared Libeskind, are driven by the ‘music of nature’ which he describes as ‘sound leaving no trace’. The falling of the water in the towers’ footprints represents the disaster. We, the user, find ourselves in conversation with the sound of nature. Listening to the water falling at Ground Zero speaks volumes, far more than any vertical monument.
Libeskind does not tell survivors their own story, he uses elemental, physical design to provoke a conversation with the user and speaks to us about their stories through the architecture. Raw, emotive, sometimes controversial this lecture reminded the audience of the power of Libeskind’s architecture.