THE HOLLOW faces on the iron plates stared back eerily at Jeremy Tan Ser Wei when he stepped on the shaleket (fallen leaves) at the Memory Void Room in the Jewish Museum Berlin.
The expressions on the metal plates sent a chill down his spine — many had mouths gaping in silent screams, some with lips stretched thin in fear as if begging for mercy.
Only the clanking metal sounds could be heard as the 22-year-old Architecture student from Taylor’s University walked deeper into the dark end of the tunnel.
Somehow, Jeremy felt wrong for trampling on those faces, but that was the intention of artist Menashe Kadishman in the design of the exhibition with over 10,000 open-mouthed metal plates representing six million Jewish people who perished during the Holocaust.
“I am really blown away by the ingenuity of the fallen leaves exhibition, it does feel a bit creepy here,” said Jeremy.
The Memory Void Room was but one of the designs of the Jewish Museum Berlin created to convey a sense of horror, disorientation, claustrophobia and panic of the persecution.
Students from Taylor’s University School of Architecture, Building and Design (SABD) joining the 10-day architecture study trip to Berlin were not unfamiliar with the structure of the museum which was the brainchild of musician-turned-architect Daniel Libeskind.
Named as “Between the Lines” by Libeskind, the zinc-clad structure of the museum built in a zig-zag fashion like an unwrapped Star of David is widely studied for its radical postmodern avant-garde designs.
Completed in 1999, the museum drew 350,000 visitors a year even when it was empty. Artefacts were only added to the museum in 2001.
In an overview of the architecture of the museum, Libeskind explained that the design was based on two linear structures — the first winding line with several kinks and a second line cutting through the whole building.
At the intersections of these lines are the “voids” which rise vertically from the ground floor of the building up to the roof.
Second-year Architecture student Thevinkumar Thiagaraja had marked down the museum as a must-see destination for the trip since he had used it as his case study earlier.
The Libeskind building housing the new museum had no official entrance, the students began the tour by walking down the winding underground passageway to enter the first of the seven “voids” in the museum.
After that, the path was broken into three axes — Axis of Continuity, Axis of Emigration and the Axis of Holocaust. Most of the exhibits were showcased at Axis of Continuity.
Of shivers and art
Pamela Chin Pei Lei and Leong Yau Soon went first to the Axis of the Holocaust.
In the freezing cold of the Berlin fall, the dingy and unheated Holocaust Tower was not the most pleasant place to be for the students.
The walls converged at painfully sharp angles and only a glimmer of light filtered from the slit at the top of the tower.
Libeskind was certainly successful at evoking a sense of desolation to anyone who had stepped into that space.
Standing at a corner of the walls, Pamela spent about 15 minutes shivering in silence at the tower.
“It seems like a good place to do some serious thinking,” she said.
From the Holocaust Tower, the pathway led to the Garden of Exile, also named as the E.T.A. Hoffmann Garden via the Axis of Emigration.
“It’s really cold to be standing outdoors but it is worth spending some time here,” said Yau Soon.
A total of 49 concrete stelae planted with Russian olives were erected on the garden which was tilted on a 12 degree gradient.
Libeskind’s reasoning for the oddly-angled garden was to disorient visitors so that they could feel the sense of total instability and lack of orientation experienced by those driven out of Germany.
Thevin was full of praise for Libeskind’s design which cleverly exploited the psychological nuances between interior and exterior space.
“I came away very inspired with the museum, although I am a bit disappointed that the museum was not 100% lit by natural light emitted from the uniquely-placed windows,” said Thevin, a second-year Architecture student.
He was referring to Libeskind’s unusual layout of the windows in the building which apparently was mapped out from the addresses of prominent figures in Berlin’s intellectual history. Indeed, the shapes and sizes of the windows were equally atypical.
Some were shaped in triangular gashes overlapping each other while others were what New York Times architecture critic the late Herbet Muschamp called as “ribbon fenestration” on the walls.
Thevinkumar sheepishly admitted that he did not care too much about the exhibits because “there were too many words to read” on the exhibit captions.
Meanwhile, another landmark which bore resemblence to the Garden in Exile of the Jewish Museum was the controversial Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe just south of the iconic Brandenburg Gate.
It was easy for one to feel lost in that grey concrete forest made up of 2,711 slabs of various sizes arranged geometrically on the sloping field.
The imposing structures, looking like rows and rows of headstones in a cemetery from afar, was designed by architect Peter Eisenman and engineer Buro Happold.
The group made a quick stop at the memorial and then visited the underground museum.
Final-year Architecture student Muhammad Raimi Ahmad said it was remarkable that the architects managed to convey the dark periods in history with subtlety through their simple designs.
“The ceiling of the underground museum resembles the graves while the concrete slabs on the ground may symbolise the headstones. It shows that the architect has put a lot of thought into the layout of the structure,” said Muhammad Raimi.
Second-year Architecture students Lee Pei Wen and Tan Jean Yi said the trip had enlightened them about World War II history.
“Although I had studied a lot about the Jewish Museum, I was not very familiar previously with the history of the Holocaust,” said Jean Yi, 20.
“The letters written by children who were sent to the concentration camps were very moving, it’s hard to imagine what they had gone through during that period,” she added.
After their back-to-back visits to sites dedicated to celebrating the Jewish heritage, the students made a trip to the once imposing structure of the Nazi power, the Olympiastadion, on a cold, rainy morning.
The architecture marvel which remained largely unscathed by the Allied bombing during WWII was still majestic in its neoclassical facade, drawing feelings of awe from the students and lecturers in the tour.
The building commissioned by Hitler was constructed for the 1936 Summer Olympics held during the height of the dictator’s power.
Critics mentioned that the monolithic colonnades were designed to evoke comparison to the Colosseum in Rome.
Taylor’s University SABD associate dean Keith Tan was eager to locate the box where Hitler once sat, stony-faced, watching the proceeding of the games.
“Normally I won’t stay long when visiting stadiums but the architecture of this stadium is very impressive.
“It is fitting that the columns were constructed from stone slabs, the structures wouldn’t be so beautiful if concrete materials were used,” said Tan.