Libeskind’s Museum of Military History Opens in Dresden

October 20, 2011

The architect splits open a neoclassical building—and the exhibitions inside—with a dramatic, v-shaped shard.

By Michael Dumiak

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Photo © Bitter Bredt

Libeskind’s five-story addition slices through the 1873 arsenal that houses the museum. slide show


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Studio Daniel Libeskind’s new home for the Museum of Military History in Dresden, Germany, opened to the public on Saturday. Set in the middle of a sprawling decommissioned military complex north of the city’s historic center, the museum is housed in a former arsenal building, which Libeskind has renovated and expanded with a v-shaped shard that rises 100 feet above grade. The glass, concrete, and steel triangle cants up and out from the center of the existing building, appearing to slice through it.

The architect says he wanted to create an aggressive “intervention” in the neoclassical symmetry of the 1873 arsenal, built under the direction of a pupil of the architect Gottfried Semper. “This wedge deliberately interrupts the horizontal chronology of the building, exactly between exhibits on World War I and World War II,” Libeskind said over the howl of a fire-alarm test the day before opening. “It is a fundamental interruption because history has fundamentally turned at this point.”

The German military underwrote the $86-million project with state funds, and at 150,000 square feet, the museum is now the country’s largest. Libeskind collaborated with exhibition designer and interior firm Holzer Kobler Architekturen as well as the museum’s staff to present its collection of weapons, uniforms, paintings, and documents spanning 700 years. The wedge slices through the otherwise linear series of galleries, creating two wings on either side of the shard: artifacts from 1300 through World War I to the west and displays of World War II and Cold War-era objects to the east. Between them, the Libeskind addition ascends with five floors of open and irregular exhibition spaces, organized by themes, including “War and Memory” and “Politics and Violence.”

Some 14,500 tons of concrete form the internal walls of the wedge, which penetrate the exhibitions. They create unusually shaped spaces and cul-de-sacs, as well as odd juxtapositions of Victorian paintings on traditional gallery walls and the concrete of the new structure aggressively plunging down nearby. People who dislike Libeskind’s work especially hate this kind of thing. But when it works, it makes for unexpected moments: a turn around one blind corner leads to a large open space displaying an Alouette helicopter, hung vertically. It’s not only a surprise, it also prompts a flashing thought—if I am ever in a helicopter in this position, I am in a bad way. A similar thought comes walking underneath an installation of suspended bombs and explosives: there’s sympathy for the soldier, sympathy for the civilian.

With Nazis, Communists, the Holocaust, and always, the guilt, presenting German military history is a complex project. And the 1945 firebombing of Dresden by the Allied forces, at the very end of the war, has its own complicated legacy. "It is a building grappling with issues that affect human life. It's a serious thing to try to deal with the history in this museum—whether it's the atomic bomb, shoes of those who died in the Holocaust, or the weaponry used to destroy the cities of Europe," says Libeskind. “It cannot be history in a box with four corners.”

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