The ar­chi­tect, drawn to trou­ble spots, builds a mu­seum in north­ern Iraq

The ar­chi­tect of the World Trade Cen­ter master plan re­veals his de­sign for a mu­seum in north­ern Iraq

Bloomberg Businessweek (Europe) - - CONTENTS - Daniel Libe­skind

Seven years ago an in­ter­me­di­ary for the prime min­is­ter of Iraqi Kur­dis­tan, Nechir­van Barzani, asked the ar­chi­tect Daniel Libe­skind to de­sign a mu­seum. It was to be built in the au­ton­o­mous re­gion’s cap­i­tal city, Er­bil, in the north­ern part of Iraq, and it would be the first, Barzani told him through the in­ter­me­di­ary, to tell the story of his peo­ple, an eth­nic mi­nor­ity that’s sur­vived decades of vi­o­lence and op­pres­sion. The prime min­is­ter imag­ined an in­sti­tu­tion that would con­front past hor­rors—in par­tic­u­lar, Sad­dam Hus­sein’s geno­ci­dal at­tack on the Kurds in the late 1980s, which Kurds call the An­fal—as well as cel­e­brate Kur­dish cul­ture. And it would ce­ment Er­bil’s sta­tus as a world-class tourist des­ti­na­tion.

At the time, in 2009, this seemed achiev­able. Parts of Iraq were still in tur­moil, but Er­bil was at­tract­ing for­eign in­vest­ment and build­ing shop­ping malls and ho­tels. The city’s gover­nor took to call­ing it the new Dubai. Even in rel­a­tively peace­ful times, though, a mu­seum ded­i­cated to Kur­dish iden­tity is a sen­si­tive propo­si­tion. The Kurds, most of whom are Mus­lim, do not have their own coun­try. They live in a re­gion that crosses the bor­ders of Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey, and they’ve of­ten been per­se­cuted in all four. So Barzani’s rep­re­sen­ta­tive made an ex­tra­or­di­nary re­quest: He asked Libe­skind to keep the project a se­cret. The ar­chi­tect agreed, and over the years he’s lim­ited word of the project to se­nior staff, who were in­structed not to dis­cuss it. When me­dia or clients came through his New York stu­dio, staff scooped up the project’s de­signs and stowed them away in draw­ers and cup­boards un­til the vis­i­tors had left.

On April 11, Libe­skind will speak pub­licly about the mu­seum for the first time, and dur­ing a re­cent in­ter­view he ex­plained why he con­vinced the Kur­dish gov­ern­ment that it’s time to un­veil it. “In a time of de­struc­tion, es­pe­cially a time of cul­tural de­struc­tion, you have a de­sire to build,” he says. Libe­skind, who was the master plan­ner of the re­built World Trade Cen­ter, a few blocks from where we spoke in his Lower Man­hat­tan of­fice, re­calls the fa­mous dic­tum by the 19th cen­tury Ger­man poet Hein­rich Heine: “Where they burn books, at the end they also burn peo­ple.” Libe­skind says: “When peo­ple start de­stroy­ing build­ings, next they will be de­stroy­ing books, and they will de­stroy peo­ple. And this is ex­actly what is hap­pen­ing.”

Two years ago this spring, it looked like con­struc­tion on the 150,000-square­foot mu­seum—at a pro­jected cost of $250 mil­lion—would be­gin, Libe­skind says. Three months later, Is­lamic State cap­tured Mo­sul, about 30 miles west of Er­bil, and the gov­ern­ment’s fi­nan­cial re­sources, and the build­ing crews, were redi­rected to war. The mu­seum has been de­layed since, while Is­lamic State has de­stroyed more than a dozen Iraqi and Syr­ian heritage sites, in­clud­ing the city of Palmyra, which was one of the best-pre­served an­cient cities in the world. In Iraq, Is­lamic State pil­laged and de­stroyed the

an­cient Assyr­ian city of Nin­eveh near Mo­sul.

These sites served as gath­er­ing spots for mil­lions of peo­ple and en­abled mix­ing across eth­nic and re­li­gious bound­aries. The United Na­tions has called the sys­tem­atic de­struc­tion of them “cul­tural cleans­ing.”

In Libe­skind’s view, a new mu­seum can never ad­e­quately com­pen­sate for this loss, but it can help spare ar­ti­facts from ruin, tell an ig­nored peo­ple’s story, and, po­ten­tially, cre­ate a new cross­roads. “I mean, we watch help­lessly as Palmyra is de­stroyed piece by piece. We watch the de­struc­tion of world heritage,” he says. “I thought, You know, this is even more ur­gent now.”

Libe­skind has de­signed mu­se­ums for cities across Europe and the U.S. and es­tab­lished a rep­u­ta­tion for ar­chi­tec­ture that ad­dresses mass mur­der. “I am not Mus­lim. I am not Yazidi. I’m not Kur­dish. I’m Jewish, but it’s the same thing,” he says. His par­ents sur­vived the Holo­caust; he was born in Lodz, Poland, in 1946, moved to Is­rael, and then em­i­grated to New York. In 2010 he trav­eled for the first time to Er­bil, a city “that ex­ceeds mor­tal­ity,” as he puts it.

Er­bil’s his­toric cen­ter, a large mound called the Ci­tadel dat­ing to the fifth mil­len­nium B.C., is a Unesco World Heritage site. Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal ev­i­dence sug­gests the Er­bil Ci­tadel may be the old­est con­tin­u­ously in­hab­ited site on earth. Libe­skind also vis­ited towns that had sur­vived the An­fal, which de­stroyed more than 2,000 Kur­dish vil­lages and killed al­most 200,000 Kurds. “I knew about the An­fal,” Libe­skind says. “I come from this back­ground. It was kind of like a rep­e­ti­tion: ‘They took my brother in the mid­dle of the night. They killed his kids. We don’t know where he is.’”

Be­fore his trip, Libe­skind had stud­ied the ge­og­ra­phy of the Kur­dish di­as­pora; he was taken by an idea of a mu­seum com­posed of four ir­reg­u­lar parts, or frag­ments, as he calls them, cor­re­spond­ing to the four coun­tries where most Kurds live. When he vis­ited the mu­seum’s fu­ture site at the foot of the Ci­tadel, he clar­i­fied this vi­sion.

“I wanted to make the frag­ments a lit­tle bit more pre­cise,” he says, “be­cause they’re not just cut out of a square. They are cut out of topo­graph­i­cal maps, of pop­u­la­tion den­si­ties.” As he sat on a wall over­look­ing the site, he sketched the frag­ments and imag­ined them com­ing to­gether in the cen­ter of the struc­ture. Be­cause the mu­seum will sit at the bot­tom of the Ci­tadel, Libe­skind also de­signed the build­ing as it would be viewed from above. “It’s not re­ally a roof at all,” he says. “It’s a com­po­si­tion to be looked at.”

In ad­di­tion to the four masses, the build­ing’s de­sign is de­fined by a sec­ond ar­chi­tec­tural form: two bi­sect­ing paths. Michael Ash­ley, the project ar­chi­tect for Stu­dio Libe­skind, de­scribes this form as “a bro­ken line be­tween past and fu­ture.” The first path, which Libe­skind calls the An­fal Line, is made of con­crete. “It’s dark and heavy,” says Carla Swither­ack, the stu­dio’s prin­ci­pal in charge. “It’s rep­re­sent­ing the dif­fi­cul­ties of the Kur­dish his­tory.” The sec­ond path, the Free­dom Line, as­cends to­ward a sec­ond-story, flame-lit gar­den over­look­ing the city.

Libe­skind seeks to cre­ate an ex­pe­ri­ence echo­ing that of his­tory, a tech­nique he’s em­ployed in many projects. The Jewish Mu­seum Ber­lin, the build­ing that es­tab­lished his rep­u­ta­tion 20 years ago, uti­lizes the con­cept of “the void,” exhibition spa­ces empty of ar­ti­facts to rep­re­sent cul­ture and ideas that don’t ex­ist be­cause of the Holo­caust. Nov­el­ist Howard Ja­cob­son wrote in the Guardian that the Jewish Mu­seum Ber­lin is “an elo­quent ges­ture of de­fi­ance even as it com­mem­o­rates loss.” In con­trast to the void’s straight line, “the An­fal Line doesn’t cut through very clearly,” Libe­skind says, “be­cause this world is not over.”

Libe­skind re­peat­edly de­scribes the vi­brancy and cre­ativ­ity of Is­lam. Ex­hi­bi­tions at the mu­seum will fea­ture Kur­dish tex­tiles, pot­tery, and music. The ar­chi­tect’s de­sign cel­e­brates Is­lam, too—the build­ing is ori­ented to­ward Mecca, and in­te­rior walls will fea­ture tra­di­tional Kur­dish mo­tifs. The struc­ture will in­clude men’s and women’s prayer rooms. One doesn’t tend to hear cul­tural ap­pre­ci­a­tion for Is­lam these days, and when this is pointed out to Libe­skind, he re­sponds en­er­get­i­cally. “Is­lam is one of the great re­li­gions of the world,” he says. “It’s not some small sect some­where, which, as the

“We watch help­lessly as Palmyra is de­stroyed piece by piece. … This is even more ur­gent

now”

Repub­li­cans say, should be for­bid­den from com­ing into the coun­try. You just can’t pre­tend that that’s a so­lu­tion. That build­ing walls and giv­ing check­points are go­ing to make you free in the fu­ture. It just doesn’t work.”

The Kur­dis­tan mu­seum will ad­dress Is­lamic State’s tac­tic of cul­tural de­struc­tion, but by cel­e­brat­ing Is­lam it will also chal­lenge nar­row un­der­stand­ing of the faith in Europe and the U.S. Libe­skind says these mean­ings are ac­ci­den­tal; the project was con­ceived years be­fore Is­lamic State con­quered Mo­sul. But it isn’t lost on Libe­skind that the mu­seum’s con­struc­tion has been dis­rupted by some of the same forces of op­pres­sion it in­tends to doc­u­ment. It is, as he might say, another rep­e­ti­tion.

To re­al­ize his vi­sion for the mu­seum, Barzani en­listed the ser­vices of Gwynne Roberts, a jour­nal­ist-turned-film­maker who’s been record­ing the re­gion’s ma­jor con­flicts for the past 30 years. His pro­duc­tion com­pany, RWF World, which will pro­vide the mu­seum’s mul­ti­me­dia con­tent, has col­lected scores of oral his­to­ries from Kurds tes­ti­fy­ing to the vi­o­lence they ex­pe­ri­enced. Teams of Kur­dish re­porters and pro­duc­ers at RWF World are in Iraqi Kur­dis­tan in­ter­view­ing peo­ple as they re­turn from the front, col­lect­ing more ma­te­rial for the ex­hi­bi­tions. (Roberts is re­ferred to within Stu­dio Libe­skind as “the client”—a re­flec­tion of Barzani’s ef­fort to find a neu­tral party to help en­gi­neer a mu­seum for his frag­mented peo­ple.)

For now, the Kur­dish gov­ern­ment has no money for non­mil­i­tary en­deav­ors, and the nearby vi­o­lence makes con­struc­tion po­ten­tially un­safe. If money be­came avail­able, would they build de­spite the threat? Can the mu­seum be en­gi­neered to be safe from bomb­ings or sab­o­tage? “I don’t know of a project [like this] that was built dur­ing a war,” Libe­skind says. “It’s hard to con­ceive.” Then again, in a time of de­struc­tion, per­haps ar­chi­tec­ture be­comes more vi­tal. “Peo­ple think ar­chi­tec­ture is a bunch of ice cream par­lors and, I don’t know, some gyms and nice places to take your girl­friend out or your wife or your boyfriend,” he says. “But ar­chi­tec­ture is in the midst of the tur­moil of the world.” Un­like politics or war, though, ar­chi­tec­ture is con­struc­tive: “It’s not a mil­i­tary art, it’s not a po­lit­i­cal art.” Rather, Libe­skind says, “it’s plant­ing a gar­den. It’s mak­ing a build­ing. The power of ar­chi­tec­ture is the power to do some­thing good.” <BW>

● Jewish Mu­seum Ber­lin, 1999, Libe­skind’s first con­structed de­sign

● Im­pe­rial War Mu­seum North, Manch­ester, U.K., 2001

● A ren­der­ing of the mu­seum in Er­bil, be­low the city’s fa­mous Ci­tadel

● Con­tem­po­rary Jewish Mu­seum, San Fran­cisco, 2008

● Mil­i­tary His­tory Mu­seum, Dres­den, Ger­many, 2011

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