This Will Be the Most Beautiful of the New Museums in Warsaw
This article by Dariusz Bartoszewicz originally appeared in Gazeta Wyborcza on November 17, 2011. Translation published with permission. Translated from the Polish by Kasia Buczkowska.
The most beautiful of new museums in Warsaw is about to become reality. “It will be a shining lighthouse in the public space,” said Rainer Mahlamäki, the architect of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews. “It will be both a ‘box’ and a ‘cake,’ so to speak, a two-in-one.”
The building has taken final shape on the Willy Brandt Square (enclosed by Anielewicz, Zamenhof, Lewartowski, and Karmelicka streets), in front of the Monument to the Heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto. In the sun, the side walls have a phenomenal look thanks to their ‘double skin.’ The external surface of glass panels and copper netting looks ethereal and glimmers like the wings of an insect.
1,000 Years of History
Professor Rainer Mahlamäki, the Finnish architect, said that many people have asked him why the Museum of the History of Polish Jews is so beautiful. “I respond that it is not a museum of the Holocaust. I want the building to express beauty; it should symbolize the future and hope.”
Others who have developed the concept of the Museum and are working to make it a reality think along the same lines. The edifice, with its exhibition galleries, auditorium, library and restaurant, is intended to remind everyone of the thousand years of common history which came to a close with the extermination of our neighbors, the Jews.
The architect revealed that when his design won the international competition in 2005, he did not know what materials would be used to construct the exteriors. “There was only a guiding thought of the building being like a lamp, with a façade that illuminates its surroundings at dusk.”
Glass and metal were the obvious possibilities. But several people, including members of the jury such as the renowned critic and historian of architecture Kenneth Frampton, advised “Do not use glass alone, employ some other material as well.”
Ultimately, the choice was copper, a material preferred by Finnish architects. It is very durable, with an estimated useful life of a hundred years or more. “In Poland, the pioneering architectural use of copper on such a large scale was first employed by Prof. Marek Budzynski for the façades of the Supreme Court building and the Warsaw University Library,” said Kazimierz Zakrzewski, the director of the Polish Center for the Promotion of Copper.
The Entrance and the Book of Exodus
As Prof. Mahlamäki explained, his building is a synthesis of two trends in modern architecture: ‘boxes’ and ‘cakes.’ He considers Frank Gehry, the architect of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, to be an outstanding creator of ‘cakes’—that is buildings-as-sculptures.
The Museum of the History of Polish Jews has a simple, box-like form that conceals a ‘cake’ inside—the sculptured main entrance hall. Its curving walls, 20 meters high and 70 meters long, rise overhead in waves and soft undulations. They fold high over visitors’ heads, delineating the gigantic space of the lobby which bores through the entire ‘box’ from end to end.
Professor Mahlamäki recalled his inspiration for the main hall: the parting of the Red Sea and escape of Jews from Egypt, as told in the Book of Exodus. He also showed photographs and drawings of a different source of inspiration—the landscapes and a dried out riverbed in the Promised Land.
From the center of the lobby visitors will see the Monument to Heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto through the glass curtain above the main entrance. The monument is a symbol of remembrance and a key element of Prof. Mahlamäki’s spatial design of the building.
Professor Mahlamäki also praised the principal building contractor, Polimex Mostostal: “The project was difficult to carry out. We got excellent cooperation from the firm, which advised us on how to construct the curved walls.”
Inscription Resembling Hebrew Letters
The façade of the building has two layers. A concrete wall forms the inner layer. A metal frame is fastened to the wall, at a one meter remove, which supports vertical glass panels positioned at an angle to the concrete wall. The effect is that when one walks on Anielewicz Street, approaching from John Paul II Avenue, only the glass surface appears, but when walking back to the avenue, one sees the perforated strips of copper. Because the façade is not flat, the interplay of light and shadows brings out the third dimension, highlighting the rhythm of the vertical partitions.
The copper for the exterior was finished from the outset with a patina that gives it a sea-green hue. The glass surfaces have a delicately etched imprint. “It is abstract, but it is intended to resemble Hebrew letters,” said Prof. Mahlamäki.
He also mentioned that some of his ideas came from the North. “I am from Finland, after all,” he said, mentioning the resemblance of the Museum’s exterior to blocks of semi-transparent ice and snow. “In this way the lobby space is emotionally charged, soft and warm, while the look from the outside is simple, cold and sharp.”
“The building will be ready in the second quarter of 2012, in June at the latest,” says Bartosz Milczarczyk, a Warsaw City Hall spokesperson. “However, the mounting of the permanent and temporary exhibitions will take until April 2013. The inaugural ceremony will coincide with the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.”