Art&Architecture in the World

Daniel Libeskind’s Secret Museum of the Kurds

The architect goes public with the controversial project for the first time.

By Elizabeth Greenspan

April 11, 2016

Photograph by Jonno Rattman for Bloomberg Businessweek

Seven years ago an intermediary for the prime ministerof Iraqi Kurdistan, Nechirvan Barzani, asked the architect DanielLibeskind to design a museum. It was to bebuilt in the autonomous region’s capital city, Erbil, inthe northern part of Iraq, and it would bethe first, Barzani told him through the intermediary,to tell the story of his people, anethnic minority that’s survived decades of violence andoppression. The prime minister imagined an institutionthat would confront past horrors—in particular, SaddamHussein’s genocidal attack on the Kurds inthe late 1980s, which Kurds callthe Anfal—as well as celebrateKurdish culture. And it wouldcement Erbil’s status asa world-class touristdestination.
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.

Jewish Museum Berlin, 1999, Libeskind's first constructed design.
Jewish Museum Berlin, 1999, Libeskind’s first constructed design.

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-square-foot 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.”

“We watch helplesslyas Palmyra isdestroyed piece bypiece. … Thisis even moreurgent now”

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.

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

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.

Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco, 2008; Military History Museum, Dresden, Germany, 2011.
Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco, 2008; Military History Museum, Dresden, Germany, 2011.

“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.”

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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.

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

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.”

Local brickwork inspired the Kurdistan museum's terr-acotta roof.
Local brickwork inspired the Kurdistan museum’s terra-cotta roof.

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 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.

Libeskind also looked to Kurdish weaving and pottery to draw the facade's geometries.
Libeskind also looked to Kurdish weaving and pottery to draw the facade’s geometries.

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.”

Editor: Brad Wieners
Images courtesy Studio Libeskind
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