After more than a decade of planning, the Museum of the History of Polish Jews has finally risen where the Warsaw Ghetto in Poland once stood. Designed by Finland’s Lahdelma & Mahlamäki Architects, this beautiful new building aims to educate, commemorate, and display Polish Jewish history from the Middle Ages to the present.
Founding director of Tel Aviv’s Diaspora Museum and the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, Yeshayahu Weinberg first convened an international meeting with the idea to devote an entire museum specifically Polish Jews back in the 1990s.
An international design competition was launched and Finland’s Lahdelma & Mahlamäki Architects beat a host of “starchitects” with their spectacular bid, including Kengo Kuma, Daniel Libeskind and David Chipperfield.
Located in the Willy Brandt Park that is in turn surrounded by residential buildings, the museum is clad in green-tinged, double laminated glass panels and pre-treated perforated copper panels. Curvy, free-form concrete walls hug a large light-filled main hall that comprises the most important feature of this design.
Well-lit and ventilated, the building maintains a peaceful, reflective environment – quite similar to the underground Mosque in Turkey that recently created quite the buzz in Singapore, at the World Architecture Festival.
While the load-bearing curved walls presented an engineering challenge and mitigates the kind of sterile environment that so many museums accidentally exude, the design is deceptively simple, and helps to keep the building’s overall footprint to 4,400 square meters.
Albeit a rather significant space, a variety of functions are contained therein, including a library, restaurant, cafeteria, shop, auditorium, office space and classrooms.
Nor is the museum devoted to the Holocaust alone, though certainly that disgraceful period in human history is carefully introduced. After all, half a million Jews thrived in Warsaw prior to World War II and three million were killed throughout the holocaust.
The museum is located across from a memorial that commemorates the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943, separated by a large square. It is also, according to the designers, “the biggest uniform, geometrically double curving surface that has ever been realised.”
It is interesting to note that the design was conceived long before the current green building furor arose, and so – whilst infused with an elegant simplicity that gets straight to the business of telling the story of the Polish Jews – the museum is not particularly earth-friendly.
Nor is it absolved from adhering to the same improved energy efficiency standards as any other urban, commercial or residential structure. Nonetheless, there is no question that a great deal of respect and thought has gone into this magnificent project, which is expected to draw half a million visitors each year.