The symbolism of the circle, which plays a central role in the Jewish tradition, will become part of Brno’s city centre in a few years. The existing parking lot between the bus station and the main train station will be replaced by the Mehrin Moravian Jewish Museum, designed by the world-renowned Japanese architect Kengo Kuma.
In the 19th century, Brno was nicknamed “Moravian Manchester” thanks to its textile industry, which literally flooded the world with goods. Much of this success is owed to Brno’s Jewish community. Weavers of Jewish origin from rural areas, who were not allowed to do business inside the city until the industrial revolution, seized the opportunity with the abolition of the discriminatory law, and the names Löw-Beer, Gomperzl and Popper became synonyms for incredible development of the textile industry.
However, World War II put an end to the tradition of Judaism, which was actively developed in Brno by entrepreneurs as well as artists, diplomats, musicians and writers. It is the mission of the Mehrin Museum to revive this tradition and commemorate the legacy of the thousands of families and personalities who helped to create the atmosphere of pre-war Brno. Only last year, a dignified location was found for the museum, and an international competition yielded the name of the architect: Kengo Kuma.
The sixty-nine-year-old Japanese architect, whose work, beside his home country, can be found in many other countries including Italy, Switzerland and Denmark, places an emphasis on harmony, and his favourite material is wood. This is the result, perhaps, of a childhood spent in a small wooden house which was a typical example of the Japanese building style at the turn of the 20th century. In addition, Kuma is convinced that the changing environment does not need more air-conditioned concrete buildings.
And, with his typical sensitivity, he has adopted a similar approach to the symbolism and context of the future Mehrin Museum, which he skilfully opens up and connects with its surroundings. Which, by the way, is one of the reasons why the jury, led by architect Josef Pleskot, selected Kuma’s design proposal over three others: the Dutch studio MVRDV, Danish Bjarke Ingels Group, and Italian Cino Zucchi.
Life as a cycle
Kengo Kuma’s idea didn’t appear out of thin air. The architect visited Brno twenty years earlier and remembered, above all, the human scale of the city centre and the intimacy of the streets. “These are the qualities that I wanted to preserve when I was designing Mehrin. I mostly see museums as integral parts of cities, and it was very important for the new museum to add to this intimacy, so typical of streets in Brno’s centre,” the Japanese architect explained for the Premium Brno magazine.
His design features two essential symbols: the spiral (or circle) and the tree of life, both of which have a deep meaning in the Jewish tradition. The circle suggests an understanding of life as a cycle, which, by the way, is reflected in the specific manner in which Torah scrolls are read. Circular movement around a central point symbolises the reunion of two previously separated elements, which is reflected in the Mehrin design in the form of a “ribbon” wrapping around the building from the street level all the way to the observation deck.
This also has an explanation. According to the sacred texts, the people of Israel went around the walls of Jericho seven times before breaking down the defensive walls and conquering the city. Since then, this circular movement has been part of important celebrations in the Jewish tradition. At a wedding, for example, the groom moves in circles around his bride to remove any walls or barriers between them.
“It seemed logical to include this circular or spiralling movement around the tree of life in the design of Mehrin, in order to symbolically direct the visitors upwards, towards the sky. By doing this, I am trying to symbolically tear down the walls that the tragedy of the Holocaust built in the Jewish community – between the present and the past, as well between the Jewish community and the city,” adds Kengo Kuma.
Also connected with the cyclical nature of life is the tree of life, symbolised by the menorah – the seven-branched candelabrum – in the Jewish tradition. In the design, this role will be played by an oak placed in the inner atrium in a quiet, secluded garden. “It is a surprisingly calm space considering the location of the building,” points out Štěpánka Endrle, landscape architect and founder of the L&SCAPE studio, which is in charge of the outdoor spaces.
“We use paving, laid in an irregular and disorderly manner, to symbolise the number of directions in which the Jews left or were forced to leave. The atrium is dominated by an oak tree symbolising longevity and the connection of the past and the future. We also designed a circular water feature for the atrium – a mikveh – as a symbol of infinity,” she adds.
Connecting with the world
The outdoor part of the ground floor designed by L&SCAPE, on the other hand, will be vibrant, lively and inclusive. “We don’t want a closed diaspora, we want to be very inclusive for everyone regardless of faith or nationality,” she explains. After all, the very nationality of Kengo Kuma gives reason to perceive the space in such a way. And he confirms this himself: “It is not only Jews who are interested in Jewish culture, it is everyone. I want to connect it to the world. A Japanese architect presenting Jewish culture is a good example of cultural exchange,” he says.
In terms of material, he chose brick for Mehrin – in accordance with local history, but contrary to his usual style which favours wood. “We wanted to connect the building with the industrial heritage of Brno, whose textile warehouses were mainly built of brick,” he says. The white colour is intended to pay tribute to Brno’s functionalism, which was the modern architectural style before the Second World War and is still preserved in some of Brno’s buildings.
It remains to be seen whether the project will proceed with similar ease in subsequent phases. Although, according to Štěpánka Endrle, her studio had to deal with a very exposed place, challenging in terms of traffic and morphology, already during the initial design stage, real limitations will come up in the next stages of the project, when the architects start working on a detailed architectural study. Then the project documentation phase will follow, and the project could be ready for implementation in three or four years, according to an earlier statement by the contracting authority.
Text: Andrea Votrubová for Premium Brno magazine 1/23