The podcast About Buildings & Cities has recently done a two-part broadcast on W.G. Sebald’s final work of prose fiction, Austerlitz. You can track down episode numbers 77 & 78 through the website here.
Sebald’s novel is a natural for this podcast since Jacques Austerlitz is an architectural historian and a number of architectural spaces figure prominently in the book’s story, including London’s Liverpool Street Station, the Palace of Justice (Brussels), and the Bibliothèque Nationale (Paris). The podcast’s hosts, Luke Jones and George Gingell, read from Sebald’s book, give an overview of the plot, and discuss some of the key themes, including the kindertransport, the uses of photography in the novel, and, of course, some of the buildings referred to in Austerlitz. The two have a terrific conversation about the way in which Sebald continually hints at the Holocaust in Austerlitz, without quite discussing it overtly, and they ask if Sebald might have been too coy at times. Did Sebald see the Holocaust as a single aberrant event or part of a long-standing pattern of imperial genocides in Western history?
A long-time reader of Vertigo turned me on to the About Cities & Buildings podcast and now I’m a dedicated fan. Earlier episodes include subjects such as the filmmaker Patrick Keiller, New York’s Robert Moses, urbanist Jane Jacobs, and a four-part series on architect Zaha Hadid. Take a listen.
Studio Daniel Libeskind – Military History Museum, Dresden
The February 1, 2010 issue of The New Yorker contains an article by George Packer about the Allied fire-bombing of Dresden on February 13, 1945, the topic of W.G. Sebald’s lectures in On the Natural History of Destruction. The New Yorker online has a summary of the article and a short slide show, but the full text of Packer’s article can only be read by subscribers or in the print edition.
Packer is interested in how the city has attempted to recuperate its self-image (was it the guilty party or the victim?) through its still-ongoing reconstruction. In a reference to Tennessee William’s play A Streetcar Named Desire, he calls Dresden “the Blanche DuBois of German cities – violated, complicit in its violation, desperate to recover its innocence.”
Packer also talks with Daniel Libeskind, who is transforming the city’s Alberstadt arsenal into a Military History Museum, which, Packer says, “will surely cause outrage when it is completed.” Libeskind calls the design for the building “an interruption.” “It will be impossible for visitors to tour the traditional rooms without passing through the trapezoidal openings in Libeskind’s disorientingly angled concrete-slab walls ” – walls that soar “upward in every conceivable angle except ninety degrees.”
As Libeskind tours Packer around the construction site they reach the top floor, which, fittingly, is not level. Libeskind turns to Packer and says: “It’s like a collapse, isn’t it? You feel it in your knees – do you feel it? Maybe it’s the reflex of a body feeling that a building’s collapsing on it. You can’t be neutral in these spaces.” Sebald, it seems to me, often intervened in history so that the floors were no longer level, giving the reader the feeling that everything was on the verge of collapsing inward.