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Architects chosen to design Cologne Jewish Museum on site of ancient synagogue
by Samuel D. Gruber
Another Jewish Museum is planned for Europe, this time in the ancient city of Cologne, the site of the oldest physical remains of a Jewish community in Germany.  The new museum project, which has been discussed for some time, received an official launch on June 13th when the prominent and critically acclaimed German architectural firm of Wandel Hoefer Lorch + Hirsch was chosen winner of an international competition for the museum design.  Among the firm's many projects are the recently completed (2007) Jewish Museum and synagogue in Munich. The decision is not yet final, the town senate will decide in August. There remain many concerns about the financing of the project.

The impetus for the museum comes from new excavations of the Jewish quarter of Cologne, right around and underneath the town hall, as well as a dramatic increase in the city's Jewish population which has tripled in the past 15 years.  Inter-city rivalry certainly plays a factor.  There are now major Jewish museums in many German cities (Munich, Frankfort, Berlin) and smaller Jewish monuments and galleries in scores of other German localities.

The museum is expected to open in 2010 or soon thereafter.  The planning, design and construction will take place contemporaneously with the extensive and important archaeological excavations now in progress on the site of Cologne's ancient and medieval synagogue, and its extensive medieval Jewish quarter.  The museum, a private-public partnership, will be erected over the site of the old synagogue, the remains of which will be visible from the museum, but will be administered separately as part of the extensive archeology preserve in the area, already one of the largest accessible underground archaeological museums in Europe.  Next door is the medieval mikveh, which has been partially visible to tourists for decades beneath a glass pyramid.  Archaeologists and historians are concerned that the construction of the new museum should not disrupt the excavation or destroy the ancient remains.

In recent years city archaeologist Sven Scheutte has been investigating the synagogue and adjacent areas, which were first excavated in the 1950s in the wake of the destruction of the area as the result of World War II allied bombing.  Those excavations, by Otto Doppelfield, were hurried due to the demands of reconstruction, but still they revealed four distinct phases of synagogue building, the earliest of which Doppelfield dated to the 11th century.  Scheutte has determined that the synagogue originated in antiquity, and the mikveh dates at least from the early Carolingian period, since its masonry shows distinctive cracks from an earthquake, probably of 789.  It is hoped that extensive new excavations begun in the fall of 2007 will determine the early phases of the synagogue, and whether it was continuously used from the 4th century C.E. following, or whether there was a break.  In either case, it is clear that the museum project will link Germany's oldest Jewish building with its newest.        

Wandel Hoefer Lorch + Hirsch designed several important Jewish buildings and monuments in Germany in recent years, often as the result of competitions. Among the best known projects are the synagogues in Dresden and Munich, and the Holocaust monument at the Grünwald Train station in Berlin, which commemorates the deportation
of thousands of Jews to concentration and death camps; and the monument at the former prison and concentration camp at Hinzert (near Saarbrücken). All of the firms are site specific.  Some, like Grünwald, are modest and intimate, others like Munich are monumental. The Cologne project would be one of the most complex – since it must integrate many layers of history, and also serve as an important urban link in the heart of city.

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