It is unfortunate that, even as Americans have struggled with the form and meaning of the World Trade Center Memorial, they have mostly ignored similar efforts in other countries. Last week’s passing news interest in Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial, which was defaced by vandals, might have provided useful lessons in what to avoid.
There was a brief spell of media curiosity when Peter Eisenman’s design for the Berlin memorial was approved in 1999, and another at its completion in May 2005. The only sustained media coverage came when it was learned that the company hired to apply an anti-graffiti coating to the memorial was a subsidiary of the firm that had manufactured the Zyklon B gas used in Nazi extermination camps. But this was a political story, and few, apart from architecture critics, have addressed the serious aesthetic questions raised by the memorial.
In fact, Eisenman has made a design that is peculiarly resistant to criticism. His memorial consists of 2,711 gray concrete pillars, closely spaced on a pitiless grid, and relieved only by the fluctuating heights of the pillars. Making my way through the geometric labyrinth on a recent visit, I experienced it in mortuary terms, as an abstract city of the dead. To criticize this funereal solemnity would seem disrespectful, like criticizing a cemetery for being a cemetery, and yet it must be asked if an allegory of symbolic tombstones was called for.
Eisenman achieved celebrity in the 1980’s as a champion of Deconstructivism, the architectural offshoot of the literary theory known as Deconstruction. Just as Deconstruction dismisses claims of truth and order as instruments for enforcing political power or social order, Deconstructivist architecture rejects all formal resolution. Buildings are designed to be open-ended, fragmentary, even absurd—as in Eisenman’s Wexner Center in Columbus, Ohio, with its celebrated flight of stairs that leads to a dead end. Such an architecture is intellectually equipped to depict the Holocaust as an expression of the meaninglessness of the universe, but it is scarcely able to assert anything higher. Such is the fundamental vacuity of the Berlin memorial.
Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial has shown that remembrance of the dead has both private and civic dimensions—both of which can be accommodated in a single design. Its wall and incised names provide a focus of private grief while its sunken plaza acts as a public gathering place. Eisenman’s claustrophobic memorial, by contrast, is organized so that the narrow paths between the pillars permit only one visitor to squeeze through at a time; the experience must therefore be solitary. With no generous public space, no place for communal experience, the memorial enforces a kind of existential isolation.
It does this with ruthless efficiency to be sure—overwhelming the visitor by its scale, monotony, and harsh industrial textures—but it sets it sights on nothing higher than inducing the thrill of a vicarious anguish. It recalls what the sociologist Nathan Glazer said in another context: “He is attacking the awful by increasing the awfulness.”