It is hard to design a memorial, let alone a Holocaust museum. There are a handful of firms equipped to handle the demands of the institution, the local community, the municipality, and those who are to be honored, let alone the style du jour of memorial-building.
Take, for example, the opening of the Los Angeles Holocaust Museum this week. Reviewing the museum in the Forward, Gavriel Rosenfeld discusses how the building, literally underground and conforming, mostly, to the terrain of Pan Pacific Park, is itself a metaphor for Holocaust remembrance. He writes:
It is hard not to conclude that the building’s underground location also has deeper significance. In one sense, the building’s self-effacing character might be seen as reflecting an assimilationist reflex on the part of L.A.’s Jewish community. After all, some of the city’s most important Jewish institutions, such as the Museum of Tolerance and the Skirball Cultural Center (designed by Moshe Safdie in the years 1986 to 1995), have strived not to appear architecturally Jewish in any way, a strategy that echoes their universalistic mission of reaching out to non-Jewish audiences.
As Rosenfeld notes, other museums have shied away from architectural elements that are distinctly Jewish. What he is referring to are direct references to Holocaust imagery such as smoke stacks and barbed wire. Some designs are not so literal but are nonetheless specific. The Houston Holocaust Museum design includes six steel poles, stand-ins for the 6 million murdered Jews.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum does not include such literalist elements but is designed to create an experience. James Ingo Freed, the architect for this building, writes, “There are no literal references to particular places or occurrences from the historic event. Instead, the architectural form is open-ended so the Museum becomes a resonator of memory.”
Freed wants the visitor to experience the museum building viscerally. Just as the Holocaust defies understanding, so, too, should the building, which is meant not to be understood but rather felt.
Such experience-as-metaphor is the sin qua non of contemporary memorial design. The as-yet-to-be-built 9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero exhibits many of the same tropes as the LAHM. Michael Arad and Peter Walker, the creators of the winning design, describe viewers’ experience of Reflecting Absence:
Bordering each pool is a pair of ramps that lead down to the memorial spaces. Descending into the memorial, visitors are removed from the sights and sounds of the city and immersed in a cool darkness. As they proceed, the sound of water falling grows louder, and more daylight filters in from below. At the bottom of their descent, they find themselves behind a thin curtain of water, staring out at an enormous pool. Surrounding this pool is a continuous ribbon of names. The enormity of this space and the multitude of names that form this endless ribbon underscore the vast scope of the destruction. Standing there at the water’s edge, looking at a pool of water that is flowing away into an abyss, a visitor to the site can sense that what is beyond this curtain of water and ribbon of names is inaccessible.
These contemporary designs wish to evoke an experience. Certain motifs prevail, such as a descent into the ground, a list of individual names, familiar yet distant forms — all of which are intended to “move” the viewer to contemplate the inaccessibility of horrific tragedy.
These motifs are not new. Take for example this description of perhaps the first such “non-monument”:
A corner submerged into the earth, the work is welcoming in its open-ended, book-like form, and yet disconcerting to those who realize that to read the names is to stand below the horizon — six feet under — conversing in the space of the dead. The work is outspoken and angry in the way in which it functions as a visual scar on the American landscape, cutting aggressively into the Washington Mall, and yet is dignified for the way in which it carves out a space for a public display of grief and pain. These emotions, necessary to the healing process, have a place in Lin’s work and are as natural as the cycles of the earth.
This describes the Vietnam Memorial designed by Maya Lin on the Washington Mall in Washington, D.C. This monument makes it clear that passage underground is a metaphor for death. One feels an uneasiness while reading the names of each soldier. Her monument does indeed reflect “grief and pain” and is to be understood not only as a memorial to those who sacrificed their lives but also to the ambivalence and anger at the country that sent them to war.
But should ambivalence be what visitors experience toward the Holocaust or 9/11? The architectural motif of descent into the ground does not carry the same complexity as it does for the Vietnam Memorial, nor should it. But if we accept the interpretation offered by the LAHM architect, Hagy Belzberg, not only are these monuments invisible, they celebrate that invisibility by communicating a dubious contradiction:
He noted that embedding LAMH into the natural environment of a public park represented a commentary on how the Holocaust transpired in the midst of ordinary German life. Citing Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, in Berlin, whose location in the heart of the busy metropolis lends itself to such prosaic activities “as picnicking and playing Frisbee,” Belzberg observed that the daily occurrence of these same activities near LAMH would symbolically underscore the chilling fact that during the Holocaust, “people knowingly or unknowingly went on with their lives while extraordinary events were taking place.” Given this claim, the museum’s relative inconspicuousness as architecture does not so much hide as illuminate one of the more disturbing facts of the Holocaust: the coexistence of atrocity and normalcy.
Rosenfeld and Belzberg are exactly correct; the horror of the Holocaust is heightened when one considers German complicity and daily life. And life goes on for us. We picnic and play frisbee and visit parks on our day off. But when even our monuments dedicated to the memory of atrocity forget the victims, surely everyone else will too.