How can we best honor the victims of the most unimaginable suffering? To conceive architecture befitting such a magnitude of horror and loss a crisis inflicts, surely, seems impossible. Therefore, an architect’s approach to memorial design is generally aimed at a high degree of sensitivity towards context in order to capture the essence of who the memorial honors. Often respecting the sacred quality of the overall site and space in which the crisis occurred helps with telling the story to the visitors. This can encourage contemplation and quiet visitation. It can, also, create natural pauses for reflection. In order to educate and engage visitors for future generations, a memorial should hold the ability to evolve over time. When architecture pales in insignificance compared to the purpose for which it is built, then the memorial design can be marked successful.
Architect Daniel Libeskind, son of Polish Jews and Holocaust survivors, has asserted himself as the starchitect of memorial designs. His efforts in commemorating the holocaust worldwide are unmatched. His approach to communicating the grief and pain is quite unique. “If you forget your memory, have a trauma and you repress it, it’s going to come to haunt you. It’s going to do something to you, something bad, something violent at some point,” said Libeskind once in a discussion about ‘memory’. “It’s important not to repress the trauma, it’s important to express it and sometimes the building is not something comforting.” He added, “Why should it be comforting? You know, we shouldn’t be comfortable in this world. I mean seeing what’s going around.” Accordingly, the Polish-American architect designs his memorials to convey the “trauma” of a tragedy and make it into something tangible. These five memorials of the Holocaust best demonstrate his extraordinary style:
1.Jewish Museum in Berlin, Germany
Libeskind’s proposal for the expansion of the museum, which has been there since 1933 but inactive since 1938 by Nazi orders, became a reality in 1999, and it opened in 2001. The zig-zag annex tells the story of Jewish suffering during WWII, translating different stages of the holocaust horrors into an architectural journey through a bold monument of history. The cold concrete walls, the irregular and narrow paths, the dead ends, and the windowless spaces, all contribute to the horrific yet realistic experience. The popularity of this museum opened the door for Libeskind Studio to be commissioned with many similar projects.
2.Jewish Museum in Copenhagen, Denmark
The museum in Copenhagen opened in 2004. It is quartered inside a 17th-century boathouse and library. So, Libeskind maintained the historical exterior while transforming the interior into an expressive space, divided into 5 parts based on Jewish culture: Exodus, Wilderness, The Giving of the Law, The Promised Land, and Mitzvah. This museum is different from the rest of Libeskind’s memorials because the Danish Jews were, actually, saved from the Nazis by the efforts of their fellow countrymen. This act of kindness ‘mitzvah’ is the foundation of the design concept for the museum.
3. Ohio Statehouse Holocaust Memorial, USA
This is not a building but a 96m2 outdoor memorial in Colombus, Ohio. It is meant to commemorate the Holocaust victims and the American soldiers who saved the survivors from the concentration camps. The memorial is comprised of two bronze panels, irregular on the inside till the center where they form, together, the void shape of a six-pointed star. The story of the Holocaust as told by a survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp can be seen inscribed on the panels.
4. The National Holocaust Monument in Ottawa, Canada
The project is under construction but expected to be finished this year, 2017. It is built to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust and the Canadian survivors. The architect has named his design the “Landscape of Loss, Memory, and Survival.” This “Landscape” takes the abstracted form of the six-pointed star of David, which Libeskind perceives as the “visual symbol of Holocaust;” The symbol that was used to identify Jews as targets for extermination. The triangular concrete volumes of the star represent “the badges the Nazi’s and their collaborators used to label homosexuals, Roma-Sinti, Jehovah’s Witnesses and political and religious prisoners for murder,” as explained by Studio Libeskind.
‘’Through transformative power of architecture, this monument will become an important place for memory, remembrance and the celebration of the resilience of the human spirit.” Daniel Libeskind.
5. Names Monument in Amsterdam, Netherlands
The memorial to those murdered by the Nazis, from the Roma and Sinti residents of Netherlands, is composed of four volumes the form the Hebrew word לזכר, which means ‘In Memory of’. Its path is guided by the names of 102,000 victims, inscribed on red bricks of the same number, in addition to 1000 blank bricks for the unknown victims. The bricks are topped with mirror-like stainless steel, shaping the memorial’s four volumes.
The wall, also, represents the Dutch history, where the conventional bricks and the sharp-edged reflective steel depict the past and present. Both are interrupted by a narrow gap; “This suspended emptiness, or ‘Breath of Air’, detaches the neighborhood from a future in which Dutch-Jewish families went missing,” as described by Studio Libeskind.
In all the memorial designs explored, the importance of storytelling through architecture for emotional engagement is dominant. An atmosphere is created in which not only a story can be shared, but inspiration and hope discovered.
“It’s about how to bring together the seemingly contradictory aspects of the memorial, which is about a tragedy and how it changed the world, but also about creating a vital and beautiful city of the 21st century.” Daniel Libeskind.
This occurs concurrently with the translation of the issues of our past or the recognition of the importance of lives and deeds of individuals or groups of people. The use of sensory elements in memorial design and construction can provide a powerful, almost spiritual experience for all those who visit. Utilizing architecture as a focus for public commemoration and private contemplation is key to keeping a memory alive.
By Sushant Verma, Lucy Cassels, Boris Timev – Edited by Yosra M. Ahmed