Holocaust Memorials And How To Remember By Stephen Greenberg

Four events took place in ‘real’ time during this year’s Holocaust Memorial day.  The competition entries for the now hapless David Cameron’s Holocaust Memorial in Victoria Tower Gardens were unveiled.  Simultaneously Jews were (deliberately it seems) left off the White House statements, and this on the anniversary of the St Louis when just before WW2 1000 Jews were barred from entry to the USA and sent back to Germany.  Now Muslims from seven Islamic countries were being similarly excluded.  And at the same time the victims of the St Louis were being remembered throughout the day on Twitter, in a stunning feed where family holiday snaps often of middle-class, assimilated German Jews were streamed – in a beautiful, moving and intimate memorial.

And intimacy is what differentiates the Holocaust from mass killing by carpet or firebombing. Like stalking or rape it relied on a thousand intimacies being violated by related or progressive attacks on the person:  yellow star, cramped in a boxcar, undressing, shaving, tattooing, experimenting, starving, forced voyeurism of the humiliations of loved ones, selection – the list goes on.  Which brings us to the utterly misplaced and misconceived Holocaust Memorial competition.

Firstly let me state that I have some heft to comment on this.

Twenty years ago I won the international competition to design the Holocaust Exhibition at the Imperial War Museum, incidentally beating three of the competitors involved in the current competition.  I declined to join any team this time.  I cannot see how you can handle such a subject twice, studying that intimate material so intensely for another four years.  (And here more ironies abound.  The exhibition at the IWM is highly acclaimed.  Rowan Moore, writing in the Observer just this week, described it as ‘sober, substantial and powerful’ and questioned why we need a ‘world class learning centre’ attached to the monument when there is this one a mile down the road.  My exhibition broke new ground in museum-making – PhD’s have been written around it – but here is yet another irony:  the IWM is replacing it with a new exhibition costing £16m.)

The ten competition entries for the Holocaust Memorial can be viewed online and we the public are invited to have our say.  Each is accompanied by a two-minute video pitch.  Since we rarely get to sit on the other side of the table as architects ‘pitch’ for a job, this is a unique and revealing moment.  Moore nails it: ‘architects trying to combine their usual sales pitch techniques with a sensitive catch in their voices’.

These should be preserved in a time capsule at the British Architecture Library.  They reveal much about what makes architects tick but more pointedly, the limits of architecture to memorialise.

The problem is bad metaphors:  from prayer shawls to meteors suspended over our heads to pink and yellow triangles in a glazed grid shell roof to the brick-walled entry to the K1 and K2 crematoria and six million pebbles that visitors can take away to reveal eventually the heart of the monument.  Every one of them is arch.

Let’s analyse a few.  I have stood for some time at the steps to K1 and tried to imagine how those victims would have felt in early 1943 if they had been told that five years later there would be a safe place for Jews called Israel – unimaginable and a disturbingly redemptive thought.  The brickwork is crude, made from seconds poorly laid by slaves. Now imagine Foster’s office writing the specifications for that brickwork – it’s a trope that simply doesn’t travel, and anyway the artwork by his collaborator Michal Rovner doesn’t need the Foster space to work.

The meteor by Anish Kapoor is a stunning piece of sculpture but let’s leave it at that – he will recycle it somewhere else.

Then there is Heneghan Peng with the most elegant and taut architectural solution.  it is simple;  it responds sensitively to the site, the park and Westminster Tower;  the triangles work because they stay within the canons of geometry and architecture; there is no taste slippage – but ultimately it lacks specificity of place and subject.  It could be a war or peace memorial anywhere.

Then we come to Danial Libeskind who grew up in post-war Lodz and whose mother, a survivor, always carries something to eat in her handbag. As one would expect his narrative is spot on, but it can’t help rehashing Libeskind. he has said all there is to say about this in the Berlin Jewish Museum, which took a decade of his life.  He cannot better it and shouldn’t; no one can.

Which brings us to the design by Caruso St John and Rachel Whiteread.  She has form in this area with her remarkable monument in Vienna, the cast of a Library.  Their scheme sites the project in the Park where there are already three memorials:  the gothic revival memorial to the abolition of slavery, Rodin’s Burghers of Calais, and a memorial to Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst.  Whiteread makes a glass cast of the gothic revival memorial, providing light to a space below that has audio testimony to the survivors emanating from apertures in the walls.  These are lined in what is almost posh sheet piling.  And that’s it.

It is the only entry that passes the Seamus Heaney test – can it transcend the canon of architecture into the canon of poetry?  It works because the designers get that the Holocaust is like the dark web, we know it’s there but for the most part we just glimpse it. We could have been bystanders on the westbound platform at Westminster station and seen a Jewish family wearing yellow stars, carrying suitcases with their names painted on them, waiting for an eastbound train to Liverpool Street from where they would have been deported to Felixstowe and on to Silesia leaving the absence that Libeskind captures in Berlin.  The cast of the monument is ambiguous.  We are not sure it is a monument.  It challenges the banal (in Hannah Arendt’s sense) acceptance of a 19th century park, lurking beneath which is the absence.

Sometimes metaphors don’t work. They are too contrived, whilst abstraction is an evasion. What works is something that interacts with the visitor physical, emotionally and viscerally, that in turn makes them feel victim, perpetrator and bystanders.  Libeskind does that in Berlin.  Caruso and Whiteread do that here.