Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
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Published: Mon, 30 Apr 2018
Throughout history, nations have sought to exhibit social memory of their past achievements whilst conversely erasing the memory of transgressions committed during their development. These nostalgic reflections of historic events have been both literally and figuratively portrayed in didactic monuments, which carefully edify the events into clear depictions of state victory and triumph.
However, shifts in the discourse of twentieth-century politics have given rise to the voice of the victim within these stories. The traditional nation-state is now answerable to an international community rather than itself; a community that acknowledges the importance of human rights and upholds moral conditions. These states continue to construct an identity both in the past and present, but are expected to acknowledge their own exclusions and accept culpability for their previous victimisations.
In this new climate the traditional memorial does not become obsolete, but instead evolves beyond a celebratory monument, increasingly referencing the state’s transgressions and role as perpetrator. This progressive switch in attitude has given birth to a new form of memorial: the anti-monument. These contemporary memorials abandon figurative forms in preference of abstraction. This medium facilitates a dialogical relationship between viewer and subject whilst also promoting ambivalence. Critically, this new typology allows the narrative of the victim and perpetrator to intertwine into a single united form, a so-called move towards political restitution.
This essay analyses the tradition and characteristics of historic monuments and the post-industrial development of the anti-monument. The essay studies and questions abstraction as the chosen vehicle of the anti-monument, using Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe as a case-study. I argue that despite its achievement as a piece public art, fundamentally, it fails to perform its function of commemoration through its abstracted, ambiguous form.
Traditional monuments use figurative imagery to form an intuitive connection to the viewer. They use language and iconography to present the onlooker with the state’s idealised perception of a significant event in history. Throughout time, these monuments have often outlasted the civilizations or political regimes who constructed them and as a result their unchallenged specific narrative becomes definitive; all memory of an alternative narrative is lost with the passing of witnesses who could recall the actual events. This has the negative consequence of alleviating the present-day visitor of responsibility for the past and fails to accommodate the constantly changing and varied perspective of the viewer. In this respect, the permanence of the traditional monument presents an unchallengeable story which becomes an active presence to the visitor, who is always the receptive element.
However, events of the twentieth century such as the atomic blast at Hiroshima and the atrocity of the Holocaust altered commemorate practice. Memorials were no longer militaristic and celebratory but instead acknowledged the crimes of the state against civilians. Designers were faced with the innumerable challenge of memorialising ‘the most quintessential example of man’s inhumanity to man – the Holocaust.’ An event so catastrophic it prevented any attempt to singularly record the individual victim. The new typology that emerged would later be defined as the antimonument.
The anti-monument aimed to dispel previous memorial convention by favoring a dialogical form over the traditional didactic monument. This new memorial typology avoided literal representation through figurative expression and written word in favor of abstraction. This move toward the abstract enabled the viewer to now become the active element and the monument to become the receptive element; a role-reversal that allowed the visitor to bring their own interpretation to the memorial. James E Young commented that the aim of these memorials:
“…is not to console but to provoke; not to remain fixed but to change; not to be everlasting but to disappear; not to be ignored by passersby but to demand interaction; not to remain pristine but to invite its own violation and desanctification; not to accept graciously the burden of memory but to throw it back at the town’s feet.”
In this way, James E Young suggests that the anti-monument acts receptively to history, time and memory. He also states:
“Given the inevitable variety of competing memories, we may never actually share a common memory at these sites but only the common place of memory, where each of us is invited to remember in our own way.”
The anti-monument facilitates the ongoing activity of memory and allows the visitor to respond to the current sufferings of today in light of a remembered past. It is this point that fundamentally determines the important and necessary dialogical character of all modern Holocaust memorials.
Consequently, in 1999 the Federal Republic of Germany passed a resolution to erect a memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe. This memorial intended to ‘honour the murdered victims’ and ‘keep alive the memory of these inconceivable events in German history.’ An open competition selected American, Peter Eisenman as the winning architect, who proposed an expansive field of 2,711 stelae and ‘the Ort’, a supplementary information centre. The memorial is not only significant for its purposes of remembrance, but also represents the first national monument to the Holocaust to be constructed with financial and political support from the German Federal State.
The location of the memorial itself is considered arbitrary by some, as the site has no previous connotation with the Holocaust or Nazism, but instead was a former no-mans land in the death strip of the Berlin Wall. Whilst the commemorative power of this location may be questioned, the significance of its placement lies within its integration into Berlin’s urban realm. The edge condition of the memorial presents a natural transition between the stelae and the pavement. The ground plane and first stelae sit flush to each other before gradually rising and recessing into two separate data that create a zone of uncertainty between. The memorial does not acknowledge the specificity of the site and the lack of central focus intends to reflect the ambient nature of victims and perpetrators in the city of Berlin.
Within the stelae each visitor senses the memory of the victims somatically by experiencing feelings of claustrophobia, uneasiness and disorientation within the narrow walkways and scale of the monument. It was not Peter Eisenman’s intention to emulate the restrictive condition of a death camp, but instead, to encourage the personal reflection of the individual in their role of carrying memory in the present.
“In this monument there is no goal, no end, no working one’s way in or out. The duration of an individual’s experience of it grants no further understanding, since understanding is impossible. The time of the monument, its duration from top surface to ground, is disjoined from the time of experience. In this context, there is no nostalgia, no memory of the past, only the living memory of the individual experience. Here, we can only know the past through its manifestation in the present.”
In this sense, each visitor is invited to experience the absence created by the Holocaust and in turn, each feels and fills such a void. It cannot be argued that this corporeal engagement with absence is not potent; however, in most instances the feeling becomes ephemeral. Each visitor walks precariously around the memorial, pausing for thought and anticipating the next corner. They are forced to change pace and direction unwillingly and face the constant threat of collision at every turn and intersection of the towering stelae. It is this condition, in my opinion, that instills the feeling of threat and uneasiness into most visitors as opposed to the perceived connection between themselves and the victims.
The memorial does not dedicate any space for gatherings of people and hence inhibits any ceremonial use in the act of memory. The collection of stelae is reminiscent of the cemeteries of Jewish ghettos in Europe where due to space constraints; tombstones are piled high and crowded together at different angles. Some visitors treat the memorial as a cemetery, walking slowly and silently, before stopping and layering flowers or candles at the side of a stele. The presence of these somber mourners and their objects of remembrance are one of the only indicators that clearly identify the stelae field as a memorial. However, the objects discarded at the memorial are always removed by the staff, suggesting the monument be experienced in its intended form; a relationship more akin to public art rather than that of a memorial.
In Eisenman’s opinion, the memorial is emblematic of a seemingly rigid and understandable system of law and order that mutates into something much more profane. The visitor experiences this first-hand when feeling lost and disorientated in the environment they once perceived as rational and negotiable from the outside.
“The project manifests the instability inherent in what seems to be a system, here a rational grid, and its potential for dissolution in time. It suggests that when a supposedly rational and ordered system grows too large and out of proportion to its intended purpose, it in fact loses touch with human reason. It then begins to reveal the innate disturbances and potential for chaos in all systems of seeming order, the idea that all closed systems of a closed order are bound to fail.”
Through abstraction, the memorial attempts to acknowledge both the victims and perpetrators in a single, integrated form. The regular grid of the memorial and its deceptive portrayal of rationality acknowledge the perpetrators of the crime: the Nazi Third Reich. Whilst viewed from afar, the stelae resemble tombstones in a cemetery, granting the victims a marker for their life, a marker previously denied to them by a Nazi regime who aimed to erase all memory of their existence.
Eisenman’s memorial is concerned with how the past is manifested in the present. His interest lies not with the murdered Jews the memorial aims to commemorate, but instead, how the present-day visitor can relate to those victims. In this respect, the memorial permits remembrance displaced from the memory of the holocaust itself. Eisenman wrote:
“The memory of the Holocaust can never be one of nostalgia. … The Holocaust cannot be remembered in the nostalgic mode, as its horror forever ruptured the link between nostalgia and memory. The monument attempts to present a new idea of memory as distinct from nostalgia.”
The field of stelae does not present a nostalgic recollection of Jewish life before the holocaust; neither does it attempt to encapsulate the events of the genocide. Instead, the memorial connects with the visitor through a corporeal engagement that facilitates an individual response to memory.
The stelae have the effect of creating a ghostly ambience as the sounds of the surrounding streets and city are deadened, exaggerating the visitor’s discomfort. However, the ambience is disturbed by the shouting, laughter and conversation of visitors lost in the stelae looking for one another. In marked contrast, the subterranean information centre has the effect of silencing its inhabitants. The exhibition provides a literal representation of the atrocities of the holocaust, didactically displaying the clothing, letters and personal belongings of a handful of victims. Eisenman originally rejected the inclusion of a place of information so that the stelae field would become the exclusive and definitive experience. However, his competition win was conditional upon its inclusion.
It is my opinion that ‘The Ort’ or information centre has become the significant place of memory and commemoration despite being simultaneously downplayed by the architect and German state. The small building is located underground and accessed via a narrow staircase amongst the stelae. As with the memorial as a whole, there is no acknowledgement of its existence or function, and as a result must be discovered through wandering. It performs commemoration far more successfully than the stelae field by generating an emotional response from the visitor. In the exhibition, the distress of the visitor is apparent as they walk around solemnly, the reality of the holocaust becoming perceptible. The acoustic presence of crying and sobbing are far removed from the laughter and shouting in the stelae above. The exhibition features spaces where the biographies of victims are made audible, explaining the sequence of events that led to their deaths. In these rooms the smallest details of the victim’s forgotten lives are told in a sonorous voice which immediately gives substance to the individual and collective loss. The visitor’s trauma is perceptible here as the inconceivable statistics are not portrayed as abstract representations, but instead are literal and personified. It is the only section of the memorial where the holocaust is explicitly present; where visitors are not removed from the horrors but instead confronted with them.
At street level, the memorial has no signs or indicators to its purpose and the stelae present no carving or inscription. The abstract nature of the stelae and site as a whole have the affect of making the memorial a relaxed and convenient place to be. The monument has transcended the theory that memorials command respect by their mere existence, with the site becoming a part of everyday life for Berliners as a place of leisure. Many stumble on the memorial as an empty maze, a children’s playground where people walk across the stelae, jumping from one to another. They are faced with conflicting emotions between an instinct to show respect and a desire to satisfy a spontaneous need to play. The memorial’s ambition is to enable every visitor to reach their own conclusion and ascertain an individual experience, which through abstraction it achieves. However, by the same means, it facilitates a detachment between the individual and the memorial’s primary function of commemoration. The theoretical narrative of the stelae field is an extremely complex and powerful idea, however the ambiguous, abstracted design fails to allow the visitor to truly relate to the victims or gain an understanding of the atrocities of the holocaust. Therefore, whilst experienced in its singularity, the abstract stelae field fails to commemorate, instead being dependant on the didactic approach of the information centre to allow the visitor to relate to the holocaust and its victims.
When appraising the entries for the original competition Stephen Greenblatt wrote:
“It has become increasingly apparent that no design for a Berlin memorial to remember the millions of Jews killed by Nazis in the Holocaust will ever prove adequate to the immense symbolic weight it must carry, as numerous designs have been considered and discarded. Perhaps the best course at this point would be to leave the site of the proposed memorial at the heart of Berlin and of Germany empty…”
Perhaps this approach would have ultimately become more pertinent. How does one design a monument in memory of an event so inconceivable that in some way doesn’t have the adverse affect of making it more palatable? Perhaps, as Archigram often insisted, the solution may not be a building. The absence of a memorial delegates the responsibility of commemoration to the individual who as bearers of memory, come to symbolise the absent monument.
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is an intriguing and unique perspective on cognitive memory that undoubtedly has advanced the development of the antimonument, setting a new precedent in memorial architecture. However, the memorial’s effectiveness is fundamentally undermined by the assumption that all visitors are aware, and will continue to be aware of the specific events of the holocaust. For example, how will a second or third generation’s interpretation differ from that of a survivor who visits the memorial today? Its abstracted, ambiguous form fails to contextualize the memorial without the accompaniment of explicit, literal representations presented separately within the Information Centre. It is for this reason that the memorial seemingly becomes a victim of its own impossibility.
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