Time to go back to the drawing board
LET’S SAY you were an architect and wanted to win the competition to design a Holocaust memorial in London. The brief calls for two main elements: a monument above ground and a learning centre below. What are the minimum criteria you have to satisfy?
Meeting the specifications is a technicality; what matters most is that the memorial has lasting impact, and the crucial question here is where the design should lie on a spectrum ranging from symbolism to literalism. Both approaches have attractions. At its most literal, the monument might reconstruct part of a concentration camp; the gates of Auschwitz, perhaps; the railway lines; the sleeping quarters; the ovens.
Such a solution would certainly be more legible than a symbolic design —and legibility is vital — but only a brave selection committee would dare demand such unvarnished realism. Inevitably, there would be complaints — from those who found such literalism too raw and those who found it too banal, in the way that the Kindertransport statue at London’s Liverpool Street station — a group of bewildered but also Jewish-looking children — is banal. Literalism is tricky, as we know from Disneyland, but it’s an option that ought to be on the table.
The alternative is symbolism — preferred by design professionals but always a contest between artiness and laziness. Daniel Libes- Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin kind, for example, became famous for his Jewish Museum in Berlin, with its sloping floors and walls. At the time, Libeskind seemed to be recreating in abstract the nightmare of a world turned upside down. Unfortunately, he went on to repeat many of the same gestures in buildings unassociated with political horror. His Interior and exterior of the design from Zaha Hadid’s studio building for London Metropolitan University on the Holloway Road is a case in point.
Somewhere between literalism and symbolism lies another Berlin monument, Peter Eisenman’s Holocaust Memorial, across from the Bundestag. Eisenman’s design, an undulating grid of tomb-like stone blocks, is also an abstraction, but based on cemeteries in general and the Mount of Olives in particular. It’s legible as a memorial to the dead, therefore, (good) but not specifically referencing the Holocaust (bad).
In January 2016, David Cameron committed the government to establishing a Holocaust memorial in the Thames-side gardens next to the House of Lords. An advisory body was established —the UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation — under the Department of Communities and Local Government, an architectural competition was set up, and a 12-person jury of the Great and the Good assembled, including Chief Rabbi Mirvis, Lord Finkelstein, and Mayor Sadiq Kahn.
The competition elicited 92 entries from 26 countries. A shortlist of 10 was selected, and made known and put on public exhibition in late February.
The UKHMF wants the process to go smoothly and bring credit to the country but there are already obvious flaws. It wasn’t the jury that put together the shortlist; this was done out of sight by un-named experts. In fact, the jury will meet only once, in May, to rubber-stamp one of the schemes it has been spoon-fed. It won’t be able to see the entries that were not shortlisted, won’t be able to vote for “None of the Above” and won’t be able to call for the competition to be re-run. The public is similarly hamstrung. We can’t see the other 82 schemes, don’t know why they were excluded, and can’t call the process into question.
There is no obvious winner in the 10. Some of the learning centres are neutral spaces that leave the exhibits to convey their message; others are more atmospheric. Both approaches are valid. More important is what the schemes communicate above There is no obvious winner in the list of ten designs ground and here, only one comes close: that by the studio of the late Zaha Hadid. Hadid has a grove of trees and a huge meteorite — a bolt from the blue? — that pierces the ground and hangs heavily above the heads of those below. It certainly has a presence but doesn’t say anything about the Holocaust.
The designers argue that meteors and groves have profound meaning in Jewish tradition. They don’t. But so what if they did?
So the organisers need to start again. They need to show us the other 82 schemes or re-run the competition to find at least one design that, if it has to be symbolic rather than literal, says something specific about the Holocaust. It might illustrate what six million looks like, or name each of the dead one by one, or recall the electric fencing, barbed wire and watchtowers, or have the effect of dehumanising everyone who visits it, or picture politicians of the 1940s sitting on their hands. Whatever it is, it has to say something. These 10 say nothing.
Stephen Games is a designer and architectural historian