Time to go back to the draw­ing board

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - DE­SIGN STEPHEN GAMES

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


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