Architecture and memory
Throughout history, nations have sought to exhibit social memory of their pastachievements whilst conversely erasing the memory of transgressions committedduring their development. These nostalgic reflections of historic events have beenboth literally and figuratively portrayed in didactic monuments, which carefully edifythe events into clear depictions of state victory and triumph.
However, shifts in the discourse of twentieth-century politics have given rise to thevoice of the victim within these stories. The traditional nation-state is now answerableto an international community rather than itself; a community that acknowledges theimportance of human rights and upholds moral conditions. These states continue toconstruct an identity both in the past and present, but are expected to acknowledgetheir own exclusions and accept culpability for their previous victimisations.
In this new climate the traditional memorial does not become obsolete, but insteadevolves beyond a celebratory monument, increasingly referencing the state'stransgressions and role as perpetrator. This progressive switch in attitude has givenbirth to a new form of memorial: the anti-monument. These contemporary memorialsabandon figurative forms in preference of abstraction. This medium facilitates adialogical relationship between viewer and subject whilst also promotingambivalence. Critically, this new typology allows the narrative of the victim andperpetrator to intertwine into a single united form, a so-called move towards politicalrestitution.
This essay analyses the tradition and characteristics of historic monuments and thepost-industrial development of the anti-monument. The essay studies and questionsabstraction as the chosen vehicle of the anti-monument, using Peter Eisenman'sMemorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe as a case-study. I argue that despite itsachievement as a piece public art, fundamentally, it fails to perform its function ofcommemoration through its abstracted, ambiguous form.
Traditional monuments use figurative imagery to form an intuitive connection to theviewer. They use language and iconography to present the onlooker with the state'sidealised perception of a significant event in history. Throughout time, thesemonuments have often outlasted the civilizations or political regimes whoconstructed them and as a result their unchallenged specific narrative becomesdefinitive; all memory of an alternative narrative is lost with the passing of witnesseswho could recall the actual events. This has the negative consequence of alleviatingthe present-day visitor of responsibility for the past and fails to accommodate theconstantly changing and varied perspective of the viewer. In this respect, thepermanence of the traditional monument presents an unchallengeable story whichbecomes 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 andthe atrocity of the Holocaust altered commemorate practice. Memorials were nolonger militaristic and celebratory but instead acknowledged the crimes of the stateagainst civilians. Designers were faced with the innumerable challenge ofmemorialising 'the most quintessential example of man's inhumanity to man - theHolocaust.' An event so catastrophic it prevented any attempt to singularly record theindividual victim. The new typology that emerged would later be defined as the antimonument.
The anti-monument aimed to dispel previous memorial convention by favoring adialogical form over the traditional didactic monument. This new memorial typologyavoided literal representation through figurative expression and written word in favorof abstraction. This move toward the abstract enabled the viewer to now become theactive element and the monument to become the receptive element; a role-reversalthat allowed the visitor to bring their own interpretation to the memorial. James EYoung commented that the aim of these memorials:
"...is not to console but to provoke; not to remain fixed but to change; not to be everlastingbut to disappear; not to be ignored by passersby but to demand interaction; not to remainpristine but to invite its own violation and desanctification; not to accept graciously theburden 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 tohistory, time and memory. He also states:
"Given the inevitable variety of competing memories, we may never actually share acommon memory at these sites but only the common place of memory, where each of us isinvited to remember in our own way."
The anti-monument facilitates the ongoing activity of memory and allows the visitorto respond to the current sufferings of today in light of a remembered past. It is thispoint that fundamentally determines the important and necessary dialogical characterof all modern Holocaust memorials.
Consequently, in 1999 the Federal Republic of Germany passed a resolution to erect amemorial to the murdered Jews of Europe. This memorial intended to 'honour themurdered victims' and 'keep alive the memory of these inconceivable events in Germanhistory.' An open competition selected American, Peter Eisenman as the winningarchitect, who proposed an expansive field of 2,711 stelae and 'the Ort', asupplementary information centre. The memorial is not only significant for itspurposes of remembrance, but also represents the first national monument to theHolocaust to be constructed with financial and political support from the GermanFederal State.
The location of the memorial itself is considered arbitrary by some, as the site has noprevious connotation with the Holocaust or Nazism, but instead was a former no-mansland in the death strip of the Berlin Wall. Whilst the commemorative power of thislocation may be questioned, the significance of its placement lies within its integrationinto Berlin's urban realm. The edge condition of the memorial presents a naturaltransition between the stelae and the pavement. The ground plane and first stelae sitflush to each other before gradually rising and recessing into two separate data thatcreate a zone of uncertainty between. The memorial does not acknowledge thespecificity of the site and the lack of central focus intends to reflect the ambient natureof victims and perpetrators in the city of Berlin.
Within the stelae each visitor senses the memory of the victims somatically byexperiencing feelings of claustrophobia, uneasiness and disorientation within thenarrow walkways and scale of the monument. It was not Peter Eisenman's intention toemulate the restrictive condition of a death camp, but instead, to encourage thepersonal 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 ofan individual's experience of it grants no further understanding, since understanding isimpossible. The time of the monument, its duration from top surface to ground, is disjoinedfrom 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 pastthrough its manifestation in the present."
In this sense, each visitor is invited to experience the absence created by the Holocaustand in turn, each feels and fills such a void. It cannot be argued that this corporealengagement with absence is not potent; however, in most instances the feelingbecomes ephemeral. Each visitor walks precariously around the memorial, pausing forthought and anticipating the next corner. They are forced to change pace anddirection unwillingly and face the constant threat of collision at every turn andintersection of the towering stelae. It is this condition, in my opinion, that instills thefeeling of threat and uneasiness into most visitors as opposed to the perceivedconnection between themselves and the victims.
The memorial does not dedicate any space for gatherings of people and hence inhibitsany ceremonial use in the act of memory. The collection of stelae is reminiscent of thecemeteries of Jewish ghettos in Europe where due to space constraints; tombstonesare piled high and crowded together at different angles. Some visitors treat thememorial as a cemetery, walking slowly and silently, before stopping and layeringflowers or candles at the side of a stele. The presence of these somber mourners andtheir objects of remembrance are one of the only indicators that clearly identify thestelae field as a memorial. However, the objects discarded at the memorial are alwaysremoved 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 andunderstandable system of law and order that mutates into something much moreprofane. The visitor experiences this first-hand when feeling lost and disorientated inthe 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 rationalgrid, and its potential for dissolution in time. It suggests that when a supposedly rationaland ordered system grows too large and out of proportion to its intended purpose, it in factloses touch with human reason. It then begins to reveal the innate disturbances andpotential for chaos in all systems of seeming order, the idea that all closed systems of aclosed order are bound to fail."
Through abstraction, the memorial attempts to acknowledge both the victims andperpetrators in a single, integrated form. The regular grid of the memorial and itsdeceptive portrayal of rationality acknowledge the perpetrators of the crime: the NaziThird 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 aNazi regime who aimed to erase all memory of their existence.
Eisenman's memorial is concerned with how the past is manifested in the present. Hisinterest lies not with the murdered Jews the memorial aims to commemorate, butinstead, how the present-day visitor can relate to those victims. In this respect, thememorial 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 beremembered in the nostalgic mode, as its horror forever ruptured the link betweennostalgia and memory. The monument attempts to present a new idea of memory asdistinct from nostalgia."
The field of stelae does not present a nostalgic recollection of Jewish life before theholocaust; neither does it attempt to encapsulate the events of the genocide. Instead,the memorial connects with the visitor through a corporeal engagement thatfacilitates an individual response to memory.
The stelae have the effect of creating a ghostly ambience as the sounds of thesurrounding streets and city are deadened, exaggerating the visitor's discomfort.However, the ambience is disturbed by the shouting, laughter and conversation ofvisitors lost in the stelae looking for one another. In marked contrast, thesubterranean information centre has the effect of silencing its inhabitants. Theexhibition provides a literal representation of the atrocities of the holocaust,didactically displaying the clothing, letters and personal belongings of a handful ofvictims. Eisenman originally rejected the inclusion of a place of information so that thestelae field would become the exclusive and definitive experience. However, hiscompetition win was conditional upon its inclusion.
It is my opinion that 'The Ort' or information centre has become the significant placeof memory and commemoration despite being simultaneously downplayed by thearchitect and German state. The small building is located underground and accessedvia a narrow staircase amongst the stelae. As with the memorial as a whole, there is noacknowledgement of its existence or function, and as a result must be discoveredthrough wandering. It performs commemoration far more successfully than the stelaefield by generating an emotional response from the visitor. In the exhibition, thedistress of the visitor is apparent as they walk around solemnly, the reality of theholocaust becoming perceptible. The acoustic presence of crying and sobbing are farremoved from the laughter and shouting in the stelae above. The exhibition featuresspaces where the biographies of victims are made audible, explaining the sequence ofevents that led to their deaths. In these rooms the smallest details of the victim'sforgotten lives are told in a sonorous voice which immediately gives substance to theindividual and collective loss. The visitor's trauma is perceptible here as theinconceivable statistics are not portrayed as abstract representations, but instead areliteral and personified. It is the only section of the memorial where the holocaust isexplicitly present; where visitors are not removed from the horrors but insteadconfronted with them.
At street level, the memorial has no signs or indicators to its purpose and the stelaepresent no carving or inscription. The abstract nature of the stelae and site as a wholehave the affect of making the memorial a relaxed and convenient place to be. Themonument has transcended the theory that memorials command respect by theirmere existence, with the site becoming a part of everyday life for Berliners as a place ofleisure. Many stumble on the memorial as an empty maze, a children's playgroundwhere people walk across the stelae, jumping from one to another. They are facedwith conflicting emotions between an instinct to show respect and a desire to satisfy aspontaneous need to play. The memorial's ambition is to enable every visitor to reachtheir own conclusion and ascertain an individual experience, which throughabstraction it achieves. However, by the same means, it facilitates a detachmentbetween the individual and the memorial's primary function of commemoration. Thetheoretical 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 tothe 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 allowthe 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 rememberthe millions of Jews killed by Nazis in the Holocaust will ever prove adequate to theimmense symbolic weight it must carry, as numerous designs have been considered anddiscarded. Perhaps the best course at this point would be to leave the site of the proposedmemorial at the heart of Berlin and of Germany empty..."
Perhaps this approach would have ultimately become more pertinent. How does onedesign a monument in memory of an event so inconceivable that in some way doesn'thave the adverse affect of making it more palatable? Perhaps, as Archigram ofteninsisted, the solution may not be a building. The absence of a memorial delegates theresponsibility of commemoration to the individual who as bearers of memory, come tosymbolise the absent monument.
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is an intriguing and unique perspectiveon cognitive memory that undoubtedly has advanced the development of the antimonument,setting a new precedent in memorial architecture. However, thememorial's effectiveness is fundamentally undermined by the assumption that allvisitors are aware, and will continue to be aware of the specific events of theholocaust. For example, how will a second or third generation's interpretation differfrom that of a survivor who visits the memorial today? Its abstracted, ambiguous formfails to contextualize the memorial without the accompaniment of explicit, literalrepresentations presented separately within the Information Centre. It is for thisreason that the memorial seemingly becomes a victim of its own impossibility.Bibliography:
- Rauterberg, Hanno. Holocaust Memorial Berlin. (Lars Muller Publishers) 2005.
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- Young, James E. The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning. (New Haven) 1993.
- Boym, Svetlana. The Future of Nostalgia. (Basic Books) 2001.
- Sion, Brigitte. Experience and Remembrance at Berlin. (New York) 2007.
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- Eisenman, Peter. Notations of Affect. An Architecture of memory (Pathos, Affekt, Gefühl) 2004.
- http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/germans/memorial/eisenman.html - Memorial to theMurdered Jews of Europe Project Text. 2005.
- Magnuson, Eric. 'Pathways.' (http://www.flickr.com/photos/esm723/3754775324) 2009.
- Ndesh. 'Platform Games.' (http://www.flickr.com/photos/ndesh/3754009233/in/photostream)2009.
- Ward, Matt. 'Flowers.' (http://www.flickr.com/photos/mattward/3472587863) 2009.
Article name: Architecture and memory essay, research paper, dissertation