When you picture any village green or town square, alongside the pubs, churches and post offices that first come to mind, there is often the unmistakeable site of a memorial. Memorials fill almost every town and village in England and vary greatly in their subject matter, from the celebratory statues of the great men and women of history, to the somber site of a war memorial. These sites act as collective points of reflection and memory, and as visual reminders of loss, and the bravery and courage of those gone before.
I was recently flicking through Dan Pearson’s excellent book ‘Spirit – Garden Inspiration’ and came across a page on the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, in Berlin. With the recent shortlist of designs for the new National Holocaust Memorial in London, featuring some of the most talented global designers, the question of how we should remember and reflect this darkest of chapters of human history, is up for debate.
This design, and cultural debate has made me reflect once again on my visit to Berlin as part of a University study trip, and the first time I saw Architect Peter Eisenman’s Holocaust memorial.
Sitting within a large square of City ground, enormous grey concrete blocks rise like rows of coffins, or graves, to form a visually arresting site. It is a fully interactive memorial with the visitor walking on undulating ground through the corridor like passageways between the blocks. At times the rectangles of concrete rise up far above your head, later dropping to well below your waist forming a labyrinth-like network of paths.
I found my visit to the memorial deeply unsettling. This unsettled feeling was aside from my horror and heartache at facing this subject matter; but was born out of observing how visitors interacted with the memorial. Children and adults alike ran in and out of the memorials playing hide and seek, with shrieks of laughter emitting from the rising columns of concrete. I found myself laughing as I saw the heads of my classmates appear and disappear as our in between the concrete rows. One person had a helium balloon with a face on that moved in and out of the rows causing us all to laugh. People climbed on, and across the grey slabs taking photographs, selfies, and generally looking happy and having fun. It seemed to be contrasted so distinctly from the horror these concrete blocks represented.
I wonder how the designer Peter Eisenman feels about this? Was this his design intention – to force us to challenge our ideas of memorial, with visitors standing not on the periphory of a monument looking on, but engaged in a more interactive approach? Perhaps this could be viewed by some as a more effective means of reflection? I do think Peter Eisenman has been successful in creating a striking visual memorial. However, the unsettled feeling that I felt when standing within the concrete mass, surrounded by the sounds of fun and laughter, still seem distasteful, out of place and disrespectful. These seemed to be the complete antithesis of holocaust memorial.
If you ever get the chance to visit Berlin, do stop by and walk through the memorial, visit the underground museum at its heart and remember. For as it had been said, if we do not learn the lessons of history, we will be forced to re live them. Such is the power of memorials.
As the judging panel consider the various designs submitted for our new National Holocaust Memorial, the debate surrounding the most effective and appropriate means of memorial will be rightly scrutinized, debated and discussed.
If I were on the panel, after my experience and reflections in Berlin, I would question how successful each submission is in encouraging the visitor to remember and contemplate the horrendous fate of the 6 million murdered Jews of Europe.
For more information on the new National Holocaust Memorial and to see the shortlist see, comment below with your thoughts: