The Unmet Promise of “Never Forget”: Michael Murphy on Memorials in the 21st Century

In the wake of recent waves of intolerance and anti-semitism around the world, MASS Design Group's Michael Murphy meditates on the ways memorials of the past have failed us—and how we can move forward.
Images courtesy John McAslan + Partners

MASS Design Group may be best known for its work in healthcare architecture; however, the socially-oriented, data-driven firm has also put its name on a handful of politically-charged, as-yet-unbuilt memorials, including an upcoming memorial to the genocide in Rwanda and a holocaust memorial in the UK. Designed in partnership with John McAslan + Partners, Lily Jencks Studio, and Local Projects, the holocaust memorial will emerge from the grounds near Westminster Palace and feature an amphitheater with six million stones (one stone for each Jewish victim of the Holocaust). Visitors are encouraged to take a stone with them as they leave, as a memento of their commitment to fight intolerance and anti-semitism in their own lives.

We decided to catch up with MASS co-founder and executive director, Michael Murphy, to talk more about the design team’s concept for the Holocaust Memorial. In this conversation, Murphy reflects eloquently not just on the project, but on the important role memorials play around the world—now more than ever.

Vanessa Quirk: Why was it important for you to embark on this project?

Michael Murphy: I think public memorials are one of the only mechanisms through which the public invests in built space, or built architecture, in order to address serious cultural and national traumas, to attempt to address cultural and national healing. Our work has been focused on the simple thesis that architecture can be used in the mechanism of healing. We want to ask: in what ways can it heal?

The Holocaust Memorial Project in the UK, which didn’t have a prominent national Holocaust memorial, is seeking to address historical trauma around the Holocaust as well as the anti-semitism and intolerance that we’re seeing internationally, but especially nationally in the UK at the moment. So it comes at an opportune time to try to position itself as an important reminder of both great acts of heroism and moments where we could have done more.

VQ: What did the research process look like for this project? Did you look at other memorials?

MM: The team certainly did a deep dive into Holocaust memorials and other memorials of the era around the war that had been built in the last couple of decades. We also looked at the memorials that had been built in the last 20 years in Rwanda about the Rwandan genocide. Many of them were made locally, by a few individuals, and hand constructed. Some were invested in by more top down infrastructures and the national government.

Then we started to ask ourselves: why a memorial now? Why is it necessary to build a Holocaust memorial now, when the few survivors are facing their final years, if they still are alive? What would this do for the next generation? What are the narratives that we have to commit to?

More provocatively, what have the memorials in the past failed to do? Or been unable to accomplish? That has put us in a position now, as a country and as a culture, where we are allowing for the same kind of intolerance, anti-semitism, isolationism that we saw 80 years ago?

VQ: When you’re looking to other memorials, many of which are fairly iconic, how are you evaluating them? Are you looking at their impact in terms of abating intolerance? Is that the metric by which you evaluate a memorial as successful or not?

MM: I don’t think one metric can be used to evaluate all memorials. Memorials represent and are the built manifestation of a certain national, but also political, commitment to addressing these issues, and they sit within a political context.

The good ones are self aware of that and try to speak to issues that are more human and universal. But some of the ones that I think are less successful are ones that are co-opted by ideology and sit within a certain political perspective—those become dated very quickly. You can ask yourself: is this memorial dated or is it timeless? And it pretty much answers the question about whether it’s speaking to something, to universal values or questions that we all share, or is it speaking to a certain period of time and how we thought about something? I think that’s one lens through which we wanted to evaluate memorials.

Many of the memorials to the Holocaust were built in the late ’80’s and ’90’s, when there was a huge surge of investment. There were not actually enormous amounts of memorials built right after the war. It took 40 years for Germany, and with serious political mobilization from within, for it to start to take seriously the need to memorialize the atrocities that were allowed to happen under its watch as a nation. So, we must also remember that it takes time for a country to reckon with its past, and we understand that.

So I think we have great reverence for many of those projects that were built in their time period, and they’ve done certain things that are necessary: to bring forth a discussion, to force us into reflection, to pull us to a cultural destination, to memorialize those that were killed, to give voice to the voiceless, to remember those that were senselessly murdered, to tell their stories.

But I do think there is another outcome; the notion of never forget. Never forget in order to never do it again. That piece, I would say, has not been as successful. We do forget. We go and reflect, we go to these memorials and speak about them and visit them as cultural institutions (if we’re able to travel to the city or to the metropole and take the time to visit these cultural centers). Then we leave and we go back to our lives. We slowly forget that moment of reflection, that phenomenological experience, that humility we might have felt.

When we ask what a memorial must be today, it must be a space of timeless reflection. But it also must demand that we never forget, that we commit to never forgetting. This isn’t something that you do once, it’s something you do all the time. You have to actually, we might say, practice never forgetting. We have to exercise that mental muscle. We have to, as Michel Foucault would say, commit time and time again to fighting the fascism in all of us. That, I think, really struck our minds as something that was necessary.

The opportunity in a memorial today, we thought, is to make it dynamic, something that forces us to participate and engage, to touch something, take it away with us, bring it to our own safe space of our home or our family, and have it sit there as not only a token, but as a charged memento of our commitment to act.

There’s a Jewish tradition of leaving a remembrance stone on grave sites. When we meditated on this ritual—you go to a grave and you leave a stone, a pebble, a marker on top of the grave site or the grave—it reminded us of a generational commitment to bind the dead and the living, to bind generations together through time. It’s not just placing a stone, but building our own micro temples of memories to the loved ones that we’ve lost. It is an act of identification itself. It is an act of commitment. In that ritual is something very, very profound. This individual commitment makes a collective assembly of memory over time.

That, to us, was truly inspiring and influential in our thinking around a different type of memorial, one that isn’t just phenomenological, one that isn’t just a massive monument that you can reflect on and be impressed by its stature or its form or its weight or its gravitas, but one that only exists if you participate with it.

VQ: Can you talk about the process of turning that ritual into a design element?

MM: Absolutely. In the case of the Holocaust, 6,000,000 Jewish deaths is also millions of family trees that have limbs that have been severed. Entire generations of families that are never to exist. Millions of people that will never be able to put stones upon those graves. The loss of that, the volumes of that, is incredibly hard to visualize. The idea of a couple of stones is profound, but what is 6,000,000 stones? How big is that?

When we started to think about the volume of 6,000,000 we started to realize how massive it is. That massiveness is itself the kind of phenomenological weight that’s necessary, why it’s necessary to actually build it. The process of making 6,000,000 stones is laborious, it requires time to place them in this pile in the middle of London. It requires the space.

Then going to visit them and see them and then take one away—it seems like a minor act. But over time, as that pile diminishes, you start to become aware that you’re part of a fellowship of folks who have committed to fight intolerance. That itself I think is really profound.

We’ve found in architectural work that if you engage people into the construction of something, they own it, they love it, they feel related to it, they feel ownership of it. It’s a profoundly moving experience to participate, even if it’s in a small way, to participate in the construction of something that is a civic piece of infrastructure. Can that also be the case if you systematically or ritually participate in taking it apart? That’s what this is about.

VQ: So what does the memorial look like in 5, 10, 15 years, when the stones are gone?

MM: What remains after all the stones are gone is an open space, like a public room, with a depressed amphitheater with seating beneath inscriptions of quotes of thinkers on the Holocaust, which get revealed over time. You start to realize that underneath the stones is this entire narrative of its making and its meaning.

The team’s thinking was that as the last stone is taken, then the memorial enters into its second phase, it enters into a phase where the public can decide what we do next with the room. Is it a place of performance and programming, of lecture and narrative, of artist interpretation? Or do we bring in 6,000,000 more stones and begin the ritual again?

To answer that question would be impossible now. The public determines through the right public process what would then fill the space afterwards.

If this memorial is intended to truly fight intolerance or fascist, anti-semitic ideology, are we successful at the end? In what ways are we unsuccessful? We’re leaving that open, being generous and vulnerable to the idea that we can never be fully successful, that there are things that might be very successful and other things that won’t be. From that learning we can reflect and introduce new programming in a new memorial form for the next 6 or 10 years.

VQ: When you were talking earlier about the idea of avoiding political ideology in a memorial, in order to strive for a sense of timelessness, it was very easy for me to understand what you meant in terms of the exhibition itself. Exhibitions are curated to create narrative, which can easily fall into political ideologies. I wasn’t quite as certain what you meant by how you avoid that in the design of the space. After you’ve just described this, however, I’m seeing now that this is one architectural maneuver, if you will, to leave the space open to flexibility and change in a way that would hopefully make it more timeless.

MM: I do believe our intention is yes, to create something that is itself timeless. The timelessness here is not the creation of a structure, which sits within a specific period of time and lasts forever, but of an idea that carries forward, that stays relevant consistently for years to come. That, for us I think, is getting closer to timelessness. I mean, it’s very hard to make something timeless. Architecture must move beyond the architect, him or herself, and must move into public discussion. The public must accept it and embrace it. There is a certain translation required for certain public infrastructure or architecture or public space to become a public amenity.

That’s the definition, essentially, of great architecture. We misunderstand that when we seek out monumentality. When we seek monuments that speak to our own agenda as authors instead of the public’s agenda, then I think we lose the ability for us to make truly transcendent architecture. I think we must give that back, we must surrender to the possibility that architecture is made collectively, that architecture is made with the public. We’re trying to make architecture that clearly shows that, that you cannot make without the public’s engagement.

VQ: Is that why landscape plays such an important role in your memorials? Is landscape a way of giving the memorial to the public in a way that is less about awing the visitor and more about inspiring connection?

MM: Landscape is very fundamental. In particular in this project, we don’t see the two things as different, we see the architecture as emerging out of the earth, in some degree as a necessity.

In this project in particular the ground is so incredibly charged. This is a very, very special place in London, it’s adjacent to Parliament, it’s a small patch of green space on the Thames. It’s historically very important. It’s a politically charged and very complex landscape. The team’s approach was to make as little intervention in the landscape at all. To maintain the full square footage of the park, but just to lift the ground up in order to make space for this new public room, which would be available to the public. It actually creates more park space in terms of square footage.

As the stones diminish and it evolves, you’ll have this public space as well as the park. It doesn’t interrupt it in any significant way. It also doesn’t dig down to create significant infrastructure beneath the ground.

VQ: Is there anything I didn’t ask you about that you think is important to note? Either about this memorial or designing memorials in general?

MM: I think memorials are a key piece of how we engage the public and are a necessary piece of us wrestling with the atrocities of our past. All countries have them. In order for us to overcome these atrocities and wrestle with them, we need to invest in the public space in an equitable and just way, in order to commemorate those that died for our freedom, those that lost their lives for us to be where we are today, and for us to not repeat the mistakes of the past.

As we see history repeating itself, it seems like it can’t help itself but do so. These memorials, these monuments, these public spaces that commemorate injustice and atrocity, we must ask more of them. We must do more than just pay for a space, which commemorates a certain constituency. We must force them to do something to us as a community, to make us wrestle with these things, engage in public dialogue. They should require us to ask ourselves, not just—how could this group of people have achieved such atrocity and done such horrible evil things?—but ask the harder question, which is: what would it take for me individually to achieve such evil acts? How do I fight the evil within us all? This is a hard question to ask and a hard one to wrestle with.

We need to get that dialogue going, even in a small way, and distribute that dialogue, not just in the metropole or seemingly very tolerant places, like the city of London, but actually distribute that into the corners of the country where engagement is lacking, where these conversations aren’t often had. These are hard conversations, but they’re necessary conversations. Unless we distribute this initiative, this effort, we’re only going to be speaking to ourselves to some degree, only speaking to those who already know their perspective on this, and we need to be having a broader dialogue.

So, that’s why I think a memorial today must disaggregate, must demand participation from a broader public, engage in the knotty and challenging conversations that come out of wrestling with these issues personally. And they must change architecturally, morph into a different form, which is less reliant on monumentality, but more based on the process through which true memorialization can actually occur.


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