How Architecture Commemorates Tragedy

On May 17, scholar James Young, architects Peter Eisenman and Michael Arad, and Jewish Museum Berlin CEO Michael W. Blumenthal met in a burnt-orange basement on West 43rd Street in New York to discuss how, exactly, to understand memorials. Sponsored by Selfhelp Services, the panel, titled “Remembering the Unimaginable: Berlin and New York,” was a stab at figuring out how to use architecture to represent memory, loss, and renewal.

Speaking first was James Young, Professor of English and Judaic Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Having served on the jury for Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (located in Berlin and recently completed) and Michael Arad’s Reflecting Absence (located on the World Trade Center site and still deep in design development), Young explained the finer twists of his work. “I’ve been invited to flee to the memory of events,” he noted.

He differentiated the two memorials by noting Eisenman’s is purely commemorative, while Arad’s is commemorative and regenerative. Eisenman’s task, Young explained, was not to respond to the arguably ineffable Holocaust, but rather articulate its horror. By identifying with that horror, the monument could memorialize its victims.

In contrast, Arad’s job, slightly easier in the realm of architectural representation, was to mark a very specific loss and suggest a type of renewal. While the young architect’s design approached the former issue well, said Young, the regenerative aspects were largely the responsibility of the memorial’s co-designer, landscape architect Peter Walker.

Speaking after Young was Arad, who is now a partner at New York’s Handel Architects. (The job is a move up from his former position at the New York City Housing Authority, where he worked previous to winning the WTC competition.) Arad began his talk with a picture of a cake whose top was decorated with the twin towers and American flag. He said that responses like the cake, however kitschy, got him thinking about the “appropriation of the ephemeral” that this admittedly clumsy image was attempting to give.

Jumping from tragicomedy to theory, Arad traced the road to where he is now: from his early days of pretending to go on paternity leave so that he could finish his memorial proposal, to having an unintelligible phone conversation with the memorial jury during the final round of decision-making. “I couldn’t hear anything that they were saying,” he said. “Maybe that’s why they selected me.”

In contrast to Arad’s self-deprecation, Eisenman—the next speaker—was confident and chatty. The designer of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe admitted that anti-Semitism only first disturbed him when, as a ten-year-old Jew, he wasn’t allowed to dance with the Gentiles at the school events. “I’d look at the lovely blonde girls,” he said, “and think something was wrong.” His Berlin memorial, he claimed, didn’t answer questions about how people could allow the Holocaust to happen, or how people could recover and heal; rather, it articulated a singular experience. Indeed: in the course of his design research, Eisenman spoke to an Auschwitz survivor who described his mindset while at the death camp: speechless, silent, alone, disoriented, lost in space. With those words, Eisenman found his memorial.

Coming at the memorial process from a different direction, Blumenthal, the CEO of the Jewish Museum Berlin, discussed the difficulties of making Daniel Libeskind’s stand-alone museum a functional building. Commenting on Eisenman’s Berlin memorial, he added that he doubted all Germans would read it in the way the architect had intended, or even recognize that articulation, rather than response, was the crux of the memorial’s success. But that said, he didn’t think that disconnect would lessen the piece’s effect.

During the talk’s question-and-answer period, an audience member questioned the validity of spending millions of dollars to romanticize history. Why build an ultimately functionally useless memorial, he asked, when so many Holocaust survivors are in dire need of financial assistance? Eisenman and Young vehemently disagreed, while Arad stepped up, summarizing the last hour-and-a-half. “The memorial is there to provide an experience,” he said. “I wouldn’t see that as romanticizing.”

Neither would anyone involved.

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