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Memorial to Murdered Jews of Europe, Peter Eisenman

Memorial to Murdered Jews of Europe, Peter Eisenman

Hi, back with more Jewish-related architecture! This is the Memorial to Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin; the competition took place in 1994-97, Eisenman (and artist Richard Serra) won it in 1999, and construction took place from 2003-04. It was inaugurated on May 10th of 2005.

The architect, Peter Eisenman, is an American Jewish Architect, a member of the New York Five (Eisenman, Michael Graves, Charles Gwathmey, John Hejduk, and Richard Meier; Meier is also Jewish). Eisenman is very modernist/deconstructive — see the Wexner Center for the Arts, House VI, and the City of Culture of Galicia. Eisenman is a prominent figure in the architectural world and I think his design for this memorial has noble intentions, but is let down by how the public interacts with it.

As a rundown of the design/site: The Memorial to Murdered Jews is a very prominent memorial to the Holocaust built near the former site of the Reich Chancellery (built by the Nazi architect Albert Speer; horrific person, though there’s a painting a postwar German artist Anselm Kiefer reinterpreting the gallery in his piece “Aschenblume”; I digress), and the Fuhrerbunker, where Hitler committed suicide.

The above-ground portion consists of 2,711 concrete stelae (vertical slabs) of various heights arranged on a rolling landscape, so that some are knee-level or lower, and some tower over you; the tallest is about 15 ft / 4.7 meters. The stelae are entirely blank (a point of contention — will cover later), and the site is roughly square-ish.

However: the stelae, and indeed most of the massive 4.7 acre site (above-ground), is utterly devoid of Jewish symbols, and of names, and of really any context of this being a memorial to the Holocaust. This is a point of contention, to the point where Israeli secretary of state (from 1992 to 2015) Silvan Shalom refused to visit the memorial, and instead went to the Grunewald Railway station in Berlin (site of deportations).

Site

Stelae

Stelae; rolling topography

The use of the above-ground portion is functionally left up to the visitor; this means that, while the site is intended as a memorial, the utter lack of Jewish symbols, or even labeling the site Holocaust rather than simply murdered Jews, has meant that people treat it almost like a public park. Jumping on the stelae, urinating in the site, eating lunch there, taking photoshoots (including for dating apps); Eisenman was personally mostly-okay with this from what I can tell, but it’s obviously not great for a Holocaust memorial.

There is an underground information centre, though it’s frankly a bit hidden in the site, and as far as I can tell receives a lot less visitors than the stelae. It covers the Nazi’sp plan for the Holocaust and Jews as a whole, then breaks into four rooms–Room of Dimensions (diaries of victims), Room of Families (following fifteen Jewish families), Room of Names (including all known names of Holocaust victims as listed in the Yad Vashem, although the entire list would take something like six years and seven months to view with how they present it), and the Room of Sites, which covers sites of mass killings/extermination camps/etc. There are eight stelae in the Room of Sites showing the seven death camps and massacre at the Babi Yar ravine. (See my previous post for the Synagogue built there by Manuel Herz architects.)

Entry to Information Centre

Room of Dimensions

Room of Families

Room of Sites

Room of Names

The memorial is important in an architectural and historical sense, though it does seem to have some influence from Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum (also in Berlin, about 3 km / 2 miles away), in specifics his “Garden of Exile”, though the timelines are pretty scrunched and I personally don’t really think Eisenman ripped it off. (Although– Libeskind’s Jewish Museum is a significantly better work, I think, though I haven’t been able to visit either because I do not have Germany types of money. Sighs.)

There are a number of interpretations for this site: the stelae as gravestones, symbolizing the identities being stripped from Jews during the Holocaust; the undulating ground symbolizing chaos and instability; the stelae towering over you as a sense of vulnerability. On Eisenman’s project page for it he said this:

In this monument there is no goal, no end, no working one’s way in or out. The duration of an individual’s experience of it grants no further understanding, since understanding the Holocaust is impossible. The time of the monument, its duration from top surface to ground, is disjoined from the time of experience. In this context, there is no nostalgia, no memory of the past, only the living memory of the individual experience.

My interpretation at the time of the presentation was that, while his intentions were noble, his lack of prominent names/symbols relating to Jews (the information centre is literally underground) hindered the project. I pointed out a number of names — Meir David Mincberg in the Room of Names photograph, the names of the eight death camps/Babi Yar in the Room of Sites– and segued into the Simchat Torah massacre as a sign that we need to remember history, we need to learn from the Holocaust, or it will happen again. (This is the first time I remember the lecture hall being entirely silent during a presentation, also.)

Overall, a very interesting project. While Eisenman’s architectural style is definitely a distinct one, and personally not my favorite style, his design for this project is very poignant. I’d love to visit it.

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