Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe: Hidden Brilliance of the Unknowable

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe:
Hidden Brilliance of the Unknowable
When we first looked at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe I was convinced that this memorial was just poorly done with a host of problems. The site is adjacent to the final hideout of Hitler, the Führerbunker. The design and placement of which is woefully inappropriate and borderline insulting. To think that I can sit nibbling on a Dunkin Donut and enjoy the view is laughingly insensitive. Designed by American Architect Peter Eisenman, this memorial seems to be out of place and out of time. Designed at the same time that Eisenman was designing a football stadium for Arizona State, one does not understand how this design was selected and built.
The site selection seems to have no consequence or relevance. The number of concrete monuments or stelae, 2711, have no relevant meaning. Aside from its titled name, there is no indication of the Jewish faith. Germany’s choice in determining how it wishes to commemorate the Jewish victims of the Holocaust did not reflect the sentiments of its Jewish population. All these reasons made me want to hate it. It lacks the grace and simplicity of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial Wall. Yes, I would be critical of this memorial. Until I learned more about it.
As we have examined, building a monument or a memorial to what is considered the unthinkable is a daunting challenge regardless of the scope of the project. The scope of the holocaust could not be larger. I find it interesting in the decisions that Eisenman made in this design and the meaning behind them.
Addressing the site of the memorial. It is in downtown Berlin, the civic center. Surrounded by the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag government building, the German Chancellery Building, the Bundeskanzleramt and the Führerbunker, the siting could not be more centrally or importantly located. Its location and disruption to the cities ambiance is undeniable. A busy urban civic center has been turned into a hard, cold concrete memorial, that cannot be dismissed or overlooked.
A bit of reading about the siting shows that the South-East corner of the memorial, where the underground information center is located, it shares a wall with the Goebbels bunker (western part of the Führerbunker), where in 1942, the Nazi’s finalized their plan for the extermination of the European Jews, Hitler’s Final Solution.
When I look at an aerial image of the memorial, with its concrete blocks set in 55 rows and 87 columns, I see the exacting military and German precision in which we have come to expect. The varying heights of the columns as they roll over the 4.7-acre terrain, creates of sense of confusion in one direction, with an absolute sense of precision, on the other axis. I would imagine this to be unsettling to the visitor of the site.
I now see the contrast and tension that Eisenman wished to create. A busy civic center is a place of business, of tourist, of bureaucrats going about their business, workers having lunch. The memorial is a visual slap in the face to these activities, reminding the current generation of German and Berliners of their history. The current or Third Generation of Germans seems to be Eisenman ‘s target.  It’s this generation, the grandchildren of those who participated in World War Two, are the ones who will have to live with this memorial
Where chewing on a donut may seem disrespectful due to proximity, the eater will never forget where they are. As I think about the design challenges that Eisenman faced, and the solutions he created, I think “what would I do”, “how would I take on this project?”. I think Eisenman’s work was inspired and disruptive. Possibly he has set a new standard for visualizing the unknowable, to memorialize the invisible.


Works Cited:
Humanity in Action – 2011 – “A Self-Serving Admission of Guilt: An Examination of the Intentions and Effects of Germany's Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe”

New Yorker – July 2012 – “The inadequacy of Berlins memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe”

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