“There is nothing in this world as invisible as a public monument,” said Robert Musil, an Austrian writer. Britain’s first memorial to the victims of the Holocaust is a case in point. Designed by Richard Siefert and Derek Lovejoy, it is a humble garden of boulders and birch trees tucked away in Hyde Park. Many people aren’t even aware it exists. In 2015, the Holocaust Commission decided it wasn’t good enough and recommended that a new memorial be built. A shortlist of ten designs has been published, including entries by some of the biggest names in architecture: Zaha Hadid, David Adjaye, Norman Foster, Daniel Libeskind. Could they prove Musil wrong?
It’s been done before. In 1983, the same year that Siefert and Lovejoy planted their garden, a young Asian-American grad student called Maya Lin created a memorial in Washington, DC, for the American victims of the Vietnam war. It is composed of two long, slanting panels of black granite, which join at a wide angle. At its deepest, the wall sinks ten feet into the ground, resembling, as Lin put it, “a cut into the earth”. Inscribed are the names of 58,000 American soldiers, listed in the order that they died. As visitors walk through the memorial, they see the years pass, the death toll rise – and themselves, reflected in the polished stone.
By building an experience and not an object, like the triumphant arches or statues of old, Lin reinvented the memorial for the modern age. Others have tried to replicate the emotional force of her wall. The Holocaust memorial in Berlin, an undulating field of large concrete slabs, makes visitors feel as if they are wandering through a strange cemetery. Passing through the six illuminated glass towers of Boston’s Holocaust memorial, each etched with “prisoner numbers” to represent the six million Jews who died, is similarly haunting.
London’s new memorial will be in Victoria Tower Gardens, a park bordered by the River Thames and the Houses of Parliament. The brief was to create a monument of national significance that honoured the victims and survivors of the Holocaust and Nazi persecution, and also to incorporate a learning centre. Some of the shortlisted ideas are thin. David Adjaye and Ron Arad Architects want to embed 20 massive metal fins in the garden. Only when you get close will you notice the staircases that take visitors down to a learning space. Apparently, this is supposed to show that the story of the Holocaust is “a series of layers that have become hidden by time”.
Daniel Libeskind wants to build a dark metal plane that “cuts into a sky” and throws into darkness the wide wooden ramp that takes visitors down into the learning centre. The idea – if you hadn’t guessed – is to show that the Holocaust casts a long shadow onto history. Foster + Partners and Michal Rovner want people to walk through an underground passageway (above) designed to be “evocative of train tracks that terminated in the camps or the brown brick lined corridors leading down to the gas chambers.”
The worst of the bunch is the “meteorite” (above) proposed by Zaha Hadid Architects and Anish Kapoor. This monstrous rock, the bottom of which will jut into a subterranean gallery, is both unoriginal and intellectually problematic. Kapoor argues that the meteorite conveys the Holocaust’s magnitude. Fine, but take the metaphor further and the logic collapses. When a meteorite crashes to Earth, nothing can be done to deter it. By equating – however unintentionally – the Holocaust to an act of god, this memorial manages to absolve humanity of its complicity.
Not all the shortlisted designs have resorted to such crass symbolism. Most impressive are those by Allied Works, an American architecture firm, and heneghan peng, an Irish one. Allied’s design (pictured top) would fold a portion of the garden’s lawn back in on itself, creating a tight curve. The shape is meant to resemble a prayer shawl. The border is illuminated with words of a poem (“almost like a prayer”); as visitors walk underneath the shawl, they hear voices of victims telling their stories. Lin would no doubt approve of the way the design sweeps people up into its embrace. The competition judges, however, may worry that the prayer shawl is not sufficiently inclusive: the brief specifies that the memorial should be for all victims of the Holocaust, including homosexuals, Roma, disabled people, Slavs, Jehovah’s Witnesses and political opponents of the Nazi regime.
Heneghan peng’s idea also uses audio to powerful effect, and has the virtue of being secular. Visitors pass through rows of trees into a clearing, where they see the thick stone walls of a triangular structure with a sunken courtyard at the centre (above). A gap in one wall leads to a narrow passageway, its sharply angled sides disorientating and claustrophobic. But the walls are alive, with chinks of light and the muffled sound of voices. Eventually, you reach a courtyard. This is the “ear” of the memorial, where the voices, now distinct, tell the stories of Holocaust survivors. You can listen to individual stories in the wall-gaps, or step back to hear the chorus of these murmured testimonies. Musil, step inside.