Normative Theory: A Look at “The Memorial to the Murdered Jews in Europe”
by Shawn Partin, Associate ASLA

“The Memorial to the Murdered Jews in Europe,” created by American designer Peter Eisenmen in collaboration with the OLIN Partnership, is effective at subtly representing the Jews’ treatment during the Holocaust to an educated and mature audience. The memorial, referred to as the Mahnmal (monument) by the locals, includes a muted color scheme with hard materials, anonymity, and subtle symbolism to inspire emotion for its viewers.

Located in Berlin, Germany, the memorial took seventeen years from concept to completion because of the enormity and impact of the Holocaust. During that time, two design competitions were held. The first took place in April 1994, and none of the design entries was deemed capable of representing properly the mistreatment of the Jewish community (Schlor, 34). Three years later, a second design competition for artists and architects was held by invitation only (Schlor, 34). This time a winner was chosen.

The winning design,by Peter Eisenman and Richard Serra (a minimalist sculptor) was selected in January of 1998. However, according to “Gunter Schlusche, the memorial’s architect and planner,‘Serra quit the partnership with Eisenman in June 1998 after having been asked for some alterations to their design. As an artist he refused any alterations (take it or leave it), while Eisenman always argued that he wanted to cooperate with his clients.’” (Salus).

The memorial opened on May 10, 2005, and was a large success. Since the opening, “…countless people have wandered through the site, and an average of 2,100 visitors a day have entered the underground information center.” (Salus). The memorial is located on the former Prinz Albrcht site (Schlor, 28), which is:

“…near the Brandenburg Gate, the symbolic entryway into the city, and the western boundary of Unter den Linden, like the Champs-Eiysees or Fifth Avenue the parade route of the nations. Sir Norman Foster’s dome for the Reichstag can be seen nearby, as well as the newly constructed chancellor’s office. In the opposite direction rises Potsdamer Platz, symbol of contemporary Berlin and a unified Germany, with its malls and jubilant glass towers. Across some undistinguished ground, not so long ago patrolled by police dogs and tripwires for machine gun emplacements, rise some very imposing ‘slab’ housing in the dreary style of the former Communist East Germany. The southern edge of the memorial is bounded by a street named after Hannah Arendt. This is real estate drenched in symbolism.”  (Danto)

The memorial consists of:

“...303 steles of more than four meters high, 569 steles from three to four meters high, 491 steles from two to three meters high, 869 steles from one to two meters high, 367 steles from zero to one meter high—and there are 112 flat platforms without steles. None of these [individual] figures carries any symbolic meaning, nor does the total number—2,711 steles—have any special significance.”  (Danto)

The steles are arranged in a grid-like pattern atop a slightly hilly terrain.

Memorial 1

Image by de: Benutzer: Schreibkraft 2005, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

All the steles are alike with two exceptions: “they differ in height, and they differ in the degree to which the upper surface slants [ranging from zero to two degrees]” (Danto). The taller steles are located in the center of the design as the terrain dips down, allowing the steles to give the feeling of enclosure.

Between each of the steles is a path barely too narrow for two people, allowing the user to experience the memorial alone.

Memorial 2
The memorial is composed of 2,711 gray, concrete steles of varying heights.
Image by Stefan Wagner 2004, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Each of these paths cut all the way across the site, making the site easily navigable. The rectilinear grid pattern is continued in the ground plane with gray, square stones. The only two features that stand out from the design are the few trees located on one side of the memorial and the information center located on the opposite side.

There is subtle use of symbolism, and although it may be viewed differently by each user, this is an interpretation that this author experienced.

Upon looking at the site from any angle, the memorial appears “crowded” with steles in the same way, Jews were often forced to put up with extremely crowded conditions during the Holocaust in deportation trucks, gas chambers, and death camps. In some cases, Jews were shoved into a space so tightly they could not lift their arms to their face or sit down. They were essentially propped up by everybody else for days on end, waiting to die.

Memorial 3
Image by Torinberl  2005, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Eisenman explains, “I was thinking about a field of corn that I was lost in in Iowa when I [designed] it” (Danto). Eisenman’s idea was that users of the site would be able to become lost within the design as if lost within a corn maze, even though the design offers a view out of the memorial at any location within the concrete steles. This could represent the lost feeling of the Jews when they were captured and shipped off to unknown locations.

Upon viewing the gridded design imposed on the undulating terrain, one can get a sense of hard, powerful forces being imposed on something soft and innocent. In sculpting the landscape, the grid does not give way to the landscape but simply smothers it with concrete and continues with its uniform order. This can be seen as symbolic as German forces not giving way to the Jews but instead slaughtering them and continuing to bring “order.” 

Part of what makes this memorial work is that it is mostly nameless. There are no lists of victims on the sides of the steles that fill the site. Nobody escorts you to the name of your passed relative who suffered in the Holocaust. To do this would eliminate the sense of place. The names would be uplifted from where they fell and relocated to these steles, lessening the impact. To name the names would also imply a graveyard. This is not a graveyard but instead a place to grieve and remember. The experiences of the Jews do not belong to one victim but to many—they shared this burden together.

To facilitate grieving and the memory of harshness, hard materials were used to create this memorial. Like the coldness of the hard edged German military, cold, hard concrete was used to create the steles that fill the site. Muted colors were used to calm the mind as cool colors do. This imposes low energy, allowing one to be more likely to feel sadness and connect with the memorial. The unforgiving terrain of concrete pavers and concrete steles reiterates the unforgiving German forces and the cruelty they imposed on the Jews. The repetition of form throughout the site brings unity, almost excess unity, to the site, allowing the user to become temporarily lost within the steles.

Memorial 4
Image by Mario Duhanic  2007, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

As noted above, although one may try to become lost, it is always easy to find one’s way back out of the memorial. Every path leads both in and out and can be accessed from every side of the site. The central location of the memorial allows it to be used easily by both locals and tourists. Many locals use the site as a cut through, others see it only as a memorial, and others yet see it as art. Some, such as children and teenagers, who may not fully understand what the Holocaust was and what the memorial represents, see the site a place to play. Teenagers can be seen bathing in the sun or hopping across the tops of steles while children can be found playing hide and seek.
 
However, the strongest experience of the memorial is for a mature audience—one that understands, as the local German population in particular does, what the Holocaust was about and what it means to Germany as well as to opposing World War II forces. Thus, there are no detailed signs on how to behave since a mature audience should already know what good behavior is. For visitors who do not understand these principles, the information center beneath the memorial provides a brief history of the WWII and the events of the Holocaust in the first room. Following this are several rooms that help to personalize the Jewish experience of the Holocaust.

Memorial 5
Image of the steles in the evening. Image by JT Loh jotography 2006, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The memorial is always accessible to those who want to use it, in whichever way they prefer. It is open 24 hours and is lit at night. Security can be seen patrolling the grounds at all hours of the day or night, moving up and down the single-person-wide walkways and around the perimeters of the site.

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews in Europe is an example of an effective design that subtly represents to its audience the brutality of the Jews’ treatment during the Holocaust. By using a muted color scheme, hard materials, anonymity, and subtle symbolism to inspire emotion in its users, Eisenman has created a memorial that allows users of the site to have a very personal experience of the genocide of European Jews.

Shawn Partin, Associate ASLA, is a 2009 graduate of the Michigan State University where he was a Landscape Architecture major. He is currently employed by the Michigan Department of Transportation and is also pursuing a Masters in Environmental Design addressing human perceptions concerning computer simulations in a transportation setting. He may be reached at: partins@michigan.gov.

References

Danto, Arthur C., Mute Point, The Nation 281 no12 40-4 O 17, 2005

Salus, Carol, Peter Eisenman’s Mahnmal fur die Ermordeten Juden Europas, Sculpture (Washington D.C.) 25 no7 8-9, 2006

Schlor, Joachim and Jurgen Hohmuth, Memorial to the Murdered Jews in Europe, 2005

 
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Letter from the Chair
Vigeland Park, Oslo, Norway
Normative Theory: A Look at “The Memorial to the Murdered Jews in Europe”
Longmen Grottoes of China (Dragon Gate)
“Fragmentary-era” Garden in Chaumont, 2008
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