The reveal of shortlisted designs for the U.K.’s National Holocaust Memorial in London has sparked controversy and raised difficult questions about what it means to design such monuments in 2017.
Last month, on International Holocaust Memorial Day, the shortlist was announced in the competition to design a new Holocaust memorial for London. Ten impressive designs, from the world’s top architects and artists were revealed, each responding to the U.K. Holocaust Memorial Foundation’s competition brief, which requested an “emotionally powerful and sensitively designed memorial.”
The final teams include Adjaye Associates with Ron Arad Architects, Caruso St John Architects with sculptors Marcus Taylor and Rachel Whiteread, Anish Kapoor and Zaha Hadid Architects, Allied Works, and Canada’s own Diamond Schmitt, not to mention Heneghan Peng, and Foster + Partners collaborating with Michal Rovner. This selection of proposals, each a powerful yet subtle structure, was presented with an invitation for the public to offer their opinion. And offer they have.
The designs, and the concept of the project itself has been met with controversy from every angle. Many have questioned the necessity of another Holocaust memorial at this point in time, with one Dezeen commenter asking “Is the Holocaust memorial a franchise or can any city put one up?”
While some felt London wasn’t an appropriate place for such a monument because of the nation’s reluctance to accept refugees during the war, others took issue with the location in Victoria Tower Gardens, because it would take away public space. British architecture critic Rowan Moore’s overall take on the proposed designs was that “too little sign in either their briefing or in their design of deep thought about the memorial’s purpose. They don’t examine what it is to make this piece of work here and now.”
Like many “sensitive” memorials, these 10 finalists offer spaces ideal for quiet contemplation, but they don’t clearly communicate what it is that visitors ought to be contemplating. As the masses were posting their two cents worth’ about the designs to comment boards around the Internet, a Berlin-based Israeli artist was giving us a look at how some people interact with these gentle reminders of the atrocities of man.
A week before the U.K. memorial concepts were revealed, Shahak Shapira launched Yolocaust, a site where he took to task those who act inappropriately while visiting the Berlin Holocaust monument and then post the evidence on social media. The page paired smiling selfies taken at the site with altered versions of the same photos, in which the background had been replaced with graphic and disturbing images of concentration camps.
The fact that the monument’s field of concrete slabs are often used playfully has been the focus of much of the controversy and criticism that has surrounded American architect Peter Eisenman’s design. It’s not uncommon to see children skipping across the columns, or playing hide-and-seek amongst them.
Shapira’s website, though only up for a week, gained massive attention, with the artist reporting over 2.5 million hits on the page. By shrugging off the sensitivity that is so carefully wrapped around this subject, he may have managed to provoke more thought about what the memorial actually means than its architecture ever could.
Among the London shortlist, Kapoor and ZHA’s proposal has emerged as a favourite. Meant to reflect the meteorites, mountains and stones that are often at the centre of places of reflection in the Jewish tradition, it takes the form of a grey and angry-looking mass that both floats above the ground and pushes into an interior space in the subterranean learning centre below.
While the intention may have been to evoke the vastness of nature, it feels like a dark cloud – of just the sort that monument visitors should be reminded of as they contemplate the horrors of the Holocaust.
Near the turn of the last century, Austrian architect Adolf Loos argued that monuments were the small part of architecture that belonged to art, but perhaps with these two disciplines fighting to be heard, it leaves little room to communicate a specific message. Rather than making these tributes beautiful and impossible to ignore, or ensuring that they’re tucked neatly into our carefully ironed urban fabric, the focus perhaps should turn to making them more effective in their purpose. And it may just be that this is one issue that even the world’s best architects can’t solve.