On Oct. 5, President Reagan delivered the keynote address at ceremonies dedicating the cornerstone of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. It will be the preeminent Holocaust institution in the nation. The museum's permanent exhibition will tell the story of the Holocaust, the aftermath, the impact on philosophy and theology and the achievements of survivors.
The architect for the museum is James I. Freed of I.M. Pei and Partners in New York in association with Notter Finegold and Alexander Inc. of Boston. Freed's mandate from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council was to design a museum of "symbolic and artistic beauty visually and emotionally moving in accordance with the solemn nature of the Holocaust."Architect James I. Freed said of the assignment: "What is a Holocaust Museum and Memorial - what does it mean to us - what kind of building can it be?
"It is my view that the Holocaust defines a radical, but hopefully not a final, break with the optimistic conception of continuous social and political improvement underlying the material culture of the West. The depersonalization of both victim and victimizer (the latter by their actions, the former by arbitrary dehumanizing legislation) marks an event so terrible that perhaps nothing can encompass it fully; certainly no one who has not lived it can understand it completely.
"I find it nearly impossible to deal creatively with a subject matter so heated. It is, of course, for me, impossible to anesthetize it. I also found it impossible to reconstruct, architecturally, the world as it was, in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and further, I found it not desirable to attempt a purely scenographic approach with all its implications of `kitsch' and the consequent devaluations and trivialization of the terrible and unprecedented event.
"Therefore . . . how does one start? In this case, after a number of starts that failed, I realized that I had to see the remnants of the Nazi concentration camps and ghettos in a last desperate attempt to grasp this nettle-like subject. There, I settled on an approach - the use of the tectonic of the camps, ghettos and some official buildings I had visited, along with a certain muted, somewhat abstract symbolism, which I thought could serve as a basis for an exploration of this building. With this and the need to have the museum both join Washington urbanistically on the exterior as well as the need to leave Washington metaphorically in order to enter sacred ground, the museum and memorial were conceived. A discreet and identifiable number of interior spaces (the Hall of Witness, the Hall of Remembrance, the Hall of Learning, to name a few) position visitors and attempt to engage them not only intellectually, but also viscerally.
"The Hall of Witness serves as the museum's central gathering place through which visitors pass to all parts of the building. This 7,500-square-foot hall, purposefully disquieting, resonates with abstract symbolic references to the Holocaust. This hall is a sober court of brick and steel illuminated by natural light. Its skylight is tensioned, skewed and ribbed with metal trusses.
"The hall is ended by a deliberately cracked wall - a symbol of the rupture of civilization during the Holocaust. The arch at the top of the formal solemn staircase in this hall is reminiscent of the opening in the entrance to the Birkenau death camp.
"A glass fissure, starting at the bottom of the grand staircase and running through the Hall of Witness to the outside wall, serves to rend the space as if it were shaken from its foundations by an earthquake. The glass ceiling of this hall will be twisted and warped. The brick walls, exposed beams, boarded windows and metal fences and gates in this hall will let visitors know that they are in a different place - that the Holocaust is an event that should disturb and be felt as well as perceived.
"The museum, adjacent to the National Mall, is to be sited between the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, a neoclassical building to its south, and an ornate Victorian brick structure, the Auditor's Building, to its north. The Holocaust Museum is a building that urbanistically should be a bridge between these buildings and it is so conceived: small-scale brick towers, embraced by a limestone fabric. Nevertheless, the building must disturb as well as invite from the exterior.
"Finally, the hexagonally shaped skylit memorial, the Hall of Remembrance, is conceived of as an occupied space. The time of the specific object monument - powerful, moving and speaking in a universal language - is, in my view, gone. This space is spiritual, designed as a place for contemplation and reflection. It is conceived of as a simple, luminous space flooded with light surrounded by an ambulatory. In the wall of the ambulatory will be niches for candles - a universal symbol of renewed life.
"Now, a memorial space, humble by usage, saved by disposition of space and light, contemplative by spareness of form and material, speaks through us and lets us mourn, perhaps be comforted, and rejoin life."
It is exciting to preview this memorial through the architect's statement of design philosophy. When the drawings and model photographs are available, I will include them in a follow-up article.
Sometime during 1991 the Holocaust Memorial Museum will be completed and, in the words of Elie Weisel, we then will be moved "To remember, means to open our soul and make it more sensitive to suffering everywhere, and to injustice everywhere, and to the victims of humiliation everywhere."