Thursday, May 31, 2007

05.31.07: THE SILENCE OF EXCESS (memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe)

2,711 Stelae (Stelae is a greek term for a slab, or upright stone, often used as commemorative markers in ancient times)
Height: ranging from 0 to 4.7 meters
Width: .95 meters
Length: 2.38 meters
Each Stelae angle between .5 and 2 degrees
Size of field: 19,073 square meters, or about 4.7 acres!

6 Million Jewish people murdered during the holocaust.

In Eisenman’s Own Words…..

“We wanted a silent field – a deafening silence in the age of noise”

“Memory is not nostalgia. Our memorial in Berlin has little or no iconography, nothing symbolic, and it is this absence, like the silence of a psychiatrist, that will allow people to come to terms with their repressed feelings.”

“I wanted to make a distinction between the act of memory in the concentration camp and the act of memory in a memorial. The memorial at the concentration camp uses know symbols to allow one to assimilate the tragedy: you go to the camp, you feel badly, etc. The memorial attempts to keep this memory as an open question in the present, to present a spatial experience different from anything in an urban situation. It is foreign and alien. It analogizes the rupture in German history to this alien reupture in the city of Berlin. It is a rigid grid – reason gone mad. It’s warning against too much belief in reason and the system.

We wanted a surface like a field of wheat or corn that rolled and twisted with the wind. There are moments when you walk into a field of wheat and your fine at the edge, but once you really get in, you can become completely disoriented spatially.”

My analysis……

I have long admired memorials, as they have the capacity for symbolic meaning in architecture that few other programs can manage. This memorial is no different. It is a powerfully poetic and symbolic memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe. First of all, how do you even begin to put form to the unimaginable that was the holocaust? It is difficult to imagine the enormity of the event that killed by some estimates nearly 6 million people. For me, the sheer scale of the memorial itself comes close to beginning to address this issue. While the 2,711 stelae have nothing to do numerically with the victims of the holocaust, the enormity of the almost 5 acre site begins to convey a sense of scale to the event. The site is the size of three football fields.

Another question raised by the memorial is that of memory. We are rapidly approaching a time where there will no longer be any firsthand memories of the holocaust, as fewer holocaust survivors are still living. What then is memory, for those of us who have no direct memory of this event? It could be argued that memory is an abstract idea anyway. It is perhaps fitting that the abstract nature of the memorial is in tune with the need for memory in the present. In the present, nuch of our collective memory has been passed down to us, something that we have learned.

For me, the lack of traditional memorial vocabulary, mainly its abstract nature, makes this memorial particularly powerful. My personal experience is probably very different that what others might experience and I think this is very appropriate, allowing each of us to come to terms with this event in our own way. Personally, the scale of the site resonated with me. I was also very moved by the tension within the memorial. It is both ordered and chaotic, static and dynamic, open and enclosed, comfortable and uncomfortable at the same time. Eisenman achieves this duality by relying on a strict grid order, and the subtly breaking from it. All of the markers have a slight tilt to them. The ground plane drops dramatically so that within about 50 feet you can go from overlooking the entire field to being lost within it. Seeing people disappear from sight, as well as briefly crossing at right angles, is particularly haunting. The stones themselves, made from a very smooth dark concrete, are also very poetic. They have very perfect, sharp edges which begged to be touched. Overall, I though the memorial was a very personal, moving experience. I really feel that the abstract nature of the composition lends to its success, by allowing each of us to have a slightly different interpretation and abstract memory with this place.


  1. While I was researching this memorial for Janes theory class I came across an interesting fact. These Stelaes are layered with some sort of anti-graffiti coating. It was lated discovered that the company that made this product was a subsidiary of the company which made the gas chambers and the gasses used in the holocaust. Many people in Europe are still quit upset that this was allowed.

  2. That is an interesting catch. They don’t publish that in the information booklet I bought at the memorial! I knew that the concrete was heavily treated against graffiti, in a three step process in the factory before the steale were delivered to the site, but I had not read about that controversy. Apparently, they have only had to remove one swastika since installation. Even that is unsettling.
    This project did have a number of controversial issues surrounding its construction. Some felt that the memorial should be located at a place significant to the holocaust, like a train station or a concentration camp, etc. Others thought that this was just an attempt by the government to put some finality to the issue of the holocaust, a sort of grand gesture to sweep it under the rug once and for all. Others questioned the site, did it need to be so big? And the location is prime real-estate. To take an entire city block adjacent to 5 start hotels and a block away from the Brandenburg gate is like taking a block away from north Michigan avenue next to the water tower. Others were concerned the Berlin become a city of remembrance, rather than a city in the present, looking toward the future. Others still felt that the memorial was needed precisely to inscribe in the city a reminder that this shall never happen again. The holocaust was, after all, a massive breakdown of civilization on all levels.

  3. Interesting analysis. I can't say I felt the same though. I loved the memorial, but felt different on some things. I believe the site was a generous donation by Berlin, but think it would of been far more interesting outside of Berlin. I was there twice and in the winter the snow made things twice as eerie.

    Can you imagine looking out of that memorial and just seeing dead trees and snow? Instead you look out and see traffic and the Dunkin Donuts on the corner. Yes, Berlin has Dunkin Donuts. What if this was placed in a landscape similar to the flight 94 crash site? How much would that sense of isolation increase? I understand why they gave it this site, but must ask myself if it was for the best?

    If it were outside Berlin it could of been on a larger scale too. Imagine literally being able to get lost in there. As you quoted Eisenman ealier, "once you get in, you can become completely disoriented spatially." On this one point here I think comes close, but falls short. I would of loved to get completely lost in the memorial. To the point were I wouldn't know how to get out and feel that terror and helplessness. Again, I understand that we can't have children getting hopelessly lost in the design, but what if?

    I think Eisenman was off a little when he talked about this being about memory. Perhaps he was misusing the word. Even you pointed out that as the world looses holocaust survivers, humanity will have no direct memory of this event. I almost feel that this memorial is not about rememberance as much as it is about acknowledgement for the mistakes previous generations have burdened the German people with. There are plenty of scars (i.e. Auschawitz) across Europe to REMIND the world of what happened. There is a lack of post-acknowledgement though. This idea of, yes our ancestors did it, we don't agree with our ancestors decisions, we want to come to terms with it, we want to heal things, and we want to move foward. Maybe only in the past decade with the opening of this memorial and the Libeskind Museum has this idea of 'acknowledgement' occured.

    I think that entire last paragraph you nailed on the head though. "ordered and chaotic, static and dynamic, etc., etc". When people breifly cross your line of site and then disappear again is really wierd too.

    Just some thoughts since I was there too. Hopefully I don't sound too off my rocker.