A Jew Among the Germans
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photo of eisenman with the memorialeisenman architects: memorial to the murdered jews of europe,berlin: project text by peter eisenman

(Reproduced here with permission of Eisenman Architects)

Architecture is about monuments and graves, said the Viennese architect Adolf Loos at the turn of the 20th century. This meant that an individual human life could be commemorated by a single stone, slab, cross, or star. The simplicity of this idea ended with the Holocaust and Hiroshima and the mechanisms of mass death. Today an individual can no longer be certain to die an individual death, and architecture can no longer remember life as it once did. The markers that were formerly symbols of individual life and death must be changed, and this has a profound effect on the idea of both memory and the monument. The enormity and horror of the Holocaust are such that any attempt to represent it by traditional means is inevitably inadequate. The memory of the Holocaust can never be a nostalgia.

The enormity of the banal is the context of our monument. The project manifests the instability inherent in what seems to be a system, here a rational grid, and its potential for dissolution in time. It suggests that when a supposedly rational and ordered system grows too large and out of proportion to its intended purpose, it in fact loses touch with human reason. It then begins to reveal the innate disturbances and potential for chaos in all systems of seeming order, the idea that all closed systems of a closed order are bound to fail.

In searching for the instability inherent in an apparently stable system, the design begins from a rigid grid structure composed of some 2,700 concrete pillars, or stelae, each 95 centimeters wide and 2.375 meters long, with heights varying from zero to 4 meters. The pillars are spaced 95 centimeters apart to allow only for individual passage through the grid. Although the difference between the ground plane and the top plane of the pillars may appear to be random and arbitrary, a matter of pure expression, this is not the case. Each plane is determined by the intersections of the voids of the pillar grid and the gridlines of the larger site context of Berlin. In effect, a slippage in the grid structure occurs, causing indeterminate spaces to develop within the seemingly rigid order of the monument. These spaces condense, narrow, and deepen to provide a multilayered experience from any point. The agitation of the field shatters any notions of absolute axiality and reveals instead an omnidirectional reality. The illusion of the order and security in the internal grid and the frame of the street grid are thus destroyed.

Remaining intact, however, is the idea that the pillars extend between two undulating grids, forming the top plane at eye level. The way these two systems interact describes a zone of instability between them. These instabilities, or irregularities, are superimposed on both the topography of the site and on the top plane of the field of concrete pillars. A perceptual and conceptual divergence between the topography of the ground and the top plane of the stelae is thus created. This divergence denotes a difference in time, between what Henri Bergson called chronological, narrative time and time as duration. The monument's registration of this difference makes for a place of loss and contemplation, elements of memory.

The Ort [information center] is subdued in manner, effectively designed to minimize any disturbance to the Memorial's field of pillars. Its mass, weight, and density seem to perceptibly bear down and close in on individuals. The organization of its space extends the stelae of the field into the structure, provoking a continued state of reflection and contemplation once inside. The stelae are manifested in the form of a coffered roof deck with rib spacing which matches that of the field above. The presence of these elements is subverted by the Ort's walls, which are set on a classical nine-square grid. This grid is rotated against the logic of the field, thereby thwarting any paradigmatic understanding of its formal arrangement. The uncertain frame of reference that results further isolates individuals in what is intended to be an unsettling, personal experience. Juxtaposed against the hard, concrete materiality of the Ort will be a series of exhibitions that will use state-of-the-art technologies to create an ephemeral and visceral dimension appropriate for reflection. The glow of the illuminated images and text is intended to dematerialize the walls of the Ort, allowing the stelae to reveal themselves as a topographical extension of the field.

In a prescient moment in In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust identifies two different kinds of memory: a nostalgia located in the past, touched with a sentimentality that remembers things not as they were but as we want to remember them, and a living memory, which is active in the present and devoid of nostalgia for a remembered past. The Holocaust cannot be remembered in the first, nostalgic mode, as its horror forever ruptured the link between nostalgia and memory. Remembering the Holocaust can therefore only be a living condition in which the past remains active in the present.

In this context, the monument attempts to present a new idea of memory as distinct from nostalgia. We propose that the time of the monument, its duration, is different from the time of human experience and understanding. The traditional monument is understood by its symbolic imagery, by what it represents. It is not understood in time, but in an instant in space; it is seen and understood simultaneously. Even in traditional architectures such as labyrinths and mazes, there is a space-time continuum between experience and knowing; one has a goal to work one's way in or out.

In this monument there is no goal, no end, no working one's way in or out. The duration of an individual's experience of it grants no further understanding, since understanding is impossible. The time of the monument, its duration from top surface to ground, is disjoined from the time of experience. In this context, there is no nostalgia, no memory of the past, only the living memory of the individual experience. Here, we can only know the past through its manifestation in the present.

All photographs courtesy of Eisenman Architects


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posted may 31, 2005

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