Notion of Absence – A Personal Report

On Tuesday March 11, the official award ceremony for the architectural competition to redevelop the Bergen Belsen concentration camp was held in Celle. First prize went to KSP Engel und Zimmermann Architekten, Braunschweig en Sigel + Dubbers Architekten from Berlin. The submission Notion of Absence, by Dutch architects Micha de Haas and Michael Walma van der Molen, was rewarded with an honourable mention. A personal report on an unusual – and unsuccessful – competition.

Michael (my cousin and co-designer of the submission) called from Jerusalem after I’d downloaded the information dossier. ‘Have you seen the 1944 aerial photo?’, he asked. Of course I had – that was the first image I had up on screen. You realise don’t you, Michael continued, it’s not just any aerial photo? It’s our family portrait. That makes my skin creep. Somewhere in that photo, behind one of the pixels, are my mother, grandfather, grandmother, and numerous other relatives.

For us this wasn’t just another competition. It was a unique chance to use our professional understanding and knowledge to establish a dialogue with this history and to close an historical and emotional circle. We had to take part, but we were also afraid to start.

Staged by the Bundesland Niedersachsen, the competition consisted of a landscape and an architectural component. Called for was a master plan for the entire Bergen Belsen site and, within this master plan but beyond the bounds of the former camp, a design for an information centre.

Our first idea was that (landscape) architecture is completely irrelevant in the context of this terrible history. The difference with, for example, the Jewish Museum by Libeskind in Berlin is plain. In Berlin the building – the space – is a monument to history. Bergen Belsen is where history happened. The site is a monument already. A handful of earth here means more than even the most beautiful building. So do we deliberately design a building of no significance? No. If there is to be built, then there is still the necessity to make a strong impression. Right from the start we had a dilemma.

Last Tuesday I went to Celle to see the 25 exhibited projects that made the second round (there were 156 for the first round) and to attend the official award ceremony. How have other designers coped with the dilemma? How have the prize-winners done it? After a political speech from the new CDU minister of culture – who finished ahead of the SPD in the last election – ‘No, of course we won’t cut funding for the Bergen Belsen project!’ – we could view the exhibited schemes.

I looked and was horrified. Not so much by the buildings – there were many interesting, even beautiful, designs on display – but by the landscape. Almost all designers had, in one way or another, reconstructed the plan of the former concentration camp. Strips of Corten steel or rows of planted trees marked where barracks once stood. Some designers cleared openings in the woods to indicate the fencing that once divided the camp into different compartments. In the text accompanying his submission, prize-winner Engel went so far as to say that his design is an attempt to recapture the atmosphere of site (!!!).

Why?! What does that mean?! In her book on the Eichman trial, Hana Arendt speaks of The Banality of Evil. The designs illustrate the well-intentioned yet unbelievable banality of designers. They display an irrepressible compulsion to design. Landscape architects apply trusted strategies without considering what they mean. The formal superimposition of a graphic composition from the past is thoughtlessly bombarded (an apt word here) into a concept. Is the former spatial configuration of the camp relevant in order to remember the evil that took place there? Certainly not! In their conceptualising frenzy, some designers even planted flowers to mark the contours of barracks once occupied by SS camp guards.

The contrast between the history and the lack of any sign of it in this idyllic, wooded landscape is the most striking experience the confronts the visitor to Bergen Belsen. There is next to nothing that helps us form a picture of a past so unimaginable and incomprehensible in its atrociousness. But it is on account of our knowledge of the past that we experience this sense of absence with such direct force. We called it a ‘notion of absence’.

It was precisely this notion that we (Michael Walma van der Molen and myself) wanted to express in a meaningful way. Visitors are offered information in the exhibition before they enter the site. There they are left alone in a landscape both scenic and disturbing. It was therefore essential to mark clearly the boundary of the former camp, the boundary between innocent and tainted landscape. That, to us, is the only relevant mark that can be made.

We imagined a three-metre-high embankment that follows the boundary of the camp. The outer side is steep, while the inner side is a gentle incline that descends to the camp. Thus the visitor encounters a physical barrier, a clear transition from outside to inside the camp. Hidden from view, the camp is an enigma. Unlike the steeper outer incline, the gentle inner incline gives no sense of physical enclosure. The top of the embankment creates a horizon where the heavens begin and the site ends. Along the top of the embankment is a path the encircles the whole site, a walk of around one hour. Walking it is almost a ritual. Listed on a continuous steel strip along the path are the names of all those who died here, those who entered but never left the camp. This Path of Names gives each name its own place. To accommodate the names of all 70,000 victims along the 3.6-km-long path, only 5 cm is available per name.

Our only other addition to the landscape were relatively small steel elements placed along the many pathways that cross the site. These elements frame fragments of the present landscape and also show historical photographs of the same views from the camp period. The contrast between past and present is all the more poignant for the visitor.

And the building? We had to make architecture, but it was informed by the choices we made regarding the landscape. Against our earlier expectations, it turned out to be a monumental building. Since the camp boundary is important to the design, we placed the main building against the embankment.

On the walk from the entrance through the trees, visitors reach a clearing paved with dark slates. This open plateau leads to the path along the embankment. It is not only the most important exhibition building but also the entrance to the site itself.

From an open court below ground level one enters the building through a low opening. The ceiling rises as you move further inside. Openings in the slanted roof admit light. The ground is left intact between the larger exhibition spaces. Cut out are separate, smaller rooms for personal stories of prisoners.

A monolithic tower rises from the plateau and leads to the Path of Names, the library and, eventually, the viewing platform. Exhibited here, above the treetops, is the topographical history of the camp, and one can see what remains on the site of the now-vanished camp structures.

An opaque glass shaft in the centre of the tower filters the light falling to the exhibition space below. The light marks the end of the exhibition, gives the building its physical and emotional orientation, and indicates how you leave the building and enter the site.

It is an impressive structure, to us at any rate, but it’s just a building.

So consumed by the controversy caused by our landscape design, the jury, I was later to learn, never even got round to discussing our building. Half of them were strongly in favour, half were vehemently opposed. An honourable mention was the result.

A deafening silence fills the room in Celle as I finish introducing the project. If they follow our line of thought, then the grim conclusion can only be the utter meaninglessness of all prize-winning projects.

In the train home I’m struck by the harsh thought that the jury, amazingly, has illustrated the irrelevance of architecture in this context by selecting such a banal design.

Quod Erat Demonstrandum

I phone Michael in Jerusalem and say: ‘We were the heroic losers.’