Monument with a question mark

Between Brandenburger Tor and Potsdamer Platz in the heart of Berlin, close to Hitler’s bunker and his Chancellery, and not far from the Reichstag, is a site crossed by the Wall fifteen years ago. Today the site is a field of grey concrete blocks, the Denkmal für die ermordete Juden Europas (Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe), designed by architect Peter Eisenman.

The holocaust memorial was inaugurated on May 10, 2005, after 17 years of plans and heated debate. The initiative came from publicist Lea Rosh in 1998 when she called for the creation of a national memorial in Berlin to commemorate the persecution of the Jews. In 1993 the plan was adopted by chancellor Helmut Kohl, and in 1994 artists and architects were invited to submit designs in an open competition. A group of artists in Berlin won the competition but their design – a huge concrete plane into which the names of Holocaust victims are chiselled – provoked so much opposition on account of its sheer size that the project was abandoned. Efforts resumed in 1997 when a number of artists and architects took part in a limited competition. The winning design was by Peter Eisenman and Richard Serra, though Serra later withdrew because he and Eisenman couldn’t agree on changes to the design. There followed a period of discussions and modifications until 1999 when the German parliament gave the go-ahead for construction. They also decided to add an Information Centre to complement the abstract memorial.

The site measures roughly 20,000 m2 and features a grid of 2,711 blocks 0.95m wide and 2.38 m long, their height varying from less than a millimetre to more than 4 metres. The blocks are hollow and made from smooth-finished concrete. Though big, the memorial is not the megalomaniac monument some people feared. The field is slightly sunken, and even the tallest blocks do not obstruct views of the surroundings. The transition from street to memorial is a gradual one. Towards the edges of the memorial are lower blocks that alternate with clearings in the grid. The view changes constantly as you walk around and between the blocks. The grid is regular but the ground plane undulates and the blocks tilt in different directions, their tops sometimes sliced off at angles. The effect is of restrained chaos, or rather of order that is slowly but surely receding. The grey of the concrete may be dead, but the memorial itself certainly isn’t.

It is an abstract monument, without symbols, apart perhaps from the association with tombstones evoked by the size and shape of the blocks. It is not a memorial designed to accommodate the ceremonial act of laying wreaths. No heroic soaring skywards, the memorial is firmly rooted to the ground.

Moving between the cool and smooth concrete surfaces across which the sun casts sharp shadows, the visitor experiences the memorial in a personal manner. In the central area the blocks tower high overhead, but towards the edges the eye is able to take in the undulating field of blocks. Nowhere do you feel trapped; at the end of each passage is always a glimpse of the surrounding buildings, the street, or the Tiergarten park next to the memorial.

The personal perspective extends into the information centre beneath the memorial. Descending the stairs is like entering a crypt. Everyone is silent and the light is dim. The tour begins with a short historical overview of Jewish persecution. The presentation in the four main galleries is geared to putting faces to victims. There are biographies of families and excerpts from diaries and letters. The spaces are visually connected to the memorial overhead by the ceiling structure whose dimensions correspond to the grid above ground.

The transition from memorial to information centre is the only really problematic part of the design. It would have been better if the entrance building with its unavoidable security measures and safety barriers was located somewhere else – across the street – rather than between the blocks. Now the entrance interrupts the grid, a regrettable addition that is probably the result of regulations and funding.

Some people believe the memorial is too abstract because the observer doesn’t immediately see what it commemorates and, consequently, its admonitory effect is too limited. True, this isn’t a memorial with an exclamation mark but more one with a question mark. Once you’ve descended into the information centre, however, it’s difficult to avoid being confronted by the events the memorial commemorates.

With his design, Eisenman wants to trigger a sense of solitude and alienation in the visitor, the very feelings that those persecuted in World War II must have experienced. But he hasn’t been entirely successful in his efforts. The memorial simply isn’t that oppressive or disorientating. To think you can evoke the wartime horrors with a memorial, no matter how ingeniously designed, is a trifle arrogant. And why even attempt that? For silence and a sense of not fully comprehending is a noble aspiration in itself, and that’s something this memorial easily achieves.