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The challenge of designing a Holocaust memorial for Britain

8 December 2016

On 18 November, the Government announced the 10 shortlisted teams in the running to design a £50 million national Holocaust memorial for Britain, to be erected in Victoria Tower Gardens just outside the Palace of Westminster. The memorial project is a legacy of the coalition government led by David Cameron, whose cross-party Holocaust Commission recommended its construction after a survey revealed that of 8,000 British secondary school children, less than a third knew what ‘anti-Semitism’ was, and ‘the majority of those surveyed did not know some of the most fundamental facts that explain why and how the Holocaust happened’. Announcing the subsequent design contest, Cameron’s successor Theresa May said: ‘We need to ensure that we never forget the horrors of the Holocaust and the lessons that must be learnt from it.’

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Victoria Tower Gardens, Westminster, London. Photo: Emily Whitfield-Wicks

The shortlist is impressive. It includes well-established firms such as Ralph Appelbaum Associates (best known for designing the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C.) and Studio Libeskind (founded by ‘starchitect’ Daniel Libeskind, whose existing projects include the Jewish Museum in Berlin and the redevelopment of the World Trade Centre), alongside artists Rachel Whiteread and Anish Kapoor, and prominent authors James E. Young, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Simon Schama, whose works, in one way or another, have dealt with the theme of memory. All are well-versed in the international vernacular of commemorative architecture, not least Young, who served on the judging panels for both Berlin’s Denkmal for the Murdered Jews of Europe and the National September 11 Memorial in New York. We must assume that our collective memories are safe in the hands of these experts in the sombre, grey palate of 21st-century memorialisation.

However, memorial competitions are often tricky processes, even for established world-class design veterans. The Denkmal took 10 years of fraught negotiation and controversy; the World Trade Centre competition saw Libeskind’s initial design compromised by the monopoly of real estate owner Larry Silverstein; and in judging a recent contest to create a memorial landscape at Babi Yar, Kiev (site of the most prominent Einsatzgruppen massacre of the Holocaust) the panel failed to find a single entry they felt could fulfil their requirements, eventually awarding two second prizes but no overall winner. In the particular context of the Holocaust, as an event frequently deemed unique, unimaginable and inherently traumatising, the design teams must overcome the challenge of how to represent what so many judge unrepresentable.

The Jewish Museum in Berlin, designed by Daniel Libeskind. Photo: Wikimedia commons

The language of today’s commemorative landscaping incorporates a grammar of voids, clean lines and aesthetic abstraction (also found in the work of Whiteread and Kapoor) in its attempts to overcome this challenge. Designers also need to think about the visual connotations of monumental architecture, which was itself a vehicle for the expression of Nazi ideology before and during the Holocaust. While some have reflexively played with the traditional monument in order to grapple with this legacy (see Jochen Gerz and Esther Shalev-Gerz’s ‘counter-monument’ against fascism in Harburg), others have been less sensitive (the New England Holocaust Memorial in Boston, for example, effectively recreates gas chambers using smoke from charred embers). Contemporary monumental forms are also increasingly complemented by the use of cutting-edge digital technology, often in order to provide audio-visual testimonies to counteract the vast scale of the events themselves with human stories; the Holocaust Memorial for Britain, in line with many recent national endeavours, is to be both commemorative and educational, comprising a memorial and learning centre – the latter will make use of technology precisely in this way.

Unsurprisingly, then, design values to be met by competitors are demanding: this ‘outstanding, ambitious, sensitive’ landmark must ‘convey the enormity of the Holocaust and its impact’, and be ‘widely accessible’ to ‘all visitors – regardless of age, faith, background, nationality, language, or knowledge’. Such a design must also fulfil specific national values: a ‘physical representation of the United Kingdom’s conscience and values’, which affirms a ‘commitment to stand up against prejudice and hatred’, and ‘address the sensitivities of the historic, political and national importance of [its] exceptional setting’.

These values say much about the multipurpose nature of contemporary national memory sites, which are called on to function as places of remembrance, reflection and, increasingly, education, serving the interests of past, present and future. Furthermore, sometimes controversially, they are prominent tourist attractions. However, national memorials often say as much about those who commission them as they do about the people and events they commemorate, revealing the agendas of those in power and how governments wish their countries to be perceived internationally: they are as political in nature as they are social.

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Victoria Tower Gardens, Westminster, London. Photo: Emily Whitfield-Wicks

It is somewhat ironic that alongside a Holocaust memorial for London, Cameron’s legacy as Prime Minister also includes Britain’s vote for Brexit, the first move towards dismantling the union of countries which first came together in the aftermath of the Second World War. This pivotal moment in European history is underscored by an increasing turn towards nationalistic sentiment, far-right politics and a breakdown in transnational empathy – visible in the branding of refugees in the right-wing press as entrepreneurial criminals out to take British jobs. The escalation of hate crime in the UK since Brexit is a warning of how easily discontent in uncertain and austere times results in a lashing out against those whose faith, background, nationality or language are different from our own.

Along with the monuments to the abolition of slavery (Buxton Memorial), the fight for suffrage (Emmeline Pankhurst) and civic sacrifice (Burghers of Calais), the new memorial will be on the doorstep of the Houses of Parliament. This is the site where Brexit is negotiated daily alongside policies such as those proposed by current Home Secretary Amber Rudd, whose recent call to businesses to register their foreign workers prompted accusations of racism less than a month after the competition was launched. According to Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, the new memorial ‘will be an enduring symbol of the UK’s absolute commitment to Holocaust education and to challenge hatred wherever we find it.’

And rightly so. Commemoration at its best should be a reflexive process, a starting point to face up not only to difficult pasts but to the abuses and losses happening every day. If the Holocaust can teach us anything, it is the danger of nominating groups of any race, ethnicity, culture or religion as less worthy of life – and correspondingly of spaces of grief – than ourselves. For this reason, beyond all these jostling aesthetic, representational and pedagogical values to which the designers of the Holocaust Memorial for Britain must attend, the direction to reflect on the particular site of its construction may be the most challenging.

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2 comments

  1. Fitz Fitzgerald Dec 10 2016 at 9:19 pm

    The abolition of a precious inner city green space is an unhappy byproduct of the decision to place a memorial on this site. Ill judged.

  2. “Lashing out” is intemperate language to describe the passionate views of people who like to look at reality rather than be politically correct.

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