The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
When the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War is marked on 8th May 2005, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews in Berlin will be solemnly dedicated. The field of stelae, designed by Peter Eisenman, is situated on Ebertstrasse, about halfway between the Brandenburg Gate and Potsdam Square. Although much has been reported about the creation process and about the 2,700 distinctive concrete blocks, the media have so far largely ignored the "Information Centre" that has been created underneath.
Looking at a map of the area around the Brandenburg Gate, it might look as if the field of stelae is a flaw in the pleasing web of the city plan. Clear contours and lines give way to a vague, poorly defined patch that, in turn, has its own, much smaller grid, based on the dimensions of the anthracite-coloured concrete stelae (2.38 x 0.95m), where the longer edge of the rectangles are aligned approximately east-west. The area has no clear boundary, and some blocks are flush mounted into the normal pavements that surround the memorial on every side. These can be understood as the first contact point to everyday life and to the present. Starting from the neighbouring Tiergarten on the other side of Ebertstrasse, 41 trees have been planted amongst the field of stelae. The trees, mostly pines, limes and Kentucky coffee trees, convey the sense of a gradual transfer, over a distance of perhaps
25 metres, from the dense green of the park landscape to the deep grey of the sea of blocks.
The field of stelae has itself been erected over an artificial hollow. The floor drops away over a number of shelves down to 2.40 m below street level. At the same time, the concrete blocks grow, following a similar yet not entirely synchronous pattern, to reach a similar value above this base level. At the centre of the site, therefore, we find ourselves in a stark and stony depth of about 4.70 m. The journey into the centre is a vivid experience in which sound and ambience change continuously. The noise of the large city, heard only moments before, gives way to the acoustic qualities of a closed room. Light and heat are increasingly absorbed by the anthracite-toned artificial stones.
These hollow, prefabricated concrete parts progressively reduce the temperature. They were manufactured by the firm of H. Geithner, using an expensive process to create eleven height groups between 0.20 m and 5.00 m. An entire series of presentations was devoted to their manufacture at the 49th Ulm Concrete and Prefabricated Part Conference, and the material is reprinted in our February issue on pages 74 to 85 as well as on page 240 ff.
The rows of blocks have not been placed in a rigidly accurate alignment. The stelae lean back and forth, seemingly arbitrarily. In fact the architect specified an individual angle for every concrete block, to combat the impression of idealised uniformity. That kind of monotony would also be an inadequate image for the fact that each murder was the death of an individual.
So that the changes in ground level could easily be traced, a pavement of small stones was laid in the narrow aisles between the rows of stelae. The square concrete slabs were manufactured specially for this project by Ehl, a company based in Kruft. Their colouring has been matched to that of the stelae.
The artificial valley is drained both through natural seepage along the pavement joints and through a small number of central drains. These intakes, which are also square, have covers of untreated, rust-brown cast-iron. Their detailed design matches the joint dimension of the pavement covering. The surface water is trapped, as it seeps down, by a special drainage layer extending over the whole area of the memorial. This water is fed, together with water from the surface drains, to a rainwater collection basin. Here it is filtered, and either made available for watering the trees, or passed to the ground water.
The memorial includes an underground Information Centre. This "Information Centre" is located underneath the south-eastern part of the memorial, and extends over about 15% of the full area. Above ground, its position is indicated by a small, cubic structure: this is the access to a lift providing unhindered access for visits to the underground exhibition. The two main staircases that lead down to this level are situated at the edge of the field of stelae. For this reason only a few blocks, impressively high as they are, interrupt the sequence of steps.
Three additional emergency exits have been elegantly integrated into the array of stelae: each one takes up exactly the width of one aisle between the blocks, and they lead to the outside via a single flight of stairs.
The permanent exhibition, designed by Dagmar von Wilcken, takes up four, square principal rooms, angled at about 5° to the matrix of blocks above ground. Together, they form yet another square, enclosed to the east and south by an L-shaped foyer. The Information Centre is accessed from the north at the intersection of this trapezoidal leg. Exit is through a somewhat narrower climb towards the west.
The solid, fair-faced concrete ceiling of the documentation centre follows the tectonic curves of the ground above. Bays corresponding to the grid of stelae makes the exact position of the concrete blocks erected on top of them visible underground. Some of these bays incorporate smoke protection flaps. In the event of fire, their full area can be used for smoke removal. Each of the stelae, which are in any case hollow, located above these openings in the ceiling function as chimneys. The tops of these particular stelae have ventilation grilles instead of the smooth top surface of the other blocks. The necessary powerful fans are integrated into the concrete blocks.
The display cabinets in the exhibition are also oriented in accordance with the pattern of stelae above ground. Due to the 5° rotation mentioned above, they intersect the four presentation rooms at acute angles. Attached to the walls or mounted in the ceiling, these information elements, which have a concrete finish, reach out towards the visitor, or are let into the anthracite-toned hard rubber floor as walk-on illuminated panels.
The tour begins in the northern entrance foyer with a general historical orientation to the events. While the first room examines the scale of the genocide, the second hall focuses on the fate of individuals, presented as examples. The names of Jews who died under the Nazi regime are displayed in the third room, and recited by an unseen narrator. The fourth room completes the tour with an examination of the extermination sites. The horror of the concentration camps is impressed on the visitor through images and audible documentation. Finally, in the exit foyer, the visitor is able to obtain information through online stations about other Nazi documentation centres, or to search through the names of murdered Jews directly in the register at the Yad Vashem memorial in Israel.
The memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe has created a site where a very powerful artistic expression has been found for the monstrosity of this crime, with which nothing can truly be compared. Just as the holocaust ought to be a constant presence in our consciousness, the rows of blocks will be accessible day and night. It is to be hoped that their dignity and atmosphere are sufficiently powerful that this impressive site will be spared the attentions of casual sun-worshippers and shady prowlers. It remains to be seen whether the public is ready for such responsibility.
Robert Mehl, Aachen