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Architecture of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

Architecture of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

[MUSIC PLAYING] K. MICHAEL HAYS: When you’re walking through the city of Berlin, you’re almost in it before you know it. The blocks at the edges of the site are very, very low, almost like benches, almost like park benches. But very, very quickly, this undulating ground descends, and the height of the blocks begins to change and come up very quickly. At first, the project identifies itself with the city. There’s something about the gridded blocks that are kind of echoed in some of those surrounding facades. The abstraction of the blocks also creates a contrast with the greenery, with the trees and plants of the Tiergarten. At first, the project identifies itself with the city. But then, when you get into the project, you begin to lose the horizon. The last trees of the Tiergarten start to be submerged below the horizon or the blocks raise up to cover the horizon. [MUSIC PLAYING] Very quickly, you lose the sense of a grid, and the sense of a labyrinth starts to take over, and you lose orientation. [MUSIC PLAYING] Because there is no marked entry, there are many places you can enter the project. There’s also no clear exit. And very, very quickly, you feel like you’re in an enclosed world with no exit. [MUSIC PLAYING] In May 2005, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe opened in Berlin Mitte, which is the centermost borough of the city of Berlin. The project was designed by the American architect Peter Eisenman. In some ways, it’s a fairly simple project to describe. It comprises almost 3,000 stelae, which are these concrete pillars or blocks, arrayed across a site of undulating ground, on a site that’s almost the size of three football fields. In other ways, it’s a very difficult, both conceptually and materially, a very difficult project to describe. It took almost 17 years to complete, not only because of construction issues, but because of debates surrounding the project, which we’ll talk about later. The memorial is dedicated to the Jewish victims of Nazi genocide in World War II. We haven’t seen a project quite like this in this course. For one thing, it’s the first 21st-century project that we’ve seen. But second, the project really doesn’t have a program, like a factory or a church. It doesn’t have to provide or house the function of worship, as it would a church, or the function of work, as it would in a factory. The project is an architectural memorial. But what it memorializes is not the life of a single person, like some great leader or humanitarian, and it’s not really even the lives of a people, notwithstanding that it is a memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe. What the program actually calls for is to induce memory of a structural condition of society, of an event in history that should not be forgotten, that cannot be forgotten, because of the horror of the event itself. I’ll try to show how the project constructs what I’ll be calling critical memory– a kind of memory that is reflective, is contemplative. And critical memory will be one of the themes of this presentation. The second theme is the abstraction of the architecture as a response to the need for critical memory, or abstraction as a way of producing critical memory. Scholars who have documented and chronicled the two-stage competition process by which Peter Eisenman received the commission have noted, again and again, that Eisenman was the most abstract of the 19 entries to the competition. And we’ll want to ask why abstraction was the sort of mode of architecture that was chosen to produce this work or invite this work of critical memory.

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