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Comments (3) Posted 05.25.09 | PERMALINK | PRINT

Mark Lamster

Memorial Day




It's Memorial Day in America, so let's talk for a moment about memorials. The other day I came across the image above, from an unveiling on a road outside of Detroit. Even acknowledging the centrality of the highway in American life, this seems a bit crass to me. (New Yorkers might think of the Ari Halberstam Memorial Access Ramp to the Brooklyn Bridge, a tribute that makes a bit more sense, as Halberstam was murdered on the bridge.) The naming above was tied to the opening of the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills, MI.

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This is the museum, a work of architecture parlante by Neumann Smith & Associates. Here's a bit of the firm's description of the building: "The gray and blue striping on the second story reminds visitors of the camp clothing Holocaust prisoners were forced to wear. The cables criss-crossing the exterior brick represent concentration camp fencing. Even the shaggy greenery around the perimeter is reminiscent of the meadow grass that flourished near the camps. All of this uncomfortable imagery is deliberate to convey the great destructive force of intolerance." Do we really need buildings like this to educate? We have films and artifacts to teach the specifics — I think a showing of Shoah is enough to permanently instill the horror of the camps on any visitor.

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The absurdity of the Detroit memorial museum only reinforces the manifold virtues of Peter Eisenman's Monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe, in Berlin. This seems to me everything that a memorial should be; physically and emotionally powerful, but not trite. Eisenman is the most cerebral of architects, and his gridded, Cartesian thinking here is still evident. But it is as much from the gut and the heart as from the head, a combination of humors that suits. If only we could have something so deceptively simple and powerful for Ground Zero. It's a vast improvement over what we're getting, to say nothing of this. Meanwhile, in about an hour, a parade of fire trucks and antique cars will file through the quaint Berkshire town where I find myself this holiday weekend. I expect a fine turnout, and can't imagine a nicer way to honor local veterans.
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I have been to Eisenman's memorial a number of times. I find it oddly compelling as a space/series of spaces. But I am still unsure of the relationship between the form and the series of crimes that it purports to memorialize. Libeskind's garden at the Jewish Museum in Berlin is a precursor of Eisenman's work and a more powerful and destabilizing space. In the context of that museum, Libeskind's own grid/un-grid is a better piece of architecture.
abernheimer
05.28.09 at 05:37

well i have not been there, i've just seen it in illustration and find it quite powerful. i'm not quite sure the forms need to (or can) establish the kind of connection you suggest. their obvious referent is to tombstones, or to an erased urban grid or lost civilization, and i think the topography and cobbles mediate between literalness and abstraction in a way that is neither kitschy nor oblique. the lou kahn proposed monument was a series of monoliths--12, if memory serves?; i don't see any kind of necessity for that kind of organization. the 6 = 6 million is practically a cliche at this point.
mark
05.28.09 at 05:49

Viewing (occupying) the two different spaces is a fine lesson, worth the trip to Berlin (not to be crass, but have some Wiener Schnitzel at Borchardt while you are at it). Libeskind's space at the Judisches Museum is non-literal, gridded, and extremely powerful physically and emotionally. Eisenman's is interesting (again, I find it compelling), but it could very well be a memorial to a good number of things, not all of them catastrophes or holocausts. Eisenman was famously embroiled with Richard Serra in the design of this space, and I can't help but feel that Serra's influence remains quite strong and oddly apolitical. The oddness of the reference to tombstones (I'd call them Mausolea and not tombstones since the blocks are very large) is further enhanced by how public the space is (unlike a fenced cemetery), but that publicness is the best feature - the memorial is open whereas Libeskind's space is in the heart of a museum with an entry fee. Yet, that public aspect is also wholly weird - people play in the alleys of the spaces reserved as a memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. It's very strange, quite beautiful, and strangely not moving.
abernheimer
05.28.09 at 07:03


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mark Lamster is the architecture critic of the Dallas Morning News and a professor at the University of Texas at Arlington School of Architecture. A contributing editor to Architectural Review, he is currently at work on his third book, a biography of the late architect Philip Johnson. Follow: @marklamster.
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