Speak, Memory: Esther Da Costa Meyer on Peter Eisenman's Holocaust Memorial

Article excerpt

WAGING WAR ON FORGETTING is the task of all memorials, which are places where different kinds of memory and concepts of representation collide. In contemporary Berlin, the politics of memory are particularly vexed. Since the end of the cold war Berlin has tried, with varying degrees of success, to knit its divided halves together and reconnect with its past--or parts of it. Out of the rubble of war and discarded ideologies, the German capital has reestablished the old city center around the stately Unter den Linden, displacing the hubs of East and West Berlin from Alexanderplatz and Kurfurstendamm, respectively. Political, economic, and cultural considerations have dictated various strategies of reconstruction. Norman Foster's glass dome, a somewhat strained metaphor for transparency, now crowns the Reichstag; commercial areas such as Friedrichstrasse, Potsdamer Platz, and, to a lesser extent, Pariser Platz have been rebuilt with modern structures along the old street pattern; and funds are being raised to erect simulacra of landmarks such as Karl Friedrich Schinkel's Bauakademie (Academy of Architecture) and Andreas Schluter's Stadtschloss (City Palace), both demolished after the war.

Peter Eisenman's Denkmal fur die ermordeten Juden Europas (Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe), inaugurated on May 10, 2005, disrupts the seamlessness of this historicizing project and the intellectual fretwork that subtends it, a point made clear by the two names by which the project is known--the official designation, Denkmal (memorial), and the title commonly used by the public, Mahnmal (warning). The five-acre field of stark concrete stelae stands at the very heart of the emblematic area adjacent to the Brandenburg Gate, a short distance from the Reichstag, and flanking on one side the former course of the Berlin Wall. The 2,711 stelae, all with the same footprint and arrayed in parallel rows, are designed to counter the geometric uniformity of the grid. They are set at different angles, some leaning slightly to one side or another, their size increasing gradually and irregularly toward the middle of the site while the ground undulates unpredictably. At the edges of the field, the fabric of the pattern begins to fray, until it meshes with the surrounding streets.

Picking his way carefully among countless practical and theoretical obstacles, Eisenman has tried to redefine the role of the memorial in the modern city and of architectural language as a medium capable of evoking, rather than representing, an event incommensurate with individual experience. (Richard Serra, who coauthored the first version of the project, withdrew in 1998 when Helmut Kohl, then chancellor of Germany, asked for changes in the design.) From the beginning, and thus programmatically, the architect sought a powerful contrast to the deadening mediocrity of contemporary architecture in Berlin, which, with few exceptions, has failed spectacularly to make meaningful contributions to the cityscape. Rejecting outright the allure of the monumental, Eisenman offers a critique, equally trenchant but sympathetic in this case, of the city's other architectural sites of remembrance. The fact that some of Berlin's most moving tributes to victims of the Holocaust refer to specific historic moments has encouraged figurative solutions: empty bookshelves at Bebelplatz, for example, or a table and fallen chair at Koppenplatz. This preoccupation with mimesis, which is, or can be, proper to sculpture, has spread to architecture (not only in Berlin), and it is against this trend that Eisenman's memorial takes a forceful stand.

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The attempt to make architecture speak through figurative means is hardly new. Architecture parlante, a term coined in the nineteenth century, has made a comeback both in popular architecture and in the work of avant-garde practitioners like Frank Gehry, whose large-scale icons sometimes recall the work of Claes Oldenburg. …