January 16, 2019

Rethinking "Shoahtecture"

“WHEN THE US HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL MUSEUM opened 25 years ago, it inaugurated a new understanding of what museums were supposed to do; since then it seems we are increasingly looking to museums to help process traumas and sort out complex social problems. David Adjaye’s celebrated National Museum of African American History and Culture, and the Memorial for Peace and Justice (the National Lynching Memorial) are only the most recent structures to do this. While secular, these ambitious projects are meant to serve as sacred repositories, as sites of pilgrimage and spiritual healing.

With the spectacular growth in museum construction over the past two decades, there’s been a parallel spike in the creation of architectural sites that memorialize the Holocaust. These projects are grand gestures to public memory, typically expensive and large in scale. They include the Bologna Shoah Memorial (completed in 2016), the Canadian National Holocaust Monument (inaugurated last year), and an Adjaye-designed London memorial, in the works. Many of these make use of deconstructivist architecture, with spatial instability as their calling card. Buildings appear to be in the process of blowing up or sliding into the ground; materials that typically convey solidity, like steel and stone, are made to float, buckle, and crack. These structures aggressively engage with bodily space—passing people through giant silos striated by beams of light or funneling them through narrow chutes—disorienting visitors with the aim of bringing out new emotions and memories. The development of these projects unfold as heavily-mediated spectacles, relying on high-profile competitions and ritualized groundbreakings to signal the creation of “important” architectural forms. It’s a matter of political and civic concern—at stake is how we mediate the past in the built environment, and the aesthetic vision we attach to memories of suffering.

Deconstructivist elements and an ostentatiousness of style, combined with government-funded, big-budget drives “to remember” are hallmarks of the new Shoahtecture. But as these projects become more ubiquitous, we have to ask ourselves: what are these architectural behemoths really for? Is it wise to entirely hand over the task of memorialization to some of the same forces—capital, industry, and the state—that helped give the Holocaust shape? And, as Nazis march again in the streets of the US and Europe, has centralizing memory in these grand repositories made it too easy to seal off, compartmentalize, ignore?”

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