The Architecture of the Holocaust Memorial

Plans for the second through fifth floors of the Memorial

When architect James Ingo Freed accepted the commission to plan the United States Holocaust Memorial, he was nervous about the challenge of creating a building that expressed the enormity of the event. He recalled his reaction in a series of interviews with Assemblage magazine, saying "I have to make a building that allows for horror, sadness. I don't know if you can make a building that does this, if you can make an architecture of sensibility." In his plans for the United States Holocaust Memorial, Freed created a building of exceptional sensibility and impact. With a combination of evocative architectural language, sensitivity to the demands of his "clients" (the people of the United States, the members of the U.S. Commission on the Holocaust, and extensive government bureaucracy), and a creative approach to the requirements of the site and subject matter, Freed's building is (in the words of architectural critic Jim Murphy) "the most emotionally powerful architectural event most of us will ever experience." Freed's building utilizes the threads of American memory that undergird our conception of the Holocaust and represents an exceptionally successful architectural achievement.

With the final selection of James Freed as the architect for the memorial, the Holocaust began in earnest its quest to lend physical dimension to the horror of the Holocaust. After rejecting its initial plan to adapt existing buildings on the site, adjacent to the Mall, the commission envisaged a memorial tailored to the needs of the project and suited to the site. The building required space for a permanent exhibit, room for educational and research facilities, a place for peaceful contemplation (termed the Hall of Remembrance), and space for temporary exhibits. On October 16, 1985, the soil of the Mall was ritualistically mixed with soil from the concentration camps at the official groundbreaking. Elie Wiesel mused that, at the time, "we begin to lend a physical dimension to our relentless quest for remembrance" (Linenthal 57). For the next eight years, the planners and architects entrusted with making this memory manifest would struggle with the duty of creating a physical structure that was inclusive, unique, and evocative.

The site of the memorial is an intrinsic and crucial part of this physical dimension. Although the physical demands of the site were not extensive, the symbolic and spiritual aspects were extremely challenging. The Holocaust Museum is located adjacent to the Mall, within sight of the Washington Monument and across the street from the Bureau of Printing and Engraving, a popular tourist attraction. The Mall, a dynamic and ever-changing repository of American iconography, demanded a powerful treatment of the lessons of the Holocaust. The long grassy area between the Washington Monument and the Capitol building, the Mall is ringed by a score of national museums. Charles Griswold terms it "a species of recollective architecture," and the language of the Holocaust Memorial would be placed alongside America's official recollection of its history and ideals. This made the facade especially important. The planners were pressured to build a memorial that "fit" in with its physical context of national iconography but also expressed the unique horror of the event it would memorialize.

James Ingo Freed's initial reluctance to take on the planning of the museum dissipated after visiting the shtetls (small Jewish villages) and the death camps in Europe. He began to incorporate elements of both the Jews' lives before the Holocaust and architectural details from the camps themselves into his planning. Freed said, "There are certain methodologies of construction, certain tectonics that begin to be very powerful in the memory of the place." His only fast architectural requirement from the commission concerned the hexagonal shape of the Hall of Remembrance. This has been taken to symbolize both the Star of David and the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust. His other design decisions were concerned with the abstraction of form to evoke meaning, saying, "I wanted to make it abstractly symbolic. I was not interested in resuscitating the forms of the Holocaust." With these loose parameters in mind, as well as an avoidance of any neo-classical alignment with Albert Speer's architecture of the Third Reich, Freed began drawing specific proposals.

Freed's building evokes the chronology of the Holocaust from the moment that the visitor enters the museum. It communicates alienation, terror, and the claustrophobia of the people herded into cattle cars, and the disorienting selection process at the gates of the camps after their interminable trip. Visitors go into the building through one of two entrances. Washington Post architectural critic Benjamin Forgey describes the experience: "The entry sequences themselves are disorienting. Directions are not clearly labelled. The visitor must choose-- go left, to right, go down, go up, go forward" (Linenthal 91). This experience is evocative of the arrival of the victims at the death camps, confused about where to go and what is ahead. From here, the visitor enters the Hall of Witness, where, in the words of James Freed, "Brick wall, exposed beams, boarded windows . . . will let visitors know that they are in a different place-- that the Holocaust is an event that should disturb and be felt as well as perceived." Above and around are moving walkways, promoting the sense of being watched be strangers. There is a skylight that has been twisted and distorted. The walls are punctuated with planes of glass that bear the names of the countries whose citizens were murdered by Nazis. The bridges which traverse the space above the Hall of Witness are reminiscent of the bridges which the Nazis built over the Jewish ghettos to allow Aryans to pass through without coming in contact with Jews. The banded steel which stretches around some of the brick walls references the structural technique which the planners of the crematoria used to prevent the heat of the ovens from expanding and splitting the walls. The visitor is herded to a bank of elevators up to the fourth floor. From here, the visitor makes his/her way through the permanent exhibit.

The permanent exhibit is designed to culminate in the Hall of Remembrance; a peaceful, serene and contemplative space conducive to meditation. The center of the ceiling is a skylight, but the windows are obscured, preventing panoramic views of the Mall and the monuments. On the tops of the doors are triangular cut-outs, reminiscent of the triangle patches worn by homosexuals and other prisoners in the camps. The shape of the Hall is hexagonal. The architect has deliberately obscured the architectural language, leaving it up to the permanent exhibit to hammer home the specific lessons of the Holocaust. This is a practice which James Freed followed in the entire plan, evoking the enormity of the event without creating a virtual reality or macabre type of theme park.

The Hall of Remembrance is the final destination of the museum, and it is also the space in which the give and take between the Holocaust council, Fine Arts commission and James Ingo Freed is most notable. Freed was amenable to the council's suggestion of a hexagonal shape and an interior which fostered contemplation, but the exterior shape and facade were more contentious. In Freed's original plan, the shape of the Hall of Remembrance protruded beyond the line of the neighboring Bureau of Printing and Engraving because, in Freed's words, "There is a complex, spiritual side to this. Set back in line with the other buildings, this could never be a monument; it will always be a building." The Fine Arts commission forced Freed to pull back the edge of the Hall of Remembrance almost six feet, to the site line of the Bureau. Its height was also scaled back.

The progression of plans for the shape and facade of the Hall of Remembrance

The Fine Arts commission also requested that the Hall of Remembrance portray a hopeful ending to the bleak narrative of the permanent exhibit, and asked that the bricked-up walls be opened to allow a clear sight of the monuments and Mall. Freed balked, saying that "I am fanatically convinced that we don't want people walking to a window looking out on the Mall." Freed felt that providing visitors with a view of these American icons would allow a misplaced sense of hope and context. In the final design, limestone was substituted for brick on the windows, but they remained obscured.

Expressing the horror of the Holocaust in steel and stone and glass is an untenable task, but the realization of James Freed's building is as close as it is possible to come. It is impossible to conclude any discussion of the architecture of the memorial without a reference to its spiritual impact. In this museum, James Ingo Freed has created a building that will remind America of the sadness and the terror of the Holocaust. Without resorting to literal representation, banal symbolism, or inaccessible abstraction, Freed incorporated grief, terror and history into a monumental structure.

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