The Holocaust from the inside out

The design of a Shoah museum "should work on senses without really trying to."

yad vashem 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
yad vashem 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The designers of Detroit's Holocaust Memorial Center take pride in the level of attention their building draws from drivers on the adjacent highway, even though it can sometimes lead to accidents, says Shosh Rotem in her article "Holocaust Museums in the United States: A New Architectural Prototype," which appears in the Massua Institute-published Islands of Memory. "It is probably the most extreme example of architecture in Holocaust museums," elaborated Rotem, who was born in the US and moved here as a child, in a recent interview. "When I was trying to understand why they chose to express the museum in this way, I was informed that Detroit has a high percentage of Holocaust deniers and that is why they wanted the building itself to make an impact." In her paper, Rotem delves into the architectural symbolism of today's Holocaust museum and highlights the importance of each place vis-à-vis its physical surroundings. In fact, she points out that in many cases "the innovative and unique architecture that characterizes them is more powerful than the artifacts displayed inside. The architecture - and not the artifacts - is the core of the visitors' experience." "I think that the architecture is important in any building that is trying to convey a message," she explained in the interview. "The design should work on the senses without really trying to and in addition make statements about the ideology." From her extensive research, Rotem cites the creation of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, designed by James Ingo Freed and inaugurated in 1993, as the turning point of Holocaust presentation and the coming together of all the elements to tell the story of what happened in Europe. At the heart of the Washington museum's architectural design, says Rotem, "was a commitment to designing a building that would express the Holocaust... a building that would be an integral and meaningful component of the visitors' experience and not simply a neutral container." That philosophy was also behind the creation of the building housing the new Yad Vashem. In his writings, architect Moshe Safdie, who designed the new museum, expresses his desire to make the building housing the widest range of Holocaust artifacts in the world more than just a museum. "The story of the Holocaust is too terrible, uniquely cruel and shameless in the annals of civilization, to be told in normal 'galleries,' traditional architectural constructions with doors, window frames, hardware and other detailing," he explains in Yad Vashem: The Architecture of Memory. Built on 180 dunams (45 acres) on the outskirts of the capital, the challenge of the new center, which includes a variety of memorials, archives and the International School of Holocaust Studies, was not just to build a black box that would retell the story but to complement all the elements that make up Yad Vashem, explains Avner Shalev, chairman of the Yad Vashem Directorate and the museum's chief curator. "There needs to be a dialogue between the building and the displays inside." Safdie was aware of this and in his writings explains: "I again faced the mount - and began to contemplate how I might place 4,600 square meters of space on top of it." After building a model of the mountain and placing such a building on top, Safdie realized that it was too dominant and came to the conclusion that the new museum had to "cut through the mountain, penetrating it from the south, extending under, emerging, indeed, exploding, to the north." Once he decided how the building would relate to its surroundings, Safdie then had to contemplate its message. He writes: "Years before, designing the Children's Memorial had given me an inkling of the power of emerging into the light. It meant that life prevailed. For the new museum, cutting through the mountains and bursting northward, dramatically cantilevering the structure over the Jerusalem pine forest to provide views of the hills beyond, took this life-affirming experience to another level. To stand on the extended terrace, the side walls of the prism curving away from the site seemingly to infinity, and see the fresh green of the recently planted forest with its great sense of renewal and the urbanizing hills beyond is to understand that, indeed, life prevailed. We prevailed." Indeed, a tour of the museum with its zigzagging underground galleries toward the natural light at the end does give the visitor this sense of hope and the final destination looking out at the hills of Jerusalem will have plenty of meaning for those who experience it. "No design I have ever undertaken was so charged with symbolic associations," concludes Safdie. "It seemed that every move, form, shape and sequence elicited multiple interpretations and endless debate. Now that the public has possessed the complex, I am amazed at the diversity of interpretations and reactions... I have always wondered if architecture is capable of evoking the same emotions that we experience listening to music. At Yad Vashem I am constantly aware of how intensely personal the feelings provoked are, and how individual and particular. It is at these moments that I feel architecture can, however rarely, move us as deeply as music can."