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Horror of the Holocaust

The opening this summer of a permanent exhibition on the Holocaust at London's Imperial War Museum (IWM) had plenty of press attention - but an aspect of it was underplayed.A piece in the Guardian (2.6.00) was representative, remarking that 'the architectonics are eloquent', but not assessing them at any length. Of course, the content is primary, but the way in which it is presented is integral to its effect. Does the design reinforce the objects, images and texts, or undermine them?

In collaboration with the IWM's project director Suzanne Bardgett, the Holocaust exhibition is the creation of Stephen Greenberg of DEGW and Bob Baxter of At Large. They won the competition for it in 1996 from a shortlist that included Evans and Shalev, Troughton McAslan and Daniel Libeskind. Although four years passed before their design was finally realised, much of their original competition submission still holds good.

Its central concepts now have a physical form.

'There are two principal themes which underpin the exhibition - the personal and the organisational, ' says Greenberg. 'It's about what happened to ordinary people, to their familiar everyday world, and about the methodical, industrialised manner in which their lives were destroyed. We wanted to present this without scenography - the material itself is powerful enough. And we wanted to give visitors 'space to imagine', to reflect on what they saw and heard.'

The exhibition is housed on two floors of Arup Associates' new extension to the IWM, which opens off the building's central atrium with its massed hardware of war: planes suspended from the ceiling, tanks on the floor. One task for the designers was to make a transition from this light-filled realm, where the technology of death is to all intents celebrated, into that of the Holocaust - emotionally so different.

You enter obliquely into a wood-lined oval room hung with photographs. This intermediary zone offers glimpses of Jewish life and culture before the Holocaust, giving a sense of what would be swept away. The room is truncated at one end, as if registering an abrupt interruption.

At its exit onto a broad corridor-like space, the carpet underfoot gives way to tiles, the flanking wall leans inwards, and the mood darkens.

Each of the exhibition's two floors has its own architectural language but the same detailing, much as Greenberg and Baxter proposed in their winning submission. On this first level, many stories are being told: we move from the rise of the Nazis to the pre-war flight of refugees via sections on such topics as anti-Jewish legislation and Kristallnacht. Here surfaces are often at an angle, the tiled floor tapers, walls end on a diagonal: the intent is to convey a fragmenting world.

Downstairs, on the other hand, where extermination becomes a matter of industrial efficiency, everything is orthogonal.

It's at the upper level that doubts about this distinction arise. Perhaps in the period since this design was chosen, we have been over-exposed to sloping walls and fractured forms; most obviously at Libeskind's Jewish Museum, Berlin. In conveying a sense that all is going awry, the nod here towards Deconstruction seems a little cliched. The materials, however, reflect the designers' distaste for scenography, particularly the crisp brown tiles (from Germany) which colonise areas of wall as well as floor. It implies an increasingly pervasive grid - symbolic of a rigid, organising mindset - which foreshadows what visitors will find on the lower floor.

This tangible material quality to the overall design is reinforced by the staircase that connects the two floors. Solid, but quite rudimentary in construction, it is made of wood whose grain is palpable when you grasp the handrail. Its origin lies in improvised ghetto structures; but there is a distracting note. The wall in front of it is painted red, the stair itself is white, the backdrop black.

This is the Nazi palette, but also a Constructivist one and - in the immediate context of the sculptural stair - some visitors may find that the latter reading obtrudes; disconcertingly, given the social optimism behind Constructive art.

There is a strong counterpoint to this distraction, however, for, placed to one side ofthe approach to the staircase, in a section on euthanasia, is a dissecting table from a psychiatric hospital at Kaufbeuren-Irsee. This is the most disturbing object to be seen so far and, aware instinctively that the exhibition is paced, with its crescendo still deferred, you know as you descend the stair that worse is yet to come.

On this lower floor the grid of tiles, now a very dark grey, becomes pervasive, while exposed steel beams (also grey in colour) give this area an appropriate industrial character. 'We wanted to create a space that works on you gradually, ' say the designers. 'There's a relentlessness here, there's no relief in it at all.'

Yet the volumes are more variegated than they were in early sketches for this floor, whose repetitive subdivisions directly echoed the serried accommodation blocks at Auschwitz. Standing beside a display of relics from a mass execution, Baxter explains: 'When the going gets tough, you have to give space to accommodate it physically.

When someone is looking at distressing material like this they don't want people brushing past them. So the spaces have to keep opening up.'

In their competition submission, Greenberg and Baxter were adamant that the exhibition's display cases should not be 'overdesigned'. At the time of the competition the IWM had acquired relatively few Holocaust-related objects, but many more were secured later on loan, especially from Polish sources. The question of their display became paramount.

It's worth noting the context in which such decisions must be made. In the far-off days (around 1988) when John Pawson and Claudio Silvestrin were in harmonious partnership, they designed 'a minimalist patisserie' in London's King's Road, which the now-defunct Designers' Journal admired for its 'effrontery'. It would display a single cake as if it were a jewel. Giving gravitas to a pastry - what a noble pursuit.

To such suspect chic, reproduced from Bond Street to Madison Avenue, add the late infatuation for Duchampian 'ready-mades' - the mundane object as 'art' - and for installations. Think too of Joseph Beuys' vitrines, or of a Holocaust-haunted artist such as Christian Boltanski. So many references are waiting in the wings. How do you present such highly-charged artefacts as the IWM now has without trivialising, theatricalising, or otherwise devaluing them?

The solutions in this exhibition are judicious.

The display cases themselves are not overly precious, nor are their contents overwhelmed by text, by a didactic commentary.Objects like a canister of Zyklon B gas pellets are not melodramatised.Most fraught are the relics of people who were gassed: shoes, other personal odds-and-ends. These are stacked on industrial shelf units beside Gerry Judah's large model of Auschwitz - seen as the apex of conveyor-belt killing - which forms the centrepiece of the lower floor.

What looks like a fragment of Aldo Rossi's San Cataldo columbarium has landed nearby for the section titled 'Who Were the Killers?' This smacks of stagecraft. But the sombre itinerary on this floor - as Baxter says: 'It's tough to navigate emotionally' - isn't compromised. If it does indeed seem relentless there is sensitivity to the viewer, not only in the spatial adjustments that Baxter described, but in the recognition of likely fatigue, as speech takes precedence over text in the presentation. There is also a short-cut to the exit.

At the end of the exhibition you emerge into a wood-lined oval room reminiscent of the one at the beginning; a formal echo that brings back the plenitude of what was systematically destroyed.

Two juxtaposed screens show survivors reflecting on the Holocaust and its aftermath - such personal testimonies are threaded through the whole exhibition - and scenes of an abandoned death camp. Perhaps here, visitors will, as the designers hope, ponder the implications of what they have seen for racial tolerance now. At the very least, the quotation on the wall from Edmund Burke - 'For evil to triumph it is only necessary for good men to do nothing'- should make itself felt.

CREDITS

CLIENT Imperial War Museum

EXHIBITION DESIGN Stephen Greenberg (DEGW) Bob Baxter (At Large) DEGW design team: Lara Furniss; Peter Gladwell; Christine Hanwa; Herman Hotze; Jeff Morgan; David Preece; Derek Weir; Andrew Wells; Steve Zimmermann

GRAPHIC DESIGN Robert Carter (of Lucy or Robert)

PROJECT MANAGER Boyden Project Management

QUANTITY SURVEYOR Boyden & Co

CONTRACTOR Beck Interiors

STRUCTURAL ENGINEERS Price & Myers

PLANNING SUPERVISOR Clarson Goff Projects

LIGHTING CONSULTANT DHA Design Services

ACOUSTIC CONSULTANT New Acoustics

FILM PRODUCTION October Films

AUDIO-VISUAL CONSULTANT Electrosonic

AUSCHWITZ MODEL Gerry Judah (Ouroboros)

SHOWCASE MANUFACTURER I&Co

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