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Eisenman’s Holocaust Memorial by Fergal Rainey

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The AJ Writing Prize 2014: Entry

Peter Eisenman’s Holocaust Memorial was opened to the public in 2005; the project is comprised of 2711 monolithic blocks of concrete, smooth to the touch with a crisp edge, which combine to fill the 4.6 acre site in Berlin. The memorial is arranged on a plan of a simple rigid grid format, with the section becoming much more fluid; the ground surface and the peak of the columns’ surface undulate at different intervals to create an illusion of rise and fall. Playful arrangement and manipulation of these surfaces creates an ability to manipulate my senses. I appear to sink into the memorial and become engulfed by it, to be made to feel small, alien and oppressed by this mass of concrete. Just as I sank down into the memorial, I begin to rise out of the sea of concrete, rising out of the darkness into the light to again feel free and human.

The columns have no inscription, unlike other memorials that preach and tell us what to think or believe; this memorial challenges me to think, to imagine the oppression, to feel as if I am just merely another number in this mass of concrete. The smooth, grey, mute concrete is left free from any information, the columns, separated by grey paving and grey gravel combine to create a monotone contemplative grey landscape of shadow and light. I am not told what to believe, nor am I expected to fully comprehend the magnitude of this memory; however the muteness and neutrality of this monotone landscape makes me want to understand, aspire to seek information and to think what it must have been like for those affected.

The memorial is embedded in everyday lives, an extension of the cities circulation, used as a thorough-fare. As I use the memorial I am engaging (subconsciously or consciously) with the memorial; sitting on the shallow concrete blocks on the periphery of the memorial enjoying the comfort of the concrete’s radiant heat whilst eating lunch, playing chess or meeting with friends. The periphery has an outward looking ambience creating bright open spaces that enable these social activities to exist. I can sit and enjoy the sounds of conversation, the sounds of the city in full swing and be engaged with the city passing by. Here, I am at one with the city, open and free.

Venture further into the sea of grey, walking between the columns along the grey paving hearing the crunch of the gravel beneath my feet, becoming emerged in greyness, only momentarily broken by a flash of colour from a pedestrian passing perpendicular to my path. This break in the monotone environment emphasises the fluidity of movement between the heavy permanence of the concrete. Unlike the periphery of the memorial, the centre becomes a solitary atmosphere, I have left the city behind, and I am alone with my thoughts, challenging ideas in my mind in this space of mental contemplation. I recognise myself as fluid among the permanence of the concrete, something passive but still connected to the memorial, a residual feeling, feeling as if the memorial has left marks on me and I upon it. Nothing literal, but in my soul I feel its impact. In the centre, the columns tower above me, making me feel small creating a challenging inward looking ambience that challenges what I know into a state of what ‘I think’ I know. The heavy concrete columns cast shadow over the gorge like spaces in-between, creating a dim, reflective atmosphere. The concrete is cool as the sun’s rays do not fall upon the smooth concrete faces of the columns like they do on those shallow columns on the periphery. The sounds of the city seem distant and the city too seems distant from the solitude experienced between the heaviness of the concrete.

The contradictory relationship between the periphery and the centre provides the design with a vitality that is enhanced by the manipulation of the undulating planes of the memorial. These rise and fall in different arrangements to create an unsettling effect, challenging me, making me become aware of my being, engaging my body; my senses seem to come alive, becoming very sure of myself as a reference point in this unknown land. I think the memorial is coming to an end, but then I abruptly realise it isn’t, this false illusion challenges me to again think, my mind never seems at rest as I am confronted by other changing planes. Constantly reassessing myself in relation to the memorial; it is this way of seeing the memorial that challenges what I knew or what I thought I knew.

Eisenman seems to achieve a balance of contradictory relationships; the open and closed, the pleasure of moving from light to dark and vice versa. The monotone landscape shaped by the shadows cast at different times of the day and the smooth concrete faces meeting along a sharp clinical edge. The balance of solid and void, fluidity and permanence, the balances within sound and temperature are achieved combining to produce a sensory architecture which one element against another creates.

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