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AJ uncovers Foster’s unbuilt Holocaust Memorial designs for Imperial War Museum

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The AJ has obtained designs for a UK Holocaust Memorial and learning centre at the Imperial War Museum (IWM), south London, drawn up by Foster + Partners two years ago

The discovery comes just days before a winner is set to be announced in the high-profile contest to design a national memorial across the capital at the controversial Victoria Tower Gardens site close to the Palace of Westminster.

The IWM recently hit out at the government’s decision to build a learning centre next to the proposed structure on the riverside plot saying it would dilute ‘the public offer on learning about the Holocaust’. 

The previously unpublished Foster + Partner proposals, printed in a report dated October 2015, show a subterranean vision for a memorial and learning centre east of the museum in Geraldine Mary Harmsworth Park in Kennington.

The main features of the project include a Wall of Remembrance with the names of Holocaust victims inscribed on it; an underground learning centre, which connects to the main IWM building; and an underground ‘contemplative’ space with an oculus allowing light to flow in, and out through which a light could be beamed at night. 

The practice had suggested three options on differing scales and costs – from small (£16 million), to medium (£28 million), and large (£44 million). In the report, the IWM said the proposals were developed with the support of Southwark Council, which owns the land. Foster + Partners, which is also in the running along with some of the world’s biggest names for the Victoria Tower Gardens contest, declined to comment on the designs.

A number of senior figures have opposed the proposal for the Westminster site, including Conservative MP Edward Leigh; architecture critic Joseph Rykwert, who moved Poland to England in 1939 to escape Nazi persecution; and Barbara Weiss, co-founder of Save Victoria Tower Gardens.

IWM director-general Diane Lees told the AJ that Foster drew up the plans after the IWM was recommended in the Prime Minister’s Holocaust Commission Report, published in January 2015, as one of three possible sites to be considered for the memorial and learning centre. The other two sites were Potters Fields Park and Millbank. 

A year after the report, in January 2016, the then prime minister David Cameron announced that the Holocaust Memorial would be built in Victoria Tower Gardens.

Earlier this week, the IWM released a statement urging for the ‘reconsideration’ of the proposed Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre at Victoria Tower Gardens, arguing that this will ‘divide the public offer on learning about the Holocaust’.

Lees said: ‘Our reason for submitting this proposal was that we strongly believed that IWM London, the national museum of the Holocaust since 2000, was the right location for the future home of the Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre, providing visitors with the context to be able to truly engage with the subject in a meaningful way – delivering the ultimate objective of the Holocaust Commission.

‘The bid also built upon IWM’s many years of work with helping audiences to learn about the Holocaust.’

Regarding the government’s decision to choose Victoria Tower Gardens, Lees said that it was the IWM’s ‘understanding’ that a ‘more central London site was preferred’.

She continued: ‘While we were disappointed by this decision, we still remain hugely supportive of the plans for the Holocaust Memorial; however, our concerns lie with the proposed adjacent learning centre.’

Lees said it was the IWM’s belief that the learning centre should be based at the museum to create ‘one central learning and events suite at IWM London alongside a distinguished Holocaust collection that is relevant, engaging and trusted’. She stressed that the IWM does not object to the memorial in itself, nor to its being built at Victoria Tower Gardens.

Foster’s designs are presented as the second phase of the IWM masterplan, the first of which was completed in 2014, and also include a new entrance, as well as new art galleries to the front of the building, and new Second World War and Holocaust Galleries. 

The IWM recently unveiled plans for new Second World War and Holocaust Galleries. However, these are being drawn up by Dannatt Johnson Associates and not Foster. 

Responding to the Foster scheme, a spokesperson for the UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation, which was formed to take forward the recommendations in the Holocaust commission report, said: ’The Holocaust commission highlighted three possible sites for the memorial and learning centre, but was clear that these were not the only possible sites and recommended a more detailed site search.

‘In 2015, the foundation undertook an extensive site search of almost 50 locations. Designs were not requested during this search, but the foundation asked for and welcomed expressions of interest from sites to host the memorial and learning centre.’

The Holocaust Commission report identified ’three possible locations that should be considered as part of a consultation’, but stated that ’they are not the only possible sites’.

The AJ understands that the foundation was tasked with finding a location for the memorial and recommending this to the government, which later accepted its choice. As well as looking at the three in the report, it conducted a wider search and explored nearly 50 sites in total.

The spokesperson added: ’At the end of the site search, Victoria Tower Gardens was recommended to government as the most iconic location that best met the aims of the commission report.   

’Having decided on a site, the foundation chose to run an open international design competition as the fairest, and most transparent, method to procure the best design team on merit for a sensitive project that is of national importance.’

An insider source told the AJ that the foundation chose the Victoria Tower Gardens site because it was more ‘iconic’ and in a ‘better location’ than either the IWM or Millbank, and that Potters Field ceased to be an option as a result of other development taking place. 

Comment: Lucy Peck, on behalf of the Thorney Island Society

The monumental Wall of Remembrance combined with the contemplative space and calm garden above would work well for group or individual contemplation. Victoria Tower Gardens is too small, and the view of the Houses of Parliament too important, to allow for a large memorial monument.

The Geraldine Mary Harmsworth Park is larger than Victoria Tower Gardens and the Holocaust Memorial and oculus garden would take up a small area, leaving the larger portion of the park free for normal park activities.

The Imperial War Museum already has significant teaching facilities, so the money available for the Learning Centre would benefit from economies of scale in terms of facilities as well as the attention of more visitors, some of whom would have come for reasons not connected with the Holocaust. If spent at Victoria Tower Gardens there would be a duplication of facilities less than a mile apart.

Access by road is much easier for the IWM as there is no question of parking or even waiting in the road at Victoria Tower Gardens. By Tube and bus the two sites are similar.

The security issues raised by protecting the Holocaust Memorial would be much less at the Imperial War Museum as it is not near other iconic sites in central Westminster.

Both Victoria Tower Gardensand the Imperial War Museum fail in not being ‘highly visible from near and far’, as both sites are shielded by trees from nearby roads. Even so, the Fosters IWM design partly addresses this by creating a night-time beam of light from the oculus.

  • 2 Comments

Readers' comments (2)

  • It would be reassuring to think that misplaced populism didn't play a part in the government's misguided selection of the Victoria Tower gardens, but then what else could it be?
    Now aided and abetted by many of our best architects, who've perhaps unsurprisingly risen to the challenge of the chance of a plum commission on a difficult site without stopping to question whether this really was appropriate.
    I wonder what the descendants of all those lost in the holocaust think?

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  • Arguing over sites and designs, using marketing terminology ("the public offer on learning about the Holocaust’")... It's all a bit distasteful

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