As a crucial planning decision approaches, Ella Jessel looks back at the twists and turns of the controversial project’s tumultuous journey so far
A celebratory event to show off what David Adjaye and Ron Arad had hoped would be their final Holocaust Memorial designs grabbed the headlines last year – for all the wrong reasons. Outside Convocation Hall in Westminster a group of protesters armed with placards bearing the slogan ‘right project, wrong site’ picketed the exhibition, while inside, objectors heckled politicians.
It was the same week the row over antisemitism in the Labour Party blew up in the national press. With tensions running high, and shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry in the room, a 74-year-old Holocaust survivor, Agnes Grunwald-Spier, grabbed the microphone to say it was ‘pie in the sky’ for Labour to believe a memorial was ‘going to solve something’.
It was the first real public show of the mounting opposition to the £100 million project which has become one of London’s most controversial in recent years.
Victoria Tower Gardens was first discussed as an option on 13 January 2016. Two weeks later it was announced as the site
Announced by then prime minister David Cameron in 2016, it was planned as a ‘striking’ memorial to commemorate the six million Jewish people murdered during the Holocaust, and to all other victims of Nazi persecution.
A high-profile design competition attracted almost 100 entries from practices in 26 countries, including Zaha Hadid, Fosters, John McAslan and Daniel Libeskind. The project had cross-party support and was backed by prominent Jewish groups and the Holocaust Educational Trust.
However the decision to locate the memorial on a small Westminster park – taken on what New London Architecture’s Peter Murray describes as the ‘whim of a prime minister’ – has proved a stubborn obstacle.
Since the scheme was submitted for planning, Westminster Council has received more than 4,000 responses to its public consultation. Worryingly for its backers, recently uncovered email correspondence revealed the memorial was heading for an ‘unfavourable recommendation’ from planners. The final vote of the planning committee, originally scheduled for this month, has now been pushed back.
Timeline holocaust memorial
Yet just how the site, a Grade II*-listed pocket of green space on the north bank of the Thames, was even chosen for the memorial is mysterious. In 2015, three possible sites were identified by the cross-party Holocaust Commission: the Imperial War Museum in Southwark, Potters Fields Park by City Hall and the Millbank Complex.
Later that year, the UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation (UKHMF), set up by the government to deliver the memorial, appointed estate agent CBRE to investigate the potential of some 50 sites in central London. The brief did not include Victoria Tower Gardens.
As the stand-off continues, the debate has widened to whether a Holocaust memorial is needed at all
None of the sites looked at met the UKHMF’s criteria. The first time the foundation is understood to have openly discussed the gardens as an option was on 13 January 2016. Just two weeks later, it was announced as the site for the architectural competition.
By this point, architect and local resident Barbara Weiss had already got wind that the memorial was being proposed for the park near where she lives. Weiss, who is also behind the Skyline campaign which lobbies against ‘badly designed’ tall buildings, co-founded Save Victoria Tower Gardens (SVTG) to protest against building the memorial on the borough’s ‘green lung’.
The group also had concerns over the flood risks of the memorial’s 2,650m2 subterranean learning centre, security, and increased traffic and pollution from visitors. The scheme would sit in Westminster’s ‘monument saturation zone’, where there are already tributes to suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, the Burghers of Calais and the Buxton Memorial celebrating the abolition of slavery.
However, for the project’s supporters – which include ‘all living prime ministers’, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, London mayor Sadiq Khan, the chief rabbi and the archbishop of Canterbury – siting the memorial next to the corridors of power is precisely the point.
New view south towards buxton
UKHMF co-chair Ed Balls said the location would remind us of the ‘need to keep the lessons of history at the heart of our institutions and the decisions our elected politicians make every day’.
Both designers have also forcefully defended the choice of site. Adjaye infuriated the project’s opponents by saying that ‘disrupting’ the park was key to its thinking. Meanwhile his co-designer, Ron Arad, wrote in the AJ that the power of the memorial in the context of government would be amplified, adding: ‘[It] is also often forgotten that the Holocaust was enacted by a democratically elected government.’
Their competition-winning design involved peeling back a section of the park’s southern edge, and half-burying a structure of 23 tall bronze fins, with an underground learning centre and a ‘hall of testimonies’. The jury praised it as ‘a living place, not just a monument to something of the past’.
The design has, however, failed to win over the scheme’s critics, and has had few champions in the architectural press. Last October a group of eight Jewish peers wrote a letter to The Times arguing the design ‘evoked neither the Holocaust nor Jewish history’ while more recently, journalist Tanya Gold writing in the Telegraph described its fins as resembling a giant ‘toast rack’.
Early on at a V&A event, Adjaye attempted to reassure critics he had taken steps to mitigate against water damage in the learning centre with his ‘submarine’ design, while at the Convocation Hall design launch, project architect Lucy Tilley argued the designs retained 85 per cent of the park. Before submitting the plans, the architects added a new entrance pavilion and a secured-off courtyard to address security concerns.
New view river
But once the planning application was lodged, it triggered an avalanche of new objections, including from the Royal Parks, the charity that manages the site, which said it was not an ‘appropriate location’. The UK branch of UNESCO’s International Council on Monuments and Sites said the Westminster World Heritage Site would be ‘fundamentally compromised’ by the memorial and the Environment Agency warned it would destabilise flood defences.
The architects went back to the drawing board again in May, tweaking the boxy security pavilion with a new ‘lighter’ structure, but the scaled-down designs still didn’t placate the critics. Weiss slammed the changes as underlining ‘how the whole project has been beset by confused architectural thinking’.
The row escalated over summer, as both sides embarked on PR offensives to argue their case. SVTG accused the UKHMF of trying to ‘rig’ the public consultation’ after the foundation’s taxpayer-funded engagement campaign led to a spike in supportive comments uploaded to the planning portal. The campaigners hit back by hiring a PR firm, submitting FOI requests and commissioning a report from a counter-terrorism expert who argued that it would become a ‘high-value’ target.
As the stand-off continued, the debate widened to whether a Holocaust memorial was needed at all. As Weiss remarks, what started as a planning issue is now ‘mired in controversies of another kind’. Playing out in the pages of The Times and the Jewish Chronicle, arguments ranged from the fact there is already a Holocaust memorial in London (Richard Seifert’s inscribed boulder in Hyde Park) to the view that Holocaust memorials do not stop the spread of antisemitism. Others have said the memorial ‘whitewashes’ the reality of how the British government treated Jewish refugees during the Second World War.
New night shot
These are questions that have taken on greater urgency in the three years following the plan’s initial conception because of a rise in antisemitism in the UK and a worrying survey showing that one in 20 British adults do not believe the Holocaust happened. For supporters such as Mick Davis, former Tory party chief executive and the chair of the Holocaust Commission and the Jewish Leadership Council, this shows why the need for a ‘fitting’ memorial has ‘never been greater’.
According to Davis, the magnitude of the events the memorial pays tribute to and the positive impact it will have on Holocaust commemoration ‘dwarf the objections of a small number of naysayers, however noisy they may be’.
‘We need to remain vigilant against rising antisemitism and all forms of bigotry and intolerance’, he says, adding: ‘A National Holocaust Memorial so close to Parliament will serve as a constant reminder that diversity and tolerance can never be taken for granted and must be cherished and defended.’
As the planning decision approaches there’s no sign of either side giving ground. Weiss says she hopes Westminster will refuse permission for the scheme, but that the best outcome would be if there were a debate over the best way of tackling antisemitism in the UK. ‘That would be a good thing that could come from this,’ she says.
According to the NLA’s Peter Murray, rather than a tit-for-tat debate, the UKHMF should go back and rethink the ‘daft choice’ of site. ‘It’s a dire example of ad-hoc planning,’ he adds. ‘The idea of a Holocaust memorial is becoming more and more important but where these things are located is really important.’
As for whether the government will step in to ensure it gets built, Murray is unsure. ‘It’s impossible to look at any other precedent [of controversial projects] as we live in peculiar times,’ he says. ‘If this government stays in power it will have other issues.’