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Questions raised in Parliament over ‘completely unsuited’ Holocaust memorial site

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A leading Tory MP has hit out over the proposed site of the new UK Holocaust Memorial, saying the plot in Victoria Gardens is too small, prone to flooding, and that the scheme would set a ’dangerous precedent’ for parks in London

Speaking in the House of Commons last Thursday, Conservative MP Edward Leigh also voiced concern over the 2,650msubterranean learning centre proposed as part of the memorial next to the Palace of Westminster and said the site faced ‘serious drainage problems’

Some of architecture’s biggest names, including David Adjaye, Zaha Hadid Architects and Norman Foster, are vying for the £40 million project to honour those who suffered under Nazi persecution.

The MP for Gainsborough told the House that 50 nearby properties were flooded after heavy rain in June last year and claimed the chosen plot was ‘too small for what is needed’. The government’s ambition for the memorial had already been scaled down from ‘an entire learning campus to a few underground rooms’ due to the site’s constraints, he said.

‘When we consider the Victoria Tower Gardens site, we see it is completely unsuited to the role,’ he added. The UK government should instead look to emulate the larger site of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC, he said.

Leigh went on to say that the scale of the memorial would threaten the Unesco world heritage site at the Abbey and Palace of Westminster, and that the Millbank area was not capable of accommodating the volume of people and vehicles that would visit the memorial.

He continued: ‘If we allow a green space like this, even for such an unquestionably useful and justifiable purpose, to be built over, then other spaces under the care of the royal parks may suffer a similar fate.

’This small park, fringed with large trees, is the only oasis in this part of Westminster for hundreds of thousands of visitors, office workers and local residents every year.’ Leigh added that building the memorial in Victoria Tower Gardens would ’set a dangerous precedent for green spaces in the care of the Royal Parks Agency’. 

Architecture critic Joseph Rykwert, who was born in Warsaw and moved to England in 1939 to escape Nazi persecution, has also said the site is unsuitable for the Holocaust memorial (see his response below).

Rykwert said: ‘Would a Holocaust memorial not provide a worthy complement to such features [as exist on the site]? Not at all, I think. With all its inevitably overscaled outworks and signage it would disembowel the precious public space at a crucial point by Parliament, which is itself now constrained by the inevitable security outworks.’ 

’That the ground – like the Palace of Westminster itself – is subject to flooding, all the recent flood defences notwithstanding, means that documents would in any case be at risk there.’

Barbara Weiss, co-founder of Save Victoria Tower Gardens, which is calling on the government to reconsider the site for the memorial, said: ‘The main beauty of this park is that it is incredibly simple. It has these beautiful rows of trees and this huge lawn. As soon as you break up the lawn, you are undermining the character of that specific park.

‘That’s all it needs and anything more is too much.’

Weiss also said the memorial would be ‘technically complicated and expensive’, because it will need to be built around a sewer which runs beneath the site.

Save Victoria Gardens has launched a petition, which at the time of writing has 938 supporters, urging the government to choose another site, such as the nearby College Green or the Imperial War Museum, where there is a permanent Holocaust exhibition.

However, defending the government’s choice of site, Andrew Percy, parliamentary under-secretary of state for communities and local government, said: ‘The plans to build a new Holocaust memorial in Victoria Tower Gardens have support not only from the prime minister, but from across the political spectrum.

’The promise that all parties made to our Holocaust survivors was that we would create a striking and iconic memorial, and there is nowhere more striking and iconic than next to our parliament in Westminster.’

Percy added: ‘I assure him [Leigh] that preserving the park as a much-loved public amenity will be key in choosing the final design.’

The UK Holocaust Memorial Fund has also defended the site. It said in a statement: ’With cross-party support, we have made a promise to Britain’s Holocaust survivors that we will create a fitting national memorial and education centre next to our parliament to act as a permanent site of remembrance and a voice against hatred in the modern world.

’We want Britain’s Holocaust survivors to know that we will not break that promise.’ 

The designs for the memorial will be judged by a high-profile jury, chaired by Peter Bazalgette, including communities secretary Sajid Javid, mayor of London Sadiq Khan, the chief rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, and broadcaster Natasha Kaplinsky.

To submit feedback on the designs, email ukhmf@cabinetoffice.gov.uk.

The government has pledged £50 million as its contribution to the total project costs of the ‘National Memorial, the creation and running of a co-located learning centre and additional wider educational work on the Holocaust’.

The government and competition organiser Malcolm Reading Consultants have been contacted for comment.

Joseph Rykwert’s objections to the Holocaust Memorial site

As someone who only escaped its rigors by a hair’s breadth. I might be considered an interested party to the instituting of such a memorial and I enthusiastically applaud the nucleus of the initiative in the Imperial War Museum. However, as a Londoner by adoption, I think it essential that its surviving amenities be maintained.

The Victoria Tower park is in fact a small green – it might be considered a relic of old common land, even though it was taken over a century and a half ago from commercial (and smelly) wharves. It now carries Rodin’s sublime monument of the Calais burghers and the more modest memorial to the Pankhursts as well as the ornate Buxton fountain, which commemorates Sir Thomas, a fighter against slavery; it was very well-sited, though only moved there after 1950. It provides a handsome focus for the green. Of the competition projects, some of which are, I am sure, of great interest, I have not seen enough to comment in detail.

Would a Holocaust memorial not provide a worthy complement to such features? Not at all, I think. With all its inevitably overscaled outworks and signage it would disembowel the precious public space at a crucial point by Parliament, which is itself now constrained by the inevitable security outworks. That the ground – like the Palace of Westminster itself – is subject to flooding, all the recent flood defenses notwithstanding, means that documents would in any case be at risk there.

Where then might it be sited? The Imperial War Museum, though splendid, lacks a direct street presentation - while the very modest memorial stone in Kensington Gardens seems only to belittle the event – and I am not sure that I can suggest a grander situation. But surely other Royal Parks do have space to accommodate a building to remind us of the Holocaust and perhaps of other genocides. Regent’s Park would seem to offer a number of obvious locations, for one.

Shortlisted teams in full

  • Adjaye Associates (UK) with Ron Arad Associates, Gustafson Porter + Bowman, DHA, All Clear, Accept & Proceed, Abigail Morris, and Jonathan Safran Foer
  • Allied Works (USA) with Ralph Appelbaum Associates, Robert Montgomery, OLIN, and Lisa Strausfeld
  • Caruso St John (UK) with Rachel Whiteread, Marcus Taylor, Vogt Landscape Architects, Arup Lighting Design, and David Bonnett Associates
  • Diamond Schmitt Architects (CA) with Martha Schwartz Partners, and Ralph Appelbaum Associates
  • Foster + Partners (UK) with Michal Rovner and Future\Pace, Local Projects, Avner Shalev, Simon Schama, Samantha Heywood, Tillotson Design Associates, David Bonnett Associates, and Whybrow
  • Heneghan Peng Architects (IE) with Gustafson Porter, Event, Bruce Mau Design, BuroHappold Engineering, Bartenbach, and Duncan Boddy (PFB Construction)
  • John McAslan + Partners (UK) with MASS Design Group, DP9, London Communications Agency, Ralph Appelbaum Associates, Local Projects, Modus Operandi, JencksSquared, and Lily Jencks Studio
  • Lahdelma & Mahlamäki Architects (FI) with David Morley Architects, Ralph Appelbaum Associates, and Hemgård Landscape Design
  • Studio Libeskind (US) with Haptic Architects, Martha Schwartz Partners, Lord Cultural Resources, BuroHappold Engineering, Alan Baxter, Garbers & James, and James E. Young
  • Zaha Hadid Architects (UK) with Anish Kapoor, Event London, Sophie Walker Studio, Lord Cultural Resources, Arup Lighting Design, Whybrow, and Access=Design

Jury in full

  • Peter Bazalgette (chair) Chair, United Kingdom Holocaust Memorial Foundation and Chair, ITV Board
  • Ephraim Mirvis Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom
  • Sajid Javid MP Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government
  • Sadiq Khan Mayor of London
  • Ben Helfgot, Holocaust Survivor, honorary president, ’45 Aid Society and president, Holocaust Memorial Day Trust
  • Sally Osman Director of Royal Communications
  • Loyd Grossman Chair of Royal Parks
  • Alice M Greenwald Director, National September 11 Memorial and Museum
  • Daniel Finkelstein Journalist
  • Baroness Kidron Film director and crossbench peer
  • Dame Julia Peyton-Jones Former director of the Serpentine Galleries
  • Paul Williams Director, Stanton Williams Architects
  • Charlotte Cohen Prime Minister’s Holocaust Youth Commissioner
  • Natasha Kaplinsky Broadcaster. Kaplinsky recently recorded the testimonies of more than 100 Holocaust survivors and camp liberators.

Competition brief/vision

Envisaged as a place for everyone to come to remember the Holocaust, as well as a focal point for annual national commemorations, the memorial will affirm the United Kingdom’s commitment to stand up against prejudice and hatred. It is intended to inspire reflection and compassion, and encourage present and future generations to respect and embrace difference. In parallel, a new Learning Centre is planned, subject to technical, financial, planning or other constraints, which will advance Holocaust education across the United Kingdom and help visitors develop a deeper understanding of how societal breakdown can, in the worst cases, lead to genocide.

The memorial’s site, alongside the Houses of Parliament at the heart of Britain’s democracy, is in Victoria Tower Gardens adjacent to the River Thames. The gardens already have a memorial-narrative inspired by democratic values, which aligns with the project. Three prominent monuments, dating from the mid-to-late 19th and early 20th centuries, commemorate the expansion of suffrage, the abolition of slavery and civic sacrifice.

The design challenge is to create an outstanding and sensitively-designed Memorial and Learning Centre that is emotionally powerful while offering visitors an opportunity to deepen their understanding of humanity’s darkest hour. For some survivors – and those whose lives were affected by the Holocaust – survival stories can reveal glimmers of hope about human nature; for others, to perceive this moment in history as anything but unbearable is to compromise the Holocaust’s implacability.

This is a two-stage international design competition and is being run in accordance with EU procurement guidelines and the Public Contracts Regulations 2015. The competition was advertised in the Official Journal of the European Union (OJEU).

The project costs are estimated to be up to £40 million, which includes is the cost of works, including contractor preliminaries, OH&P, contingency, inflation, all professional fees, site preparation and VAT where applicable. 

The learning centre, expected to measure about 2,650m2, will not be a conventional exhibition or teaching centre. Instead, it will use the architecture, design and interpretation to set the memorial in context and to convey the magnitude of what happened, while ensuring visitors leave the site with a deeper understanding of the Holocaust and its victims.

Design Values

The Memorial and Learning Centre should:

  • Be an outstanding, ambitious, sensitive design that creates an emotionally powerful place for reflection and learning. 
  • Become a landmark of national significance, highlighting the importance and relevance of the Holocaust to the United Kingdom’s history.
  • Establish a place where current and future generations can come to remember the Holocaust and commemorate its victims, and which is also a focal point for annual national commemorations. 
  • Affirm the United Kingdom’s commitment to stand up against prejudice and hatred, inspire reflection and compassion, and encourage visitors to respect and embrace difference. 
  • Be sombre but not shocking; convey the magnitude of what happened in a meaningful and comprehensible way: give visitors a deeper understanding of the Holocaust and its victims.
  • Combine design, landscaping and place-making to enhance Victoria Tower Gardens – improving the visual and sensory experience of the green space, giving it focus and civic presence, both for visitors and existing users.
  • Be a logical and harmonious addition to the existing memorials in the Gardens, all of which can be viewed as a physical representation of the United Kingdom’s conscience and values. 
  • Address the sensitivities of the historic, political and national importance of the exceptional setting, adjacent to the Palace of Westminster, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the River Thames – and in one of the most visited, and recognisable parts of London.
  • Be widely accessible and communicate to all visitors – regardless of age, faith, background, nationality, language, or knowledge of the Holocaust – attracting and involving people outside the established audience. 
  • Convey the enormity of the Holocaust and its impact, reflecting the centrality of the destruction of European Jewry to Nazi objectives.
  • Appropriately represent the fate of all other victims of Nazi persecutions, Roma, disabled people, Slavs, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, and all other political opponents of the Nazi regime.
  • 5 Comments

Readers' comments (5)

  • Nathan Silver

    The Westminster Society objected to the choice of site for the Holocaust memorial as soon as the executive committee met. The chairman's letter to Sir Peter Bazalgette follows:

    Holocaust memorial, 2 Feb 17.pdf

    Nathan Silver

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  • It appears that less than 10% of the jury in this architectural design competition are architects capable of peer reviewing the schemes; with best design contest practice recommending a min. 30% or more. Maybe a reason salient spatial design questions don't get asked in UK competitions is because architects are sidelined - save when needed to wall paper the cracks.

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  • There's probably a strong public reluctance to object to the Government's initiative, but this site is obviously very unsuitable, for the reasons stated by Edward Leigh, Joseph Rykwert and Barbara Weiss.

    Andrew Percy's assurance to Edward Leigh is surely not competent, and there are enough people of powerful intellect on the jury who must understand that these gardens and memorials would in fact be overwhelmed by the proposed memorial and learning centre - however ingeniously designed: the Victoria Tower Gardens as they exist would be lost to us.

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  • FYI
    https://www.canadianarchitect.com/architecture/1003730486/1003730486/

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  • Susan James

    We need to preserve all our small green spaces in London - why not invest the money in protecting and maintaining them for all age groups - they offer so many benefits including 'time out' for contemplation.

    How much should we keep 'remembering' - Simon Jenkins cautioned about this in the Guardian on 9 November - https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/nov/09/no-more-remembrance-days-consign-20th-century-history

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