Siting the memorial close to the UK seat of government is integral to the message it needs to convey, argues project co-designer Ron Arad
A memorial by the Houses of Parliament, on the banks of the Thames, will not only remind us of a past that cannot be repaired, but also make us aware of our role in protecting the future – even in a time and place that appear to be secure.
When the UK Holocaust Memorial competition was announced in September 2016, we knew immediately that this was an incredibly important moment. We also really admired the government’s choice of site, in such close proximity to the Palace of Westminster – an admirable decision and a humbling task to rise to. A memorial in the context of government is amplified, as it is also often forgotten that the Holocaust was enacted by a democratically elected government.
I decided to call David Adjaye and Neil Porter and suggest we collaborate on an entry for this competition. We soon met for a walk around the gardens and were taken by the beauty of the place, by the drama of its location by the river, with that amazing backdrop of Victoria Tower. We also felt that any proposal should be as respectful of the gardens and the local residents as possible, and this drove us to locate the memorial as far south as possible. We knew our task was also to enhance the gardens and respect the disparate memorials already in the gardens, which in one way or another stand up to historic injustices. Neil’s notion of the meandering path stringing these together brought together all three components and all three teams: our memorial, Adjaye Associates’ Learning Centre and Gustafson Porter + Bowman’s landscape.
This project is not about the Holocaust in the context of war; it is about the Holocaust in the context of government
Developing the proposal for the memorial has been a tightrope walk between the absolute need and wish for it to be both an emotive and significant presence in the public domain, and an integral part of the gardens, peacefully co-existing within the wider context.
I believe we’ve achieved this, and this has largely been reflected by the jury’s vote, and the wide and positive public feedback we received during the competition and after the announcement we had won. The government and project team have since kept an open public engagement channel throughout the planning consultation process, and we have adjusted some of the external features accordingly.
I know that there have been calls by local residents to relocate the memorial and learning centre elsewhere. Some suggested the Imperial War Museum as an alternative, given its excellent permanent Holocaust exhibition. However, it has to be emphasised that this project is very particular. It is not about the Holocaust in the context of war; it is about the Holocaust in the context of government, it is about the British story and its relationship to it, and it is about our role as a democracy in standing up to injustices and doing our best to prevent other genocides. I cannot imagine a more appropriate choice of site for the project.
I believe that one of the strongest aspects of the design, which I know will carry through to the realised memorial, is in its ability to affect people viscerally and emotionally. We conceived of the memorial as an experience, not an object on a plinth. We have drawn upon many contextual and symbolic references in its conception, but these are discreetly integrated into the process, rather than demarcated by letters or emblems. I imagine visitors may or may not appreciate this, or they may understand the references the memorial draws upon to a greater or lesser extent, but this isn’t crucial for their experience, and I believe they are unlikely to remain unmoved by it.
This memorial’s role is to offer different readings, associations and references –- it raises difficult questions – in the present about the past. It needs to resonate with living survivors of the Holocaust and their relatives and with a generation that has no living memory of the Holocaust. It needs to resonate universally with survivors and relatives of other atrocities.
We will have succeeded if even a fraction of future visitors leave the memorial and the learning centre with an enhanced sense of their individual responsibility as citizens.
Ron Arad is an architect and designer