United States Holocaust Memorial Museum by James Inigo Freed

Deutsche Bauzeitung, June 1993, pages 156 - 157.
Arquitectura Viva 32, September-October 1993, pages 30 - 37, 103

The opening this past April in Washington of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, designed by James Ingo Freed of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, has been hailed in the national press here as an architectural milestone, "without question one of the most interesting buildings...of the past quarter century," according to The New Yorker magazine; "a work of such enormous power that it...defies language," according to Herbert Muschamp of The New York Times, a design whose "force...will reverberate through building for many years to come."

This is a surprising reception for a work burdened by the constraints of official Washington architecture. Like other Washington monuments, the museum is the product of political give-and-take, of private pressure groups who won Congressional authorization for the project in 1980 and privately raised 168 million dollars to finance it (the building itself cost about 65 million). Hired by the Museum's governing council in 1986, Freed was charged with the task of officially representing the experience of the Holocaust to and for the United States.

His design emerges with all the familiar mannerisms of contemporary Washington. It is contextual in the most self-effacing sense, borrowing the brick finish from the buildings on one side of the site and the limestone from the other, its mass neatly contained within the virtual envelope of the existing building lines. The limestone features carved moldings and details (after 20 years of post-modernism, Americans have finally re-mastered a correct if rigid classical vocabulary). The brick is rendered in a Kahnian tectonic rhetoric of expressed arches and reinforcing. Program spaces and circulation are organized in an alternating Beaux-Arts pattern of wide and narrow bays, and an elaborate formal machinery is deployed to perform axial shifts in the circulation. The building predictably features a central skylit atrium, known as the Hall of Witness, while another principal space, the Hall of Remembrance, flirts with perfect geometric form, rendered in a classicized modern vocabulary.

But Freed aims to transcend this utterly conventional and exhausted formal vocabulary. The typology of the building is similar to I. M. Pei's East Wing addition to Washington's National Gallery of the 1970s: a series of "black box" closed exhibition spaces arranged around a multi-story atrium. But while Pei's formal language is neutral –the spectacle of people congregating in the atrium, on bridges, escalators and balconies, is nothing more than spectacle– in Freed's building, these conventions –adapted from the shopping center– are in themselves representational. They bear the building's representational function in relation to the Holocaust. The meaning of the building is bound up in the visitor's experience of it, in the descent from the upper levels with their views over Washington into the closed lower stories, in the broken views through glass clouded by the names of victims, in the views from the atrium itself of files of visitors moving through translucent glass cages, of the sky cut by the heavy twisted girders of the atrium roof and the glass-floored bridges of the inaccessible research floor above it. For those who may recognize them, there are oblique references to the concentration camps themselves: the banded steel masonry of the ovens at Auschwitz (added to keep them from buckling under the heat of continuous use), the profiles of its guard-towers, or a strange doubling of entries and portals, meant to evoke the way arriving inmates were sorted and separated at the entries to the camps.

As Freed told me, this is not an "architecture parlante", with a one-to-one relation of architectural form and meaning. Freed's approach is more cinematic. But he also avoids any attempt to literally simulate the experience of the Holocaust as a film or Disney theme park would. The Holocaust is represented but not reproduced: its representation in the viewer's experience of the Museum is intended to be latent and implicit, not literal.

This experiential representation, the most innovative aspect of Freed's design, builds on the lessons of Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans' Memorial, built near the Lincoln Memorial in 1982. There, two black granite walls, joined at an angle and carved with the names of the American dead, cut into the earth like a retaining wall. Visitors enter at one end and gradually descend along the wall, immersing themselves in the rising columns of names and emerging at the other end as if from an earth-bound funerary baptism.

Given the potential subtlety of this approach, it is regrettable that the exhibitions mounted in the Holocaust Museum use this same cinematic or processional presentation in a much more literal way, recreating the Holocaust experience as a loosely chronological journey through artifacts, photos and texts (it was designed by installation specialist Ralph Applebaum and Martin Smith, the British documentary filmmaker responsible for the World at War series).

The route passes over cobblestones from the Warsaw ghetto, through a vintage Polish cattlecar, and into a partially reconstructed camp. Each visitor is given the identity card of a potential Holocaust victim, and is asked to insert the card into computer printers along the tour for updates on the victim's fate. An emphasis is given to the Jewish experience of the Holocaust, although mention is made of other victims (Communists and Socialists become "political dissidents" for this American audience).

One wonders why this kind of pedagogic tour must always be so linear and directed. And one begins to question the reliance on empathy to reach visitors, a strategy which Freed uses as well. The Museum and its exhibits try to push our emotional buttons, like the tired "heart-wrenching" formulas of American television dramas, as if the facts and evidence and idea of the Holocaust were not in themselves convincing.
Visits to the Museum end in the Hall of Remembrance, an isolated space for contemplation that projects like a small Tempietto from the facade overlooking the Jefferson Memorial. Freed sees this space as the key to his design, a "memorial to a non-victory," conceived in dialectical relation to other Washington monuments. Unlike them, it is free of images and closed to the exterior. It is officially secular but religious in tone, with quotes from the Bible engraved on the walls, an eternal flame and votive candles. The hexagonal shape of the space and the triangular cutouts in its walls inevitably recall the absent Jewish star of David.

Freed describes the process of designing the Museum as a struggle to "maintain distance" and to check the tendency of the design to "float away" into partial interpretations. His personal experience was one important obstacle – Freed left Germany in 1939 at the age of nine with his five-year-old sister, and he lost many family members in the camps. But as an architect, Freed also had to internalize all the various viewpoints the building must represent, and anticipate the readings it might provoke. When Freed speaks as the author of the building, he speaks for all the other forces that helped bring it into being.

After struggling with the problem for months, Freed decided to tour Auschwitz, Birkenau and other camps, where he began the sketches that eventually led to the design. He proceeded by a curious process of exclusion and avoidance: "I tried to find a way of distancing myself by looking at how the camps were built," he told me. Similarly, he recognized or imposed limits of meaning on the building itself: first, that it could never be "complete" as a statement about the Holocaust; second, that it could not escape the "community" of its circumstances in Washington, "no matter how cynical or inappropriate" that community might be; and third, that it could not answer to the dead, that its lessons had to be for the living. "The building is not an expression of anything I felt," he says. It is rather like "a spaceship to a different world."

Freed's three escape clauses explain much about the deceptively conventional language of the building and its many compromises with its circumstances. Freed did not turn to a severe, sensory-deprived vocabulary such as Aldo Rossi's Modena Cemetery or to a brutalism of battered concrete and scorched steel. The building does not deprive or oppress its visitors, and in its richness of materials and details it is incongruously true to its patrons and setting.

But this does not fully explain the formal complexity of Freed's design. Freed astonished me during our interview by praising Daniel Libeskind's project for the Jewish Museum in Berlin. But Freed in fact uses language, even a decadent post-modern language, like a true post-structuralist of the School of Derrida. The formal richness of his design is the result of his oblique approach to the problem of representing the Holocaust. At one point in our interview he explained that he used the heavy metal strapping on his brickwork "to keep the building from exploding," as if an outpouring of language could somehow contain the void around which the building is built. "The human mind always wants to find meaning," he concluded. "And the Holocaust has no meaning."

The Holocaust is anything but meaningless, of course, but this attempt to approach it through representation fails. "Correcting" Freed's statement, we might have him say, "architecture is meaningless." And this does not apply only to the architecture of the Holocaust. Rafael Moneo has written on the minimal glass John Hancock Tower in Boston of the 70s by Freed's colleague Henry Cobb, of the essential emptiness of its representation of abstract space and abstract economic value.(1) The neutrality of Pei's National Gallery Wing is another kind of emptiness; Venturian irony is another. It seems that Deconstructivism has been waiting for us at the heart of American modernism, a fundamental disenchantment with a language which seems to manipulate us according to its own internal laws.

In the wake of this disenchantment, Freed seems to be struggling to re-awaken the poetic voice of architecture, touching on emotion, language and experience to bring together again architecture and human concerns. This is the poetry we can find in the work of Alvaro Siza, John Hedjuk and others, the realization that the fictions of architecture, language and the imagination have a place in the functional world.

1. Rafael Moneo, "Concerning the Hancock Tower by I. M. Pei and Partners", The Harvard Architecture Review, 1989, v.7, p.176-181. Article first published in Arquitectura bis, no. 52.