Interaction and Meaning in the Canadian Holocaust Monument

Work and moving house seems to have killed The Devil of History stone dead, temporarily, but I felt like I couldn’t pass up the chance to comment on the plans that have been unveiled for Canada’s National Holocaust Monument in Ottawa, near the Canadian War Museum.

The six finalist teams have released their plans (summaries from the Globe & Mail here, and links to excerpts of their presentations here). There’s a lot of top international talent here, including the ridiculously omnipresent Daniel Libeskind with photographer Edward Burtynsky, and David Adjaye (National Museum of African American History) with Ron Arad (Ground Zero memorial). Aside from Libeskind’s design, which I loathe on the basis that it repeats the same motifs he uses everywhere, I don’t actually have strong feelings about any of the designs. They all seem like measured, well considered plans for a memorial that has to walk a fine line between universality and specificity.

(Some context for my rage against Libeskind. He’s clearly a very talented architect, but his work really never responds to the local context. Commentators are sure to note that his “journey through a star” evokes his Jewish Museum in Berlin, but that also means that it evokes his Dresden Museum of Military History and the Imperial War Museum North in Manchester. I’ve softened on the challenges of actually using the space in his expansion for the Royal Ontario Museum, but I still think the “air shafts” at IWM North are the most ridiculous waste of space I’ve ever seen in a museum.)

What struck me as interesting about the designs is that they all call for the viewer not to be a viewer, but a traveler or experiencer. Libeskind’s “journey through a star,” Adjaye’s twenty-two narrow paths to walk, and all the other designs call for the visitor to move into the monument and become surrounded by it. Unlike earlier generations of memorial, or even plaza-spaces like the US National World War Two memorial, they are not objects to be considered from a distance. Nor are they contemplative spaces where the visitor can enter and sit, but without engaging with the design. Instead, the proposed designs push to disrupt the separation between visitor and symbol, both with space and in several cases with audio-visual elements.

That’s an interesting trend, I think, and one that puts a new twist on the need to offer meaning without a level of conviction that becomes exclusionary. Putting the onus of the experience on the visitor means you get the vagueness of abstraction without the collapse of intent into neutrality. This also means that I probably have to give up the idea of an “age of memorial irony.” It seems we’re not quite so flummoxed by the problem of war and atrocity that we’ve given up trying to understand it.

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