Monuments are, by nature, intended to be remarkable. After all, they exist not only to commemorate specific events, but also in a broader sense as visible reminders of these events and of the existence of the past to the people who see and visit them. The physical artifact and its surrounding context together provide a narrative
Often, they exist as positive reinforcement for a particular societies and for societies to come; even when they are wrecked, as in the post-apocalyptic landscape of Fallout 3, they are reminders of a former glory, a former locus of political and social power.
That would be the premise of the standard memorial, at least. The controversial Memorial of the Murdered Jews of Europe challenges these usually positive connotations. It’s rare that a government will raise a memorial to commemorate a defeat, and even rarer to commemorate devastating losses (the Hiroshima Peace Memorial comes to mind here)—but Berlin was the center of power when the Holocaust was conceived and executed.
The historical significance of this particular memorial in this particular city hasn’t been lost to the German parliament who commissioned the project or to the monument’s architect, Peter Eisenman, who stated as part of his explanation that “the memory of the Holocaust can never be one of nostalgia”. And they’ve certainly taken this to heart (if you’ll pardon the pun) in the design: the Memorial intentionally occupies a block within the center of Berlin, a short walk down the road from the Reichstag, which houses the parliament.
From the street level, the memorial looks unassuming, even benign. The stelae are a bit uneven, but it more resembles a small, concrete cityscape carefully placed such that you’re looking down upon it. More importantly, there aren’t any barriers to entry. When I visited the site, our tour guide stopped on the street and introduced the memorial before telling us that there wasn’t a description that could adequately capture or prepare us for the memorial. With that, we were told to simply to go and wander.
It started off benignly, where the stelae were about a foot or two high; the ground sloped down, then leveled out for a moment before sloping down again in gentle waves, propelling me forward. It wasn’t until I was near the center that I realized that my surroundings had gotten noticeably darker. I looked up and saw that the stelae were now towering several feet above me. All around me, I was surrounding by these shadowed concrete blocks, catching glimpses of the city above through narrow alleyways. Eventually, I continued along and climbed out of the memorial, but I remember looking back constantly as I did so, now acutely aware of the blocks above and the uneven ground below.
Unlike more carefully controlled narratives, the Memorial of the Murdered Jews of Europe does not necessarily seek to convey a specific script; the importance of the story is dictated by the individual, the story told based on personal experience. What Eisenman intended to convey, however, was a string of unsettling experiences that formed a narrative that, he hoped, would capture at least some of the complexity and context of the Holocaust and offer a warning to future generations. As Eisenman explains:
“The context of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is the enormity of the banal. The project manifests the instability inherent in what seems to be a system, here a rational grid, and its potential for dissolution in time. It suggests that when a supposedly rational and ordered system grows too large and out of proportion to its intended purpose, it in fact loses touch with human reason. It then begins to reveal the innate disturbances and potential for chaos in all systems of seeming order, the idea that all closed systems of a closed order are bound to fail.”