Architect Hagy Belzberg recently showed me around his latest creation, the new Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. He had kindly agreed to give me a personal tour since I was preparing to write up a review.
While I had fully intended to focus on the architecture, the site, the ideas behind the design, I was caught off-guard by something unexpected: people.
Prior to my visit I had been looking at some new photographs of the building taken by Iwan Baan. Architecture photographed for reviews is usually uncluttered by the messiness of life. The buildings are often empty vessels waiting to be activated. People appear as mere apparitions, like objects, often blurred. Thus, there is little evidence of other responses or adaptations to the architecture. If we overlook the gaze of the photographer, there is then only one gaze present: that of the singular “I”. And this “I” had expected an encounter with a building.
More after the break.
The critic is not the first one to compose a narrative for a building but he is often the first one to record it, interpret it, and position the architecture within a larger cultural context. He may also be the first to reflect on its meaning and significance once it has been materialized in the city.
On this windy morning, the building sat like a dune. The tall grass of its coiling green-roof whipped back and forth. Within the thrum of the wind came the high pitch of children playing in the park.
Once inside, under the earth, the architecture disappeared. I don’t mean this in any negative, hyper-critical way. The building simply gave way under the intensity of its contents. The museum’s architecture is good because it facilitates its own disappearance. It steps aside to make room for the force of history. I don’t know of any design that could overpower the human evidence of something like the Holocaust. Design shouldn’t aspire to this anyway.
The building isn’t quite finished. There are some rough patches. You can still see indications of its on-going construction—this too isn’t revealed in the photographs. I wonder if it wouldn’t be good to leave it this way. The stories continue to be told while the building continues to be built—like some Italo Calvino scenario.
I asked one survivor what he thought of the architecture. “It’s good this place is here,” he said. He really could have cared less what it looked like. There were some steel folding chairs strewn around the area where he was to give his talk. This was one of the unfinished spaces.
A small group sat on these chairs, rapt as he explained how he helped build Auschwitz. There was nothing there, he said, when the first groups of prisoners came—close to 75% of them had died in the box cars en route. The first thing those still living did was dispose of mountains of corpses. He was so exhausted he used the corpse of his neighbor for a chair. Those severely weakened or close to death were shot. Those who were able were forced to construct the camp.
The informality of the unfinished room seemed appropriate. There was never any intention of having the architecture mimic or stage the spaces of the death camps, but something too refined, too precise would not suit such devastating stories.
Hagy said he didn’t mind at all that the concrete was showing cracks here and there. “It should crack. It’s not meant to be some pristine thing,” he said. Exactly, I thought. Let it crack. Let it get old. Let it survive.
The old survivors who volunteer are also cracked and weathered. They are dying off. Soon all that will be left is the building. It will be known for having been the place where they told their stories. The architect’s name is on the facade, but he would be the first to say the building isn’t about him.