By Lucas Gray
Undoubtedly this is one of the boldest and most moving public plazas I have ever visited. It is a testament to Peter Eisenman’s creativity and the risk city planners were willing to take that ultimately has made an unforgettable landscape. This 19,000 square meter city block is overrun by 2,711 concrete columns with varying heights set in a regular grid. Each column is 2.83 meters long by 0.95 meters wide and none seem to rise at precisely 90 degrees. There is always a slight angle that produces a somewhat uneasy feeling as you wander the paths and get enveloped in a sea of gray concrete.
The ground supporting the monoliths is not flat as it gently rolls like the peaks and valleys of the ocean’s surface. The columns themselves also undulate like a large wave, rising from the street edge to the center of the site. As you wander from the sidewalk into the depths of the site you find yourself feeling smaller and smaller as the columns around you rise on all sides and quickly block out the sun and views of the surroundings. As you make your way aimlessly down the rows you accidentally stumble upon other visitors, hear distant chatter, and run your hands along cool smooth concrete. It is a place that actively engages all of your senses and makes you more aware of what is going on around you. According to Eisenman’s explanation the site is meant to represent a supposedly ordered system that has lost touch with human reason, while creating a slightly confusing atmosphere. I think he has artfully accomplished this concept in an unforgettable way.
Below the concrete forest is an underground gallery displaying the names of all known Jewish Holocaust victims. This is the only direct reference to what the site is memorializing. There are no names or marks of any kind on the above ground installation. Instead it relies on the emotional response of visitors to get its point across. It is interesting to observe how this takes affect. On the outskirts the low columns act as benches and tables and some are even flush with the ground plane. People gather in small groups and sun bathe and chat or eat lunch. As the columns rise sight becomes limited and a more subdued feeling takes over with individual explorers often quietly contemplating their existence in such an overwhelming environment. It is amazing to observe how the mood changes so dramatically.
The project was first conceived in a competition in 1994. After hundreds of submissions were received and ultimately refused they ran a new competition in 1997. Peter Eisenman’s design was chosen from this round. After almost two years of debate and conflicts, Mr. Eisenman’s scheme was finally decided upon and construction began in April of 2003. It took approximately two years to complete opening to the public in May 2005. It sits one block south of the famous Brandenburg Gate and a few blocks south of the Reichstag.
Like all good public places this memorial is multi faceted. It provides its visitors with places to gather, to sit, and to be outdoors. It is place of wonderment as is seen when children, and adults for that matter, climb up and jump from column to column. It also is a place of reflection and remembrance - a symbol to the horrors of the past and the pain suffered by the Jewish people. But ultimately it is a place where each visitor is confronted with their own emotions and must look within themselves to interpret their surroundings.