Toronto Globe and Mail, Wednesday, February 7, 2001
How does an architect go about depicting one of the most inexplicable
episodes in history? Peter Eisenman tells Simon Haupt that his plan is
to commemorate the Holocaust by 'unrationalizing' it
By Simon Houpt
NEW YORK -- Even before he sits down, Peter Eisenman wraps a caveat around
the interview. All comments he makes -- though they are undoubtedly his,
caught on tape during a friendly Friday afternoon chat at his Flatiron
district office -- must be reviewed and approved by him prior to their
A world-renowned architect and originator of architecture theory who is
not normally known for his caution, Eisenman insists on this unusual
condition because of the controversial nature of his subject: the
long-delayed Holocaust memorial planned for the middle of Berlin.
Not that he is wholly chary of discussing the project: This evening, he
will talk about his experiences during a lecture at the Art Gallery of
Ontario in Toronto. But after years of delays and near cancellations that
he hopes will finally end with the breaking of ground in September, you can
understand Eisenman wanting to minimize further risks.
After all, it is remarkable that the project has gotten this far. Conceived
in the early 1990s, the memorial would seem to be like Howard Hughes's
Spruce Goose aircraft, a bold intention overwhelmed by the weight of its
very structure. How could a newly reunited German nation, troubled enough
with healing the 45-year-old wounds of its own division, simultaneously
memorialize the greatest sin in its history?
After a long series of false starts by project organizers, Eisenman somehow
found the key. His design consists of 2,700 grey concrete stelae, or
standing stones, spread over a 40 acre site near the Brandenburg Gate.
Averaging 5.5 metres in height, the stelae bear no inscription, no words of
"It is a field of pillars that attempts to decontextualize the
Holocaust, in the sense of trying to see it as a cut in the history of
Germany," explains Eisenman, bespectacled and quietly authoritative. "Not
to try and locate it,
not to try and make it a thing of nostalgia, not to try and make it be able
to be rationalized, but to be able to be unrationalized. . . .
"I'm hoping that this monument will establish a different view of memory, a
different view of monument, because it doesn't speak," he continues. "The
city speaks: You look at that building, it speaks. Most graves have names
on them, most memorials have names. This is an absolutely blank field."
Furthermore, it is a field that people must experience on their own, as
there will be less than one metre of space between each of the stones. "The
idea is, What does it feel like to be alone in space? What it is to be
without any goal . . . no beginning, no end, no direction?"
Most Holocaust memorials -- Jerusalem's Yad Vashem and Washington's
Holocaust Museum among them -- provide scores of facts, figures,
and personal stories. They are testaments to the individuals who perished.
Visiting the sites are emotionally draining, frequently cathartic
experiences. Eisenman went in the other direction. He wanted to "do
something that was not either kitsch or nostalgia or representational. I
hated Schindler's List," he says. "I hated any of these things that attempt
to sort of make a theme park
out of the Holocaust. . . .
"Had it been the weeping Burghers of Calais under a tree someplace, nobody
would have said a thing," he suggests. "The fact of its scale, its dimension-
in a sense its anonymity, its autonomy, its coolness, its silence, is what
has caused the controversy."
There might also be something a little controversial about Eisenman
himself. Born in 1932 to non-practising Jewish parents in an anti-Semitic,
middle-class New Jersey town, he says he has always been faintly hostile
toward rabbinical Judaism. His parents' home had a Christmas tree, as does
his own during the holiday season. When he reached his teens, he didn't
have a bar mitzvah; he
was confirmed. Neither his present nor his ex-wife is Jewish. "I've never
felt that I was a Jewish architect," he says. Yet, like many secular Jews,
he admits to feeling different when he goes to Germany. "I go to Germany as
an American and I come back as a Jew."
He has struggled with his identity as a Jew for 20 years in psychoanalysis:
what it means to be an outsider and, paradoxically, a chosen person.
Designing the monument is obviously helping him in that struggle. "There's
no question that when it is built, this will be probably one of the most
important works that I've ever done, and it's almost accidental, because I
never wanted to be marked by this kind of work. I just happened upon it."