The first attempt of recognizing a German war memorial to WWII occurred in 1989. The Neue Watche, a temple-like neoclassical building designed by Karl Schinkel in 1818 had served previous state governments as a national memorial and wreath-laying site. Being located very near where the Berlin wall stood prior to 1989, German chancellor Helmut Kohl hoped the centralized location of the monument would unify the city in the honoring of all its dead. Unfortunately, when the monument was rededicated in 1993, public reaction was less than enthusiastic.
Five years earlier in 1988, German television personality Lea Rosh proposed a contest to design a memorial commemorating the murdered Jews of Europe. With the relative failure of the Neue Watche memorial, people were inspired to again begin debate over her proposal. This time, with the fall of the Berlin wall, and plans on moving the capitol back to Berlin, the project was backed by the federal government as well as the now-unified Berlin Senate.
Of course, the project was going to be controversial, and the debates seemed like they would never end. During this time 528 artists’ entries were exhibited to the public, and in the eyes of some intellectuals, this ongoing debate and exhibition became a kind of memorial in itself. The time put into the memorial designs represents thousands of hours spent in the act of remembering and theorizing how to honor those who were murdered. As debates continued, however, people seemed to become more concerned with the politics and academics of the issue than with what and who were actually behind remembered. A decision was finally reached, and nine finalists were invited to modify and resubmit designs
Architect Peter Eisenman and Artist Richard Serra submitted a design consisting of a field of four thousand white pillars, or stelae, spaced three feet apart and ranging in height from ground level to sixteen feet high. The height of the pillars sheltered people from the city, permitting them to become lost in thought or memory without distraction from the outside world. They were initially designed to occupy the entire block, expanding out to the very edge of the street. Reading this memorial as an object was impossible – it became a forced experience, something that must concsiously be either entered or avoided. Helmut Kohl favored this submission so much that he personally intervened and asked Eisenman and Serra to make some changes to their monument. Eisenman agreed, Serra, unfortunately, felt that the project would no longer be his, and dropped out. Once these changes were made to the scheme, it was declared the winner of the new competition.
The revised scheme makes the field of pillars read more like an object and this new reading of the memorial implies a clearer analogy to a cemetery. A weakness, I think, inherent in the changes, and perhaps one of the reason’s for Serra’s exit. Standing outside the memorial, one understands it one way, but when they step into the memorial and become a part of it, it is understood in an entirely new light. Those who do indeed choose to enter the memorial will find their own path through the pillars – there is still no proper route, no final goal or end destination. Each person’s experience and interpretation will be unique as they find their own path to, through, or even around memory. This element of the uncanny creates an indeterminacy which I believe to be the true mark of a successful memorial.
The effect of Eisenman’s indeterminate field can be compared to Maya Linn’s Vietnam memorial. As people walk through the memorial they project themselves and their ideas onto it. They choose their own individual experiences – personalizing it – while also become part of other mourners’ experiences. In both, the ephemeral is a vital part of the experience – perhaps you might catch a glimpse of another body passing through the pillars or hear footsteps in the gravel ground caused by other visitors.