Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Memorials To Brutalism

With Holocaust season mercifully behind us for another year I've found myself contemplating various comments and diatribes I came across online regarding the aesthetics of the increasingly numerous Holocaust memorials springing up across Western cities.

 One Twitter user lamented:
''Every modern Jewish monument betrays a terrifying and inhuman soullessness. Always stark concrete and steel, some assault the senses by aggressively flouting any notion of symmetry of balance. Others simply erect giant, inhospitable planes to crush the human spirit.''
Now that's harsh, but is there any truth to it?

 I've often blogged about the moral uses and abuses of the Holocaust narrative, but in this case let us leave history aside and look at this from a purely aesthetic perspective and see where it leads. Firstly though, I'd like to take a closer look at non Holocaust related memorials so we can see how other people are marking historical tragedies.

Below is the main monument at Kiev's Holodomor memorial site. The site itself is a rather modest affair sitting atop a rather scenic park.

The emaciated girl signifies millions of Ukrainian children deliberately starved to death by the Bolshevik regime. The statue itself is the size of a young girl and visitors often place stalks of wheat and corn through her arms to mark the crops seized by the Bolsheviks. The statue and poise of the girl seems to be telling the story of an innocence betrayed and the vulnerability of children when ruled over by psychotics and or hostile ethnic groups.

Below is the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. The older building in the background is one of very few buildings left standing after the atomic bomb was dropped on the city killing 140,000 Japanese people. The arch statue in the foreground is one of three ''Peace Bells'' in the park.

Hiroshima park does not appear to be a dour place, but nor is it a street party either. It is a place for reflection, harmony and contemplation. The beautifully tended shrubs and trees speak to the human soul more than to the political mind. Inscribed upon the bell are the words of Socrates ''Know thyself''.

If the statue of the small girl at the Holodomor memorial speaks to children betrayed and innocence lost, and if the Hiroshima Park conveys serenity and self knowledge, what then does the new Holocaust memorial centre in Ottawa convey?

Giant slabs of undulating concrete form a warped Star of David, the points of which seem to jab out like daggers.

This is the Holocaust memorial museum of Paris, once again we see monolithic slabs of industrial concrete, this time with the added touch of rusting steel staining the surface.

Here the visitor will inevitably be drawn into the corner of the drab concrete courtyard, to be met with medieval lance type objects which jut out at you.

London is a relatively late arrival to the Holocaust memorial scene but one is finally on the way, below is the winning design by an African and an Israeli.

And here we have the runner up

Before completing the Ottawa Holocaust memorial, Jewish architect Daniel Libeskind designed the eye-wateringly ghastly Holocaust Museum in Berlin. It's the building on the left, in case you wondered....

Again and again we see the style repeating itself, massive blocks or slabs of concrete, jutting steel, often rusting, and asymmetric, confusing designs.

 As such, it is no surprise to see Berlin being hit hardest by this template:

What we begin to see emerging here is that this new brand of Holocaust memorial site popping up across the metropolises of the Western world follow a similar style and pattern. Firstly, they are hideously ugly, and always at odds with the architecture of their surroundings, secondly, there is not one shred of human warmth in them, indeed, anything which could evoke comfort or empathy has been willfully purged from the design.

 The style of the modern Holocaust memorial is, in my opinion as a layman, strikingly similar to the ''Brutalist'' architecture of the Soviet Union and post 60's Britain. Theodore Dalrymple, himself Jewish, described Brutalism as a:
 "spiritual, intellectual, and moral deformity." He called the buildings "cold-hearted", "inhuman", "hideous", and "monstrous". He stated that the reinforced concrete "does not age gracefully but instead crumbles, stains, and decays", which makes alternative building styles superior.''
 Whether or not Dalrymple would describe the Holocaust memorials in those terms is up for debate, however, to describe them as ''cold-hearted'' and ''inhuman'' or a ''moral deformity'' is not entirely unreasonable. The fact is Brutalism is synomyous with totalitarianism. The pitiless monoliths of concrete dwarf the individual, its purpose is to alienate and intimidate. 

 A logical response to such observations would be to point out that depicting totalitarianism is the entire objective of the monuments, they are reflections of Jewish pain, the harshness of the monuments could be a reflection of the consequences of hatred. However, the problem with that is that Europeans are not exactly demanding for these constructions to be dumped in their midst, they are not crying out for the Jewish people to tell them of their agony. Rather, the enthusiasm for building these memorials is always coming from the Jews themselves.

 And so, when we look upon these monstrosities it is quite possible that what we're seeing is not so much a reflection of ''our'' attitudes to them, but ''their'' attitudes to us, that these spirit crushing horrors of rusted steel and deformed symmetry, their lifelessness and hostility, are representative not of the past, but of the European future, or at least, European existence as they imagine it should be....

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