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For U.K.'s Holocaust memorial, a Canadian architect envisions light in a personal darkness

Jack Diamond, whose father lost most of his family in the Holocaust, is among the finalists for an $82-million monument to honour the victims, Paul Waldie explains

Diamond Schmitt’s design for the Holocaust Memorial in London reveals a view to Victoria Tower from the floor.

Jack Diamond has long been considered one of Canada's best architects and he's designed award-winning landmarks around the world. But few projects have touched him as deeply as the one he's working on now: Britain's National Holocaust Memorial.

Mr. Diamond's firm, Diamond Schmitt Architects Inc., is among the finalists for the £50-million (or $82-million) memorial and learning centre, which will be located in a park next to the Palace of Westminster, the home of Britain's Parliament. The project has attracted some of the best architects and artists from around the world and Diamond Schmitt made the short list of 10 proposals from 96 submissions. Models of each of the finalists' designs went on display in Westminster this month as part of a national public consultation process. The teams will each make a final pitch to a panel of 13 judges in May and a decision on the winner is expected this summer.

"It's obviously a hugely important project," Mr. Diamond said in an interview from his Toronto office. "Most of my father's family perished in the Holocaust. With six million Jews killed, there must be very few families in the rest of the world that don't have some connection, and mine was no exception."

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Mr. Diamond, 84, grew up in South Africa with deep Jewish roots. His great-grandfather was a rabbi in London and his grandfather died in a pogrom in Lithuania in 1917. His father, Jacob Diamond, left Lithuania for South Africa before the Second World War and took up a multitude of business interests, something Mr. Diamond shied away from to pursue a love of sketching. He studied architecture at the University of Capetown before heading off to Oxford and the University of Pennsylvania to learn among some of the masters. He came to Toronto in 1964, taught at the University of Toronto and started the firm with his partner, Donald Schmitt, about 10 years later. They have gone on to design projects as varied as the Foreign Ministry building in Jerusalem, Toronto's Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, the Harman Center for the Arts in Washington and the New Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia.

The Holocaust project has brought back difficult memories and struck a personal chord. He recalled the time his father found a long-lost niece who had managed to survive the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. "She'd had her two children, one 11 and one 9, shot by the SS in front of her. And her husband disappeared at 2 in the morning by the SS, and she never saw him again," he said.

"He brought her to South Africa, we were living there then, and she stayed with us for six months. The sweetest, nicest person you can imagine. And I could not imagine how anyone could survive that. It's incomprehensible."

The firm got involved in the design competition last year, shortly after then-prime-minister David Cameron announced plans for a new memorial and learning centre to "ensure that the memory of the Holocaust is preserved and that the lessons it teaches are never forgotten." The idea won wide support, particularly since London's current Holocaust memorial is a small slab of stone tucked away in Hyde Park that is more than 30 years old.

Mr. Diamond sees the memorial as a vehicle not only for remembering and teaching the horror of the Holocaust, but also honouring the good that came later, like the International Criminal Court, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the many heroic stories that have emerged over the years. And he has little time for critics who have complained that the location of the memorial, in Victoria Tower Gardens beside the Thames, is too small and will be overrun with tourists who already crowd into the area. Being near attractions like the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey is a good thing, he said. "It means that in fact it will get great exposure. And we desperately need to demonstrate the consequences of intolerance and racial discrimination, and what it produces in the world today."

An artist’s depiction of the memorial in Victoria Tower Gardens, with Lambeth Bridge in the background.

The memorial sits low on the landscape and encloses a void symbolizing loss and absence, but is open to the sky, representing hope.

The design’s round structure serves as a ramp, leading visitors down to the learning centre.

The Hall of Light receives dappled light through the glass floor of the memorial above.

Here’s what the park environs would look in summer, with Victoria Tower in the background …

… and in January. (Jan. 27 is International Holocaust Remembrance Day.)

Designing something like this isn't easy, he acknowledged, and it's almost impossible to convey the reality of the Holocaust in a monument, however beautiful. "You can't give people a genuine, authentic experience of being in a concentration camp. You cannot possibly replicate what it was like for anyone in a camp," he said. "I think the best example is the Vietnam memorial [in Washington], very simple with all the names [of those who died]. I wanted to do the same thing."

While he couldn't possibly list the names of the six million who died in the Holocaust, Mr. Diamond symbolized the loss by dotting the walls of his design with six million nuggets, each small but noticeable. And he approached the overall design with the theme of darkness and light. For him the darkness is the six million dead, the near annihilation of the Yiddish culture in Eastern Europe and the countless murders and atrocities committed by the Nazis on other groups, like homosexuals, the disabled and Jehovah's Witnesses. The light is the aftermath, the global human-rights institutions and the stories of those who risked their lives to save so many.

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His round creation plays on that idea, serving like a massive ramp that takes visitors slowly down to the learning centre, which is about seven metres below ground. Along with the nuggets, the walls feature the names of the 24 most notorious concentration camps, and the floor at the bottom of the ramp consists of a series of shapes that form the badges used by the Nazis to label those destined for the camps. Inside the learning centre there will be interactive stories of victims and heroes, along with quotations from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Once visitors look up from the dark bottom of the ramp, Mr. Diamond said they will see daylight and the towers of Parliament, representing hope.

"What I tried to do is to make it both," he said. "This duality, this sort of linked light and dark, good and bad, despair and hope. And I think that's never been more important than it is now."

While their entry has won strong reviews, the firm is the least-known among the contenders, who also hail from Britain, the United States, India, Finland, Ireland and Israel. He's such an unknown in the competition that Mr. Diamond and his team will be making a special public presentation on the design at the Canadian high commission in London next month to introduce themselves and their work as part of the open consultation.

But even if his design isn't selected, Mr. Diamond will celebrate the winner and take pride in being among the finalists. "It's a really important project," he said. "More so than ever when you see what's happening in the United States and in Europe."

Jack Diamond says his design centres on ‘duality, this sort of linked light and dark, good and bad, despair and hope. And I think that’s never been more important than it is now.’


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