How do we explain the Holocaust? How do we remember it? These were among the thorniest philosophical questions of the 20th century. They are no easier today in Canada – when we are separated from those unspeakable events by an ocean and, nearly, a lifetime.
And yet some of us keep trying. Last week, six teams of architects, artists, landscape architects and thinkers unveiled their plans for Canada's first National Holocaust Monument – planned for Ottawa, in sight of Parliament, close to the Canadian War Museum.
The six proposals range from broad symbolism to more abstract gestures. The jury will have to choose between these two extremes, and has several powerful options from which to choose. In one camp are proposals from the teams led by architects Daniel Libeskind and Les Klein; on the other, designs led by Montreal's Gilles Saucier and by David Adjaye and Ron Arad.
But first: What is the purpose of such a place? It is to honour Canadian victims and survivors of the Holocaust, as well as to, in the words of Foreign Minister John Baird, "educate visitors of all faiths and traditions about the causes and risks of hate."
A monument can do very little teaching. But it can offer a place to come together and discuss; this one will bring the experience of the Holocaust, still felt so deeply by Canada's Jewish population in particular, onto Ottawa's official landscape – altering the national conversation at a time when survivors are well into old age.
It's a complex set of tasks, to produce art and architecture of the most sombre import. Each proposal accomplishes these tasks with plazas or gathering places; in several cases these are enveloped by landforms or dug into the earth, a marker of regeneration or rootedness.
Consider Libeskind's proposal. He has designed a complex structure out of his trademark crystalline forms, which he first employed with the Jewish Museum in Berlin and has since made his toolkit for other museums (including Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum). Visitors would walk into a sunken plaza, as into the depths of history, and then back up again on a stair pointed at the Peace Tower. It is well thought out and freighted with visual cues, including a railway track across the floor. Too many cues, I think; it is both too flashy and too didactic.
A subtler variation comes from the team led by Toronto architect Klein and landscape architect Jeff Craft of SWA Group. It consists of two curving and arching stone forms, one carrying the weight of a birch forest (a symbolic link between Eastern Europe and Canada, as well as a symbol of regeneration). Along with an architectural theme of light-and-dark, it includes audio and video installations – the latter, by the prominent artist Yael Bertana, a projection of symbols and objects of Jewish life before the war. I have not seen a monument or memorial that relies so strongly on audiovisual components; it might work very well. But otherwise is familiar aesthetic ground.
Many Holocaust memorials descend into the ground, as does Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, and the 1963 Memorial to the Martyrs of Deportation in Paris. The resulting tension, being constrained by the earth with a (narrow) view up to the sky, evokes a range of historical and emotional states: terror and hope, death and rebirth, destruction of a society and its reconstruction.
But to make a place that has a lasting power demands economy and simplicity of gestures. The most notable Holocaust memorial of the past generation, Peter Eisenman's Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in central Berlin, is a field of 2,711 concrete rectangles, unmarked, free of text or explicit symbolism. All this reflects the central conundrum of trying – with stone or concrete – to say something about the industrialized killing of six million.
With this in mind, I can see a strong case for the proposal from Saucier and artist Marie-France Brière. It appears as a sort of bridge, or an eruption of the landscape, as Saucier explains it, the history "emerging from Canadian ground."
More compelling is the design by Adjaye, the renowned British architect , and Israeli artist-architect Arad, with Canadian landscape architect Janet Rosenberg and art consultant Irene Szylinger. It is a series of 23 concrete walls, standing parallel; each of them very tall, irregular in form and texture.
There are 22 passageways between them, one for each European country whose Jewish community was destroyed. Each passage provides a journey toward light. As a group, they also resemble a book, perhaps the Yizkor bikher (books of remembering) that many European Jewish communities produced in the years after the war . This monument encourages us to go deep, to head into the darkness and find the only way out, through reflection and learning.