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Monumental emotions

Ottawa's National Holocaust Monument speaks to more than just the mind, offering visitors the opportunity to feel the weight of the past and hope for the future through its symbolic design features

National Holocaust Monument architect Daniel Libeskind gives a tour on Sept. 28, 2017.

To enter, you walk slowly downward and leave the outside world behind. Walls of concrete lean in to enclose you as you move right, and then left, into a space surrounded by sharp peaks and images of a dark past, yet open to the sky.

This is the new National Holocaust Monument in Ottawa, which opened to the public last week. It is the most important memorial to be added to Canada's capital in more than half a century and a place that unsettles the visitor – deliberately so, as it prepares you to remember the signal horror of the 20th century and, equally, to consider how the lessons of the Holocaust might apply to the Canadian present.

I met its principal designer, the Polish-American architect Daniel Libeskind, for a tour of the site last Thursday, and the $8-million monument – years in the making – proved an unexpectedly powerful piece of architecture with a message that could not be more urgent.

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The monument is the most important memorial to be added to Canada’s capital in more than half a century.

It is an open-air pavilion that, seen from above, takes roughly the shape of a Jewish Star of David; this six-pointed figure, defined by walls of slightly nubbly raw concrete, divides into six irregular triangles. In the symbolism of the project, those triangles represent the badges which marked different classes of prisoners in Nazi concentration camps.

It speaks, first, on a visceral level, beginning with that downward slope in the floor that carried me in. "That communicates to the body, not just to the mind," Libeskind argued. "You don't see it visually, but you feel it. Too many monuments are made for the brain. But to feel – to emotionally be in dialogue with the weight of the concrete and to understand what those crushing forces might mean, and to see the opening up of those things … it's designed for each person to have their own experience."

The monument is affecting and open-ended enough to accommodate both mourning and other emotions. The walls of slanting concrete, very well-crafted, have an uncommon richness; the plaza at the centre of the monument is well-proportioned for a large event and yet, the corners under its leaning walls are comfortably contained. The monument is tough and, particularly under a bright fall sky, beautiful.

The monument is an open-air pavilion that, seen from above, takes roughly the shape of a Jewish Star of David.

That was the intention of the design. Titled Landscape of Loss, Memory and Survival, it was created by a team including Studio Libeskind, Montreal landscape architects Claude Cormier and Associates, historian Doris Bergen, Lord Cultural Resources and the Toronto photographer Edward Burtynsky. The team won an international competition in 2014 with a design that I thought too didactic; Libeskind has a fondness for symbolism and narrative and, on paper, the monument seemed heavy-handed. But in fact, after what Claude Cormier told me was a "highly collaborative process," the team produced a result that is a powerful place, a powerfully symbolic work of architecture and an important addition to its context.

That context begins across Booth Street at the adjacent Canadian War Museum. Against the museum's jagged, bunker-like forms, the memorial's pale concrete provides a counterpoint; a landscape planted with dwarf evergreens rises up to enclose and soften it, while the floor of the memorial drops away.

Within, you quickly become aware of Burtynsky's contributions to the project. Six recent, large-scale photographs of sites relevant to the Holocaust are on the walls, hand-painted onto the concrete: a barbed-wire fence at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, a railbed at Treblinka. A plaque near the latter reminds you that almost a million people, including 900,000 Jews, were murdered there.

The monument is tough and, particularly under a bright fall sky, beautiful.

And yet, the massive image is oddly handsome; to understand it fully requires some knowledge of the history. A series of interpretive panels explain what the Holocaust was: "Nazi Germany's state-sponsored, step-by-step persecution and mass killing of Jews and other targeted groups between 1933 and 1945." Still, what does it mean at this point in history? And for Canadians?

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"To experience not just the past, but the future is part of the mission," Libeskind, 71, reflected. (He was born in Poland to Holocaust survivors and now lives in New York; his wife and business partner, Nina, is Canadian, and a sister of human-rights advocate and former politician Stephen Lewis.)

"Canada is a lucky country, but it was not always so lucky; there was a moment when Canada did not accept immigrants." He was referring to the episode of the MS St. Louis, the ship carrying more than 900 European Jewish refugees that was turned away from Canadian shores in 1939. More that 250 of them were later killed in the Holocaust. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau cited the same infamous story in his speech last Wednesday to inaugurate the monument.

Hand-painted onto the concrete is a barbed-wire fence at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, which is one of six recent, large-scale photographs of sites relevant to the Holocaust that are on the monument walls.

"But," Libeskind said, "our country" – the United States – "is threatened by the forces of neo-fascism. Germany just for the first time elected a neo-Nazi party to parliament. These threats are not over."

In a way, Libeskind is exceptionally well-qualified to address such difficult questions. The monument harks back to his first completed building, the one for which he is best known: the Jewish Museum in Berlin, designed in the 1980s and opened to the public in 2001. That building is conceived as a jagged, abstracted version of a Jewish star. On the outside, its zinc facades are cut with seemingly random patterns of windows; inside, the building is defined by three paths symbolizing narratives of Jewish history in Germany, which cross slashing "voids" of concrete and one of which winds up in the dead end of the Holocaust.

Libeskind's shards also have roots in the 1980s movement dubbed Deconstructivism; Libeskind became one of the leading practitioners of this vaguely defined style. It combined the radical forms of 1920s Russian Constructivism with the French philosophical movement of Deconstruction, which suggested that texts – or buildings – had not just one set meaning, but several, often contradictory ones.

In other words, Libeskind's form-making is not merely whimsical, but comes from movements in philosophy and the arts that tried to grapple with the inconceivable truths of the 20th century.

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The memorial’s pale concrete is a counterpoint to the nearby Canadian War Museum’s jagged, bunker-like forms.

But he insists on retaining intellectual wiggle room; he uses "difficult" as a compliment and yet, tries hard to reach people. He has become somewhat controversial among architects for the way he applies a similar language of forms to radically different places – the master plan for the rebuilding of Ground Zero in New York, a Las Vegas shopping mall, a Dublin theatre, the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal wing at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. (To detractors of the ROM addition, Libeskind said: "Some people don't like it? Fine! We don't have to agree on everything. That's the nature of art.") Not all of these buildings are equally deep or equally good; their peculiar forms and details fit uneasily in some contexts.

For his part, Libeskind sidestepped the question. "A moment of light and darkness, a piece of vegetation, a sense of ascent and descent – these are beyond words because they're so much a part of how we exist in this world. And I think people will feel it in different ways."

The plain truth is that the National Holocaust Monument is easy to read. Libeskind is at his best when he can design in a purely sculptural and symbolic mode, with relatively few functions to accommodate. It is clear what the monument is meant to communicate. The off-kilter walls, confined space and Flame of Remembrance evoke a profound distress as well as hope for the future.

No one can argue with that, even in Ottawa. The monument was announced by the Stephen Harper government, in the same period as the tendentious – and now, scaled-back and redesigned – Memorial to the Victims of Communism. The Holocaust memorial has now been completed, on a prominent site, and rightly so.

Libeskind has made it clear what the monument is meant to communicate.

But monuments are inevitably political, as we have been reminded this year by the controversies in the United States over memorials to the Confederacy. (Most of those did not go up in the immediate wake of the U.S. Civil War but decades later, and embody a history of entrenched racism.)

With the Holocaust monument, there is no question of rewriting history: The meaning of the Shoah, or catastrophe, as Jews call it, is not broadly contentious and hopefully, it never will be. Yet, as neo-Nazis march in American streets, and "anti-Semitism has support from the highest levels of U.S. government," Libeskind says, who knows? The Nazi death camps were liberated 72 years ago; the survivors who remain will not be around a generation from now. The act of remembering, and the imperative to prevent genocidal acts, must be sustained.

"Governments come and go," Libeskind said. "But it's important to remember that genocide in Europe did not begin with thugs in the streets or with mean words. It began with government: We will revoke voting rights, we will impose these restrictions, we will move toward dehumanizing and killing."

And in this regard, the monument makes one important gesture: An angled stair, what Libeskind calls the Stair of Hope, leads toward Parliament Hill; it frames a view of the Peace Tower. "It is hope, but also this is a warning," Libeskind said. If Canada is "one of the world's most progressive countries," it has to aim high – and there is always the possibility we will descend to new depths.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article stated the cost of the monument as $4.5-million. It is actually $8-million.
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