The evil that architecture can do
New ROM exhibition conjures pieces of the killing machine at Auschwitz , in physical form, for viewers to examine up close
The door, made of rough wood, has a heavy steel latch. You can lift it, and then close it with a firm thunk.
This is what the victims of Auschwitz, more than a million of them, heard before deadly Zyklon B gas flooded the room behind the door. "It's a very cruel moment," historian Robert Jan van Pelt said. "It was the last thing from the outside world that people would have heard before they were killed."
This architectural instrument of death is clearly not real – we are in a gallery at the University of Waterloo's architecture school, in Cambridge, Ont. – and yet, the door is disturbing in its mute, murderous presence.
Soon the door, a reproduction of one used at Auschwitz, will form part of a chilling and unusual exhibition that opens on June 25 at the Royal Ontario Museum: the Evidence Room.
Originally created for the Venice Biennale of Architecture, the exhibition conjures pieces of the killing machine, in physical form, for viewers to examine up close. Three life-sized models, or "monuments," including the door, stand in a mid-sized room, surrounded by plaster casts of historical documents: drawings by survivors, photographs of the site, an order for a gas-tight door.
"Because architecture is so important to history, I really wanted to touch the bottom," van Pelt said. And that was at Auschwitz: The Nazis killed approximately 1.1 million people, including about one million Jews, in a facility that was specifically designed by SS staff under the direction of architect Karl Bischoff.
"This is the worst crime ever committed by an architect," van Pelt argued. "People need to know this is possible."
The Evidence Room was created by van Pelt and his colleagues at the University of Waterloo school of architecture, Don McKay and Anne Bordeleau, along with Sascha Hastings. It approaches the Holocaust from a novel angle: the history of architecture coupled with the nascent discipline of "forensic architecture."
It has its origins in van Pelt's life's work. An architectural historian, he has had a 30-year career excavating the evidence of the gas chambers as a scholar. He teaches at the University of Waterloo's architecture school, which puts an emphasis on history and "has stressed the importance of building in a damaged world," he said.
Van Pelt is one of the world's foremost experts on Auschwitz, expertise he has deployed in court. In 2000, Holocaust denier David Irving sued scholar Deborah Lipstadt in London for libel.
The case – later dramatized in the film Denial, starring Rachel Weisz – was a legal argument over whether the Holocaust happened. Van Pelt served as an expert witness for Lipstadt's defence team; his expert analysis, more than 1,000 pages' worth, helped her win the case and defend the historical record. Then, in 2016, the Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena was curating the Venice Biennale of Architecture and asked van Pelt to create an exhibition about his work that would illustrate forensic architecture: the analysis of physical remains, architectural drawings and other sources as evidence of crime.
Aravena's decision pushed back against the culture of architecture. The profession has its own codes of ethics, and yet architects are reluctant to criticize their own when they are building private prisons in the United States or shrines to Central Asian dictators.
Fundamentally, the profession is still shaped by the ambitions of the modernist movement. "Architects are optimists," van Pelt said. "When you get into an architecture school, everyone who comes in wants to improve the world. So, this is not a welcome story."
"We know from the Second World War that the optimists die and the pessimists survive," he added. "That is the absolute distinction in the Holocaust: Those who stayed, because they believed it wouldn't get as bad as it did … they ended up in Auschwitz."
Van Pelt called upon his colleagues McKay and Bordeleau to help create the Venice installation and an accompanying book. Piper Bernbaum, then a student and now an instructor at the school, also joined the team. "It was clear to me that we'd go to the concrete evidence," McKay said, speaking in the team's studio in an old knitting mill in Cambridge.
"The numbers are so big: six million. Two hundred thousand. What does this mean to a person? What's the evidence, and how do you convey the singularity of these things?"
That was a design challenge for the team, and at one level it is familiar – one of the great aesthetic questions of the 20 th century: How do you speak the unspeakable? How do you represent the moral low point of European civilization?
At another level, the challenge was to present Auschwitz as architecture. Museum shows about architecture can be difficult to curate, since the work is mediated as drawings, photographs or videos. Here, the goal was for viewers to gather something of what this place was, and that it was real.
The exhibition's aesthetic ambition, Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) chief executive officer Josh Basseches said, makes it doubly relevant for the museum. "This was an architectural project, but it straddled the areas of art installation and architecture, as well as the tremendously important topics and issues that it addressed," he said. "It's one of those installations that fires on many different levels."
Is it a work of art? "I guess so," McKay said, "but it wasn't conceived that way."
To the team, the show's reticent style is a moral as well as a practical necessity. "We decided early on that this ought not to be a text-heavy exhibition," van Pelt said, "because it is so complex. The Case for Auschwitz" – van Pelt's 2002 book, based on his Lipstadt trial evidence – "is 600 pages to deal with some very basic questions of evidence."
Those "questions" became relevant because Irving – like many Holocaust deniers – attempted to reframe physical evidence, making detailed and dishonest arguments to create doubt about what happened at the death camps. This required van Pelt, in the court case, to document thousands of details about the camp's infrastructure of death. And, as an ordinary viewer, "if you approach this at that level of argument, you get lost," van Pelt argued. "It's a swamp."
Against this, the Evidence Room team adopted an insistent quiet. All of the components of the exhibition are white; the three reproductions are painstakingly made, but stripped of colour. "In the philosophical struggles around the Shoah, there is, over and over, an invocation of silence," McKay said, using the Hebrew word for the Holocaust. (As the philosopher Theodor Adorno put it: "To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.")
The casts of documents, overseen by Bordeleau, embody this reticence. Barely legible, they sit on the wall as if they're relics that invite, or even demand, interpretation. "They are shadows of these documents," Bordeleau said. "They have a presence that a drawing doesn't necessarily have. And they're not black on white; depending on where you stand, they appear and disappear.
"Maybe that search," she suggested, "is more important than the contents of the document alone."
Such subtlety is a lot to ask of the average museum visitor. Basseches acknowledges the exhibition "requires the viewer to engage, connect and think about the issues at stake."
But the show, as it moves from the context of the Architecture Biennale to the ROM, is being "augmented," van Pelt said. When I visited the team's Cambridge studio, they had completed a scale model of a section of Auschwitz; this "serves to situate you and to provide a sense of the scale," van Pelt said. At the same time, a graduate student, Bradley Paddock, was completing a scale model of one of Auschwitz's "crematoria": a long, chalet-like structure that contained a gas chamber and a crematorium for burning corpses. Paddock's painstaking model reveals it as a skillfully designed building. "These [façades] are quite well handled," van Pelt said musingly.
Clearly, the architects knew what they were doing.
That is an awkward fact and the Evidence Room at times creates such tensions. Its emphasis on place is unorthodox; most writings about the Nazi death camps are told from the perspectives of the survivors. The installation emphatically does not aestheticize or reproduce the death camps, and yet is, in its own unusual way, a sort of memorial to what happened there. "It's important for us to look like some care was taken," McKay said.
The ROM has been adapting to this problem of interpretation – even in the final weeks before the opening – through dialogue with local Holocaust education groups and with survivors themselves. "Survivors mentioned that while they understood the intent of the Evidence Room, they felt it would be important to share something about the victims," Basseches explained, "something about their lives that was not about death."
Accordingly, the exhibition is set up alongside a "reflection room" that includes books about the Holocaust and personal artifacts from people killed at Auschwitz. Docents will be present; iPads will be made available to visitors with texts explaining the broader history of the Holocaust and the Second World War.
The exhibition occupies a gallery near those for the ROM's Judaica collection and for 20th-century European art. Auschwitz forms part of those histories, particular and universal.
And all of ours, too. Basseches argued the Evidence Room has a new resonance in the Trump era, as a populist ruler presents his own "alternative facts."
"The idea of evidence and factuality, and how you distinguish fact from opinion, are critical issues of our day," Basseches said.
Holocaust denial as fake news? If so, it's time to close the door on that. The latch makes a loud and very solid sound.
The Evidence Room opens June 25 at the Royal Ontario Museum.