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Eisenman's Field Of Memory

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by Henderson Downing, for outsideleft.com
originally published: May, 2005
Sixty years have passed since the end of the war in Europe but in Berlin the psychic wounds are still fresh
by Henderson Downing, for outsideleft.com
originally published: May, 2005
Sixty years have passed since the end of the war in Europe but in Berlin the psychic wounds are still fresh

Twenty years after the Second World War ended the American architect Peter Eisenman, suitably attired in bowtie and braces, walked into an Iowa wheatfield and experienced a powerful epiphany while wandering lost amongst the stalks. The ensuing sensations of fear and loneliness penetrated his memory so deeply that a decade ago the wheatfield inspired his competition-winning design for the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Now that the inauguration ceremonies are over, the public may enter what Eisenman refers to as 'the Field'; from all directions of the city. The $30 million memorial consists of more than 2700 charcoal-grey concrete stelae of varying heights covering a five-acre grid between the Brandenburg Gate and Potsdamer Platz in central Berlin. The information centre is a subterranean appendix in the neighbourhood of Hitler's bunker and documents the wider narratives of persecution (and provides details of other memorial sites in Germany and Europe) while also containing personal histories of victims - an education for those visitors who discover that their sketchy version of recent history needs updating via the confrontation of some stark facts.

From many positions the project became a flashpoint as much as a focus for the indirect guilt and fear of forgetting that haunt discussions of the Holocaust. The firestorm of criticism that initially targeted Eisenman's design can be viewed as an extension of certain hostilities to the project that had already emerged during the lengthy debates that began in the 1980s both inside and outside the Bundestag, firstly regarding the building of a Holocaust Memorial and then over its potential location. Back in 1992, after the concept was gradually accepted, various government bodies and campaign groups finally agreed that the post-Wall wasteland of the former ministerial gardens was a suitable site for its construction. Two years later the initial open competition for a memorial attracted over 500 entries including Horst Hoheisel's scheme to dynamite the Brandenburg Gate and sprinkle the dust of its stones over the area to commemorate one destruction with another. Two less explosive designs eventually won first prize but neither were built. Deep divisions concerning an appropriate form of remembrance still lingered. Growing controversies and public arguments led to a series of colloquia on the subject that resulted in a second competition incorporating 19 architects and artists with global reputations. Following the next heated public debate Eisenman was announced as the winner. However, Helmut Kohl, then Chancellor, asked him to make several changes to his original plans. A rejigged design was produced and in the summer of 1999, after yet more bureaucratic sound and fury, the German parliament voted to build the memorial. Considering Eisenman's abstract design it was agreed that in order to continue the process of promoting a greater collective understanding of the Holocaust an additional information centre would be included. Construction began in 2003.

Sixty years have passed since the end of the war in Europe but in Berlin the psychic wounds are fresh, as exemplified when all work on the memorial was suspended when it was discovered during construction that a subsidiary of the Dusseldorf firm Degussa AG supplying the anti-graffiti coating had supplied the poison gas Zyklon-B to the death-camps. Eisenman had not wanted to have the coating in the first place. He understood the possibility of the memorial becoming a swastika-daubed rendezvous for neo-nazis or a location for anti-semitic attacks. But in an interview with the German magazine Stern he explained that 'we cannot keep everything squeaky clean. That would be the same behaviour as in the 1930s'. He also tried to reason with the committee in charge of the monument by explaining that his gold fillings were also made by the same company and that his dentist had asked if he wanted them taken out - a remark for which the president of the Berlin Jewish community unsuccessfully asked him to resign. Eisenman's tolerant stance on such inflammatory issues has sparked a series of rather myopic questions over the diplomacy of employing a man who has had a career-long obsession with the Italian fascist architect Giuseppe Terragni and who has developed a close working relationship with Albert Speer the younger - the son of Hitler's favourite monument maker. Some critics felt that there was 'too much Eisenman'; in the memorial. While at the other end of the heckler spectrum local boy Daniel Libeskind claimed that the design closely resembled one of his own napkin sketches.

The furore over the 'Zyklon-B affair' reminded me of an incident on a much smaller scale (in all senses) that occurred several years ago in that semi-legendary used bookstore in West London already familiar to some Outside Left readers from Lake's Behind the Counter-Culture series. It involved the sculptor Rachel Whiteread, another Holocaust memorial, and a book-dealing regular known as The Stinker. In 1996 Whiteread won the competition initiated by Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal to design an official Holocaust memorial for Vienna's Judenplatz. (Incidentally, Eisenman was another entrant in the Vienna competition. Even more incidentally, he cropped up again in New York for the competition to rebuild on the site of the World Trade Center. Is this some kind of pathology or a commentary on the state of architecture?) Whiteread's design, again abstract and controversial, proposed casting the spaces between the books of a library to reveal an inside-out room that would look fairly similar to the solid white cubes of earlier pieces. She would need a lot of books to complete the work. For those unfamiliar with the bookstore's lay-out, the semi-derelict bargain basement is home to an unloved species, largely ignored by the occasional rat or roach, known as the ten pence book. No strangers to the chisel, Whiteread (or usually her assistant) periodically haggled over the price which, as they began to take box after box of hardbacks, dipped below five pence per book. These were mostly the sort of battered and bruised volumes left in freebie bins outside more reputable shops to tempt inside those browsers indoctrinated into believing that in this material world you can't get something for nothing - and not realizing that you can if it's something nobody really wants. A large proportion of these rejects had been brought in by The Stinker.

Dressed in a camouflage jacket, ill-fitting trousers and enormous brothel creepers, The Stinker liked to stand pursing his lips at the counter as if suffering from some monstrous haemorrhoidal affliction while unpacking his wares from a variety of cavernous hold-alls. His face was often marked by mysterious cuts. With minimal encouragement he would launch into wild monologues about Aleister Crowley or Il Duce. He had been bookdealing since the 1960s. He had also been cursed by the Queen of the Witches, sidelined by the Process Church, and warned by his landlord that if he didn't shift the bulging contents ('bulging contents' defines The Stinker's essence) of his library there was likely to be a repeat of 9-11 in his Barons Court residence. The Stinker was also rather fond of the Fuhrer. During one twenty-minute soliloquy he quoted a description of Hitler as 'the little man with the Charlie Chaplin moustache' who escaped the bunker in Berlin and was 'taken by a u-Boat to the South Pole and thence into the Hollow Earth from where he will command a fleet of flying saucers that will attack the planet and restore the Reich' . . . blah blah blah. I'm not sure if the books Whiteread took were just used for preliminary attempts at casting or if they were employed in her related shelving project. But I'm also not sure whether the library that she cast for the Judenplatz memorial contained its original books. Presumably, Whiteread never knew about The Stinker. But I wonder if she checked for fascist titles in the stock that she took away or if she searched inside those dusty hardbacks by Wilbur Smith and Frederick Forsyth for any occult Nazi annotations. It remains a possibility that she used The Stinker's bargain basement books in the final work.

Back in Berlin, another possibility presents itself. Namely, that a visitor of a charitably poetic disposition, not completely overwhelmed by the recognition that different forms of the same genocidal impulse that led to the slaughter of the many innocent millions to whom the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is dedicated persists relatively unchecked in other parts of the planet, might find a fraction of artistic solace amongst the aftermath of so much trauma by contemplating that the surrounding acres were inspired by an undulating wheatfield blown by an American wind. However, for me, the site mostly resembles a modernist necropolis. A charge which the oppositionally inclined Eisenman negates: 'The space isn't a graveyard. I didn't want any names. It should be absent of meaning.' He explains that his design decontextualized the memorial because the Holocaust itself is of such magnitude that it cannot be represented without such representation becoming 'kitsch, sentimental and hollow'.

OK, it's obvious to state that absence and presence are key issues for any architect, but those familiar with Eisenman's work might recall that a more contextual approach to memory filtered through the alternating solids and voids of a grid was already present in his partially built competition entry for South Friedrichstadt back in the early 1980s. The accompanying text 'The City of Artificial Excavation' connected a cannibalizing history with a flatlining memory:

'History is not continuous. It is made up of stops and starts, of presences and absences. The presences are the times when history is vital, is "running" is feeding on itself and deriving it's energy from its own momentum. The absences are the times when the propulsive organism is dead, the voids in between one "run" of history and the next. These are filled by memory. Where history ends, memory begins.'

Eisenman is fond of that final phrase. He uses it in his essay 'The Futility of Objects' and again in his introduction to Aldo Rossi's 'The Architecture of the City'. For the South Friedrichstadt project the grid was imposed by the brief of the IBA competition which sought to restore the perimeter grid that had existed in previous centuries (and thereby remove the physical traces of the ruptures and ruins of the mid-twentieth century - arguably, an example of where memory ends, history begins). In relation to the memorial - and its intersection with memory - the grid has a clearly increased critical presence as the tangible context within which visitors are initially able to navigate. Despite a resemblance to the remains of a deconstructed labyrinth overtly rationalizing the spiritual transformation of a journey into unknown territory the grid simultaneously, and strangely, produces an escalating sense of claustrophobia. Perhaps it is a consequence of the sloping site but you can't shake the feeling of getting more and more lost the deeper into the grid you walk. As the stelae get taller and the fragments of familiar Berlin landmarks disappear from the periphery the sense of being trapped that Eisenman intended to evoke begins to emerge. Somewhat paradoxically, memory is officially gathered together here to fragment, to layer the memorial with successive events that in their changing totality hint at something similar to the idealized collective memory of Rossi's city. History is rigidly presented in the evenly spaced stelae while the evenly spaced voids shapeshift with the individual visitors and the double movement of their personal memories and chosen paths through the site. From this latter perspective, the memorial could be interpreted by Eisenman's detractors as a minimalist art installation bordering on megalomania (the renowned sculptor Richard Serra was Eisenman's partner on the project but departed at an early stage).

Elsewhere in his South Friedrichstadt text Eisenman describes Berlin, before the destruction of the Wall and reunification, as belonging 'to the world in the largest sense, that its specificity and identity have been sacrificed on the altar of modern history; that it is now the crossroads of every place and no-place'. Such muted echoes of JFK's 'Ich bin ein Berliner' (which I'm assured that only the wilfully incomprehending translate as the soundbite koan 'I am a doughnut') emphasize Berlin's status as a kind of historical memory card for the planet. But the words also illustrate Eisenman's tendency to construct elaborate textual by-products as a consequence of his penchant for cultural theory. Throughout his long career as an architect, educator, and writer, Eisenman has been intellectually mining various contemporary isms: first Chomsky then Derrida (as the move from structuralism to poststructuralism seemed to dictate) providing the impetus for his own philosophy of design. As the perceptive architectural historian and thinker Robin Evans once noted, Eisenman uses a fascination with 'architecture as writing' as a smokescreen, a kind of protection that camouflages the real interest of his work. Which makes it a satisfyingly simple matter that the structure for which he will probably be remembered most was the outcome of a wayward stroll in the bygone back country.

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Henderson Downing

Henderson Downing has written for various literary journals and small press magazines, he lives in London

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