Lest We Forget Holocaust building takes its visitors on a dark odyssey

April 25, 1993|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Staff Writer

Washington -- In their determination to tell the "full, horrible truth" about the Holocaust in the $168 million museum and memorial that opens here tomorrow, planners used every conceivable means of expression: photographs, films, oral histories, painting, graphics, sculpture. But they placed the heaviest burden of all on the architecture.

Neither a dazzling feat of engineering nor a neutral backdrop, it had to be nothing less than the conscience of the project, the moral turf against which all facts and figures inside may be judged.

It had to set the tone and put visitors in a proper frame of mind to absorb the sobering experience yet to come. And it had to pack the emotional wallop needed to transform T-shirted tourists on the Mall nearby into stoic witnesses who will never let such an event occur again.

Shaping a building that conveys the tragedy of the Holocaust without trivializing it was the challenge -- and lasting achievement -- of James Ingo Freed, lead architect of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

A refugee from Nazi Germany who fled at age 9 in 1939, and now a principal of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners of New York, Mr. Freed produced a career-capping masterpiece that is as powerful and moving as the story it helps to tell.

Part museum, part sanctuary, part chamber of horrors, this is the architecture of atrocity, a metaphorical odyssey through time and space to history's darkest hour. Just going through is an excruciating experience. Its disquieting imagery will sear into the subconscious and linger in the mind long after the sojourn ends.

Multiple meanings

Unlike the many "nice" memorials in Washington that celebrate an event or hero and send visitors happily on their way, this one does the opposite. From the beginning, the architect wrote in 1989, he labored to plant design clues that indicate "this is not a typical 'good times' building."

Yet in contrast to the straightforward exhibits inside, this is also a building with multiple layers of meaning. Beneath the deceptively pleasing exterior, there is a hidden agenda.

The architect's decision to go against type and confound expectations is the chief cause of the building's unsettling impact. Mr. Freed plays by the standards and conventions of museum design -- to a point. Then he brilliantly subverts those conventions and turns them inside out to concoct his own twisted nightmare of a museum, a macabre monument to massacre. By the time most visitors catch on it is too late: They are trapped in the jaws of the beast.

The deception begins with the exterior of the building, located half a block south of Independence Avenue, between 14th and 15th streets (now Raoul Wallenberg Place). The museum has been clad in brick and limestone and given a neoclassical look to fit in with surrounding government buildings.

Only on second glance do you begin to wonder about some of the design details that foreshadow the experience inside. On the north side is a series of brick towers, more than vaguely reminiscent of the watchtowers at Auschwitz. High above Wallenberg Place is a glass and metal bridge with silhouettes of people walking past, looking down. Are they just visitors touring the building, or armed guards?

Similarly ambiguous is the 14th Street entry. The bowed front and rectangular openings are in keeping with the stripped-down classicism that is in vogue these days. But closer to the entrance are industrial details that seem out of place in a museum: doorways framed by riveted steel beams at odd angles, bricks embedded in concrete, metal grills and grates. Could it be a veiled reference to the German death camps, which often had handsome gateways that masked ghastly internal proceedings?

Inside the front doors, it's equally confusing. From either direction, visitors will head toward the center of the building, where sunlight pours in on a large glass-roofed atrium. But unlike most museums, which make it easy to find one's way, here it's deliberately disorienting: You can turn right, turn left, go back, go around. There is no clear route, only confusion.

The central atrium, called the Hall of Witness, is the building's largest single space. But instead of welcoming, it is ominous and forbidding. It looks like a street in one of the ghettos where Jews and others were detained before they were sent to the concentration camps.

The glass roof is framed by heavy steel trusses that block out much of the natural light from above. Brick walls close in on two sides. The main stair is narrower at the top than at the bottom, and the forced perspective draws the eye to an arched opening whose shape recalls the brick gate of the death camp at Birkenau.

In this hall, as in the rest of the architecture, nothing is a literal re-creation of Adolf Hitler's Germany, the kind of obvious scenography that might be employed at Disney World. The images flit in and out. It is all done with a certain muted, abstracted symbolism -- suggestions of places from deep within the architect's psyche.

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