Monumental makeover Architecture: The renovation of Baltimore's Holocaust Memorial has made the site more accessible but less powerful.

October 05, 1997|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

When members of the Baltimore Jewish Council built a $350,000 Holocaust Memorial near the Inner Harbor in 1980, they hoped it would stand for all time as a grim reminder of mankind's capacity for evil.

But the memorial turned out to be too grim, in more than one way, and has been replaced by an intentionally more palatable work of architecture that strives to convey a similar message.

Starting with a dedication ceremony at 10 a.m. tomorrow at Lombard and Gay streets, visitors will see a redesigned monument that is far less stark and brutal in its imagery, though still infused with symbolism. It was designed to head off the sort of disfigurement that forced the overhaul in the first place.

The chief question for sponsors of the $400,000 makeover is whether the revamped version -- a sort of Holocaust Lite -- will pack the same emotional wallop as the one it replaced.

By simplifying the much-maligned memorial and re- orienting it toward the Inner Harbor, the Jewish Council and its architects, RCG Inc., have unquestionably made it easier to find, easier to grasp and easier to maintain.

In their quest to make it more friendly and accessible, however, they have also reduced it to an architectural sound bite -- and in so doing made it that much easier to dismiss.

To understand how the memorial has changed, it is important to consider what was built in 1980 and why.

The original memorial was the vision of a Baltimorean named Alvin Fisher. He came up with the idea after ninth-graders in his Hebrew class at Oheb Shalom Congregation said they didn't believe the Holocaust ever happened.

Largely as a result of Fisher's prodding, the Jewish Council held a design competition for a memorial that could be built on a 1-acre parcel owned by what is now Baltimore City Community College.

Local architects Arthur Valk and Donald Kann won by proposing a three-dimensional allegory of the Holocaust -- an abstract composition that was full of symbolism.

First, they divided the land into thirds. Two-thirds of it was devoted to a natural setting, a gentle slope with six rows of six Bradford pear trees to represent the 6 million Jews killed by the Nazis. This part, the designers said, represents "life as it was before the Holocaust -- and man's environment as it was meant to be: peaceful, benign, ascending."

Then, on the remaining third of the land, they introduced two massive concrete monoliths that seemed to be pushing their way onto the park. These slabs symbolized the intrusion of the "cold, dark, brutal" force of the Nazi war machine into the lives of unsuspecting victims. The fraction of the site they occupy stands for the third of the world's Jewish population that was annihilated during the Holocaust.

But the monoliths do not touch. They are separated by an 18-inch gap, as if the force that led to the Holocaust couldn't quite complete its task. And through the gap shone a brilliant light that came from the center of the memorial, an open-air sanctuary that could only be entered when visitors passed beneath the oppressive concrete slabs -- just as the world has passed through the period of the Holocaust. On one wall was a granite inscription consecrating the memorial to the victims of the Holocaust and listing the 32 camps where they died.

Such an allegorical approach was not easy for the average visitor to grasp, but that was supposed to be part of its effectiveness.

"If we had a traditional sculpture -- a human body torn apart, a weeping statue -- people would come up and say: 'OK, that's the nTC Holocaust Memorial. That doesn't bother me,' " Valk said at the time. But because the memorial makes viewers work harder to understand, it forces them not to dismiss it so quickly, he explained.

Mixed response

Though well thought-out, the memorial was not universally well received. Those who made the effort to understand the symbolism were likely to be rewarded, at least in the beginning. Knowing the narrative behind the design, I found standing in the middle of the open-air sanctuary to be a powerful, sobering experience. I particularly liked the way the symbolic elements came together to provide an intimate setting for contemplation.

Unfortunately, not everyone took the trouble to figure out the symbolism -- or even knew the memorial was there. Because the sanctuary entrance faced little-used Water Street rather than bustling Lombard or Gay streets (all the better for contemplation), many passersby never even noticed it, much less got out of their cars and explored the sequence of spaces. For others, the abstract symbolism was too abstruse and intimidating. They just didn't get it.

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