Peter Eisenman's Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

Throughout decades of rancorous debate between modernist and classical architects, Peter Eisenman figured prominently on the side of the modernists. But this is by now a rather dated quarrel; I believe that aesthetics -- and Eisenman -- have moved on. A period of interactive aesthetics has set in, in which the focus is no longer on an isolated factor within artistic communication, such as the classicists' obsession with the historical code of art, or the modernists' with the formal characteristics of the artwork. Instead, it is the interplay among factors-audience, artist, model/referent, conditions of their contact, as well as code and work -- that draws our attention. Eisenman's 2005 Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is almost a parable of this shift in aesthetics, and a powerful example of what the future may hold in store for art.

Eisenman's Memorial deliberately evokes the look of geometric modernism. Located in a vast tract not far from the Brandenburg Gates in Berlin, it is a grid of 2,711 closely spaced, slightly tilted, polished concrete stelae. These blocks are uniform in width and depth, but vary in height from ground level at the periphery to 4.5 meters in the interior. As an environment, the Memorial suggests typical images of modernist alienation -- a cemetery, a labyrinth, a brutalist city of harsh planes and abrupt corners. Considered only in terms of its form, the work conveys the bleak silence and death of meaning proclaimed by Elie Wiesel and George Steiner in their discussion of the Holocaust. It evokes the eerie emptiness of De Chirico's streets, the intellectual coldness of abstraction and minimalism, the denial of empathetic connection.

But inside the grid, a different aesthetic is at work, though it takes a while for this to register. Unnaturally constricted, visitors are conscious of their isolation; the distance between the rows of stelae is too narrow to permit two people to walk side by side. Eisenman's intent, according to the official guide, is "that everyone should experience the memorial individually," but since this isolation is not chosen, it feels like deprivation and victimization. Once in the grid, all one can see is the dark alleyway stretching ahead into the distance between towering banks of stelae. At the end is a spot of sunshine and in some cases a building or tree is visible beyond the grid. Suddenly it registers that there is a beyond, an alternative to the darkness and isolation inside, whereas for the victims of the Holocaust, there was none. The architecture of the Memorial forces viewers to consider their relation to the victims it memorializes: the restriction we experience is like theirs, but it is crucially different at the same time.

The Memorial also makes visitors hyper-aware of each other. The alleys are so narrow and the corners of the stelae so sharp, that anyone about to cross one's path is invisible until the point of collision. Nevertheless, some visitors run through the aisles (and occasionally rollerblade through them -- though that is prohibited). People pop into view as they cross at distant intersections, and then as abruptly pop out. Because the pavement undulates, sometimes dramatically, those seen farther down the aisle will be higher or lower, and if they stand still, they look like sculptures or figures on a stage, backlit by the sunlight of the "outside."

Everything in the unnatural space of the Memorial conspires to heighten an awareness of other people, even the shadows they cast. But though social encounter appears so uncanny here, at the same time one notices the ordinariness of people's behavior, equally striking in this setting. According to Nikolaus Bernau, "Eisenman's dream is of children's laughter resounding at the site. His concept is of the memorial as a part of everyday life that always includes memory and recollection." In the Memorial, memory and reflection become elements in a disquieting mix of behaviors. Visitors look about or stand lost in thought. People cry, take pictures, play tag, kiss. One may find their responses to the situation touching, surprising, irritating -- how dare they ignore the Holocaust to pursue their little pleasures? And then one observes oneself doing the same. The experience of the Memorial inevitably becomes a part of the day, of one's life. Like the mourners, the heedless children, the self-involved lovers, one lodges this place and all that it stands for within the overall context of one's experience and understands that others do the same. People live in many relations to history, and in many relations to each other.

Such thoughts animate the trip through the grid. Always the Memorial is about interaction-between contemporary viewers and the victims of the Holocaust, between oneself and one's fellow viewers. Far from a static "utopia of form," it is an ever-changing set of encounters, complex and contradictory, at once saddening, heartening, and perplexing. And yes, it is beautiful -- in all these respects and for all these reasons. One might say, in fact, that the memorial takes viewers through modernism -- makes them feel through it -- toward the possibility of a more sunlit place beyond. The model of beauty it provides is a heterdox conversation concerning the real.

To appear in Wendy Steiner, The Real Real Thing: The Model in the Mirror of Art (University of Chicago Press, 2010)