Memorial sites are tricky things to build – they’re expected to be architectural wonders while being sensitive to the victims and their loved ones. This week, Canada announced the winning design for the country’s first Holocaust monument. The CA$8.5m (€5.7m) masterplan is billed as a “journey through a star”. Viewed from the top, the structure is the Star of David set amid a coniferous landscape.
Toronto-based Lord Cultural Resources is responsible for the project, pulling together a multidisciplinary team of heavyweights including Polish-American architect Daniel Libeskind. This is the man behind Berlin’s Jewish Museum; he also helped design Manhattan's Ground Zero memorial. Libeskind, whose parents were Holocaust survivors, has been lauded for his knack of finding that sweet spot between architectural brilliance and sensitivity.
Architectural brilliance is easy enough to understand - but what exactly is sensitive design?
For one, sensitivity means providing space for people to get lost in their ruminations. Whether you’re the bereaved or a student of history, memorials are places to ponder. The spaces must speak for themselves; all the aesthetic decisions must be thoughtful and appropriate.
For this Ottawa-based memorial, visitors can contemplate in the star-shaped site's angular segments, meant to echo the triangular badges worn by those considered “undesirable” by the Nazis.
Another thing: memorials are not museums so hold back on the graphic detail. No pictures of emaciated prisoners of war, no long narratives about how they suffered. Sites of remembrance are places of recovery; documenting the gory minutiae of how the victims suffered is unnecessarily painful. In this case, less is definitely more.
But because memorials are nevertheless sacred spaces set aside for a very specific reason, they have to be more than pretty parks. In Ottawa, Canadian photographer Ed Burtynsky’s images will be etched onto the concrete walls; a disused barbed-wire fence, an empty railway track. Uncomfortable remnants of a nightmarish episode in history.
At times there’s something almost jarring about the whole exercise. Perhaps this is inevitable as memorial sites invariably have their roots in the most harrowing of tragedies. It’s the reason that building them is so difficult.
But it is also why they can be so compelling on those occasions when great designers and architects get everything right: the Vietnam Veterans memorial in Washington; Santiago’s M9 Memorial; Berlin’s Holocaust memorial. Canada hopes to add to that number.
Jason Li is a researcher and writer in Monocle’s Toronto bureau.