Not Again


Dresden Museum of Military History

by Eric Beck Rubin

In late Spring of 2013, the Canadian federal government announced a design competition for a National Holocaust Monument in the capital, Ottawa. The response was diverse. Was this another part of the reigning Conservative party’s strategy of appealing to Canadian-Jewish voters? Why commemorate a European event in an Ottawa monument (a question that attaches itself to many North American Holocaust memorials)? Was this to do with the stated reason that every other ally capital has a Holocaust memorial? And who drafted the line in the brochure saying the budget “would not be less than $6 million”?

One question not frequently asked: was this a good idea?

Just over a year later, we have a definitive answer to the last question.

The first stage of any design competition is a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) – ostensibly a test of who has the experience to bring this project to completion but also an opportunity for design teams to offer views on what a memorial can accomplish, and what a Holocaust Monument in Canada should communicate to visitors.

Knowing the $6 million budget would attract international attention, the government’s RFQ stated that teams, composed of an architect, artist, landscape designer and Holocaust scholar, must be led by a Canadian. However, when the shortlist was announced, late last summer, only three of the six teams could be said to be Canadian-led; one didn’t include any Canadians; three didn’t include any scholars; one team’s Canadian presence consisted of an art evaluator and dealer; one team’s chief experience was in the design of malls, condos and showrooms.

But aside from the fact that the rules of the RFQ didn’t actually apply, there were no surprises. The choices were conservative. Most of the names were flashy. There was nothing new in the shortlist, nothing to get excited about. True, the final selection was made by a politician, the Minister of Canadian Heritage, but there was also a jury that was meant to advise and no one on the jury resigned in protest at the shortlist or made his or her opposition known, which means not one of them cared – or cared enough – to do something about it.

In an unexpected twist, however, the news is not all bad. A short while ago it was announced the $6 million dollar budget is short $4.5 million. If this money is not collected, it’s possible the monument will not be built.

Why is this good news? Because between late Summer 2013 and today, the competition has a declared winner: the team led by architect Daniel Libeskind.

North American cities like New York, Denver and Toronto, having suffered the designs produced by Libeksind’s office, know what kind of win this is. But for those not familiar with the work of the Polish-American architect, let me introduce you.

Libeskind came to prominence in the late 1990s by designing an extension to the Jewish Museum in Berlin. It was a “crystal” form, meant to evoke the jagged wound to European culture that was the Holocaust. The final result was widely lauded by people who saw photos of it and visited the space before it was opened, while also harshly denigrated by those operating, navigating and maintaining the space.

Having found celebrity in the “crystal” form, however, Libeskind set about replicating it wherever he could. An Imperial War Museum in Manchester, a Military History Museum in Dresden, an extension to The London Metropolitan University, the MGM Mirage’s City Center in Las Vegas. One “crystal” form – many functions. From commemorating industrialised genocide to finding your way to the registrar’s office to searching out the latest Louis Vuitton purses. And now, in Ottawa, back again. Libeskind’s proposal for the National Holocaust Monument is a “crystal” shape inspired by the Star of David.

Putting aside the charlatanry of Libeskind’s output, as well as the cynicism of those who abet it, let us ask what a Holocaust Memorial could achieve almost seventy years after the end of the event it’s meant to commemorate.

In one sense, the fact that Canadians are “late” in creating this memorial, as the government would seem to suggest, puts them at an advantage. The creators of this memorial have an array of precedents from which to learn, from the figurative models of suffering victims that were erected in the 1960s to the abstract “counter-monuments” of the 1980s, which purposely inverted all aspects of conventional monuments (proud, victorious, permanent) to challenge the memories of perpetrators.

This project also comes at a key time in the history of the Holocaust; we are the last generation to have contact with witnesses to the event. After this point, memory will be replaced by history, the living with the dead. This impresses a further responsibility on Ottawa’s monument: to carry that life into the future.

Perhaps the most important lesson of the past 70 years, however, is that our culture cannot continue to produce the same monuments – figurative or abstract – as have come before and expect them to be effective. Conventional monuments made way for counter-monuments because, as most historians know, the past must be written anew with every generation if it is to be kept alive. Tell the same story over and over again and what was once a spark becomes ash. The same goes for built work. If a memorial does not engage the imagination of a visitor by showing that person something he or she did not previously know, making him or her reconsider previously held ideas, it is of no use.

In short: a memorial, if effective, doesn’t remind us of something we knew; it uncovers a world we didn’t know existed.

Now, anyone could argue that Libeskind’s proposal may yet give us something new. But anyone would be wrong.

We have the image of the proposal. We have an accompanying explanation of how six points of the Star of David in the design will “provide a unique theme and ambiance for interpretation, contemplation and artistic expression”. Of course we have Libeskind’s history of lazily reproducing the same designs, where the only thing that is tailored is their post-facto rationalisation (the crystal of the Dresden Military History Museum ‘points to’ the time of day when the bombings began; the crystal of the London Metropolitan University extension is ‘inspired by’ the constellation Orion; The Imperial War Museum ‘imagines’ a world fracturing, and so on). And if that weren’t enough, we also have Libeskind’s most recent efforts in the same vein: a Holocaust monument, comparatively modest commission, at the Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio. It’s based on the Star of David.

A Holocaust memorial at this time and place could have created a new perspective from which to view the events of the Holocaust, one that reflected our distance from the event in North America, our place as bystanders. It could have directly addressed the loss of the witness and the importance of individual testimony in our attempts to understand the Holocaust. It could have, if it wanted to, changed the way we see the technological creations of our modern world, so much of which are put to use in the eradication of life. It could have given us something new.

Nothing in Libeskind’s proposal, or his portfolio, indicates this will happen. Everything indicates it won’t.

Which brings us back to that question: was the Canadian Holocaust Monument a good idea? Yes. Learning about the Holocaust is crucial to learning about ourselves, our culture, our politics, and the consequences of our actions and inaction. Those who argue that this historical event is not longer relevant, or is somehow overplayed, don’t know what the Holocaust is. It’s relevant to all people living in modern western civilization, which is what led us to the Holocaust and which has not significantly reformed itself after the Holocaust.

But none of this matters if the outcome – the memorial – fails to embody these ideas.

Normally, this would be the end of the story. In this case, there’s a reprieve: the lack of funds. There’s a chance, slim but possible, that Libeskind’s design remains unbuilt. For any person who thinks it’s important to learn about the Holocaust, its causes and consequences, and that a monument must bring an event to life, this counts as a temporary victory. Who knows whether it will be permanent. What is certain is that Libeskind’s design unthinkingly repeats the past rather than opening it up for engagement and reflection. And unthinking repetition of the past is the best way of burying it.

About the Author:

Eric Beck Rubin is a writer and university instructor living in Toronto. His areas of academic specialty are disparate – Memorials and Memory, Architectural History and Theory, Fin–de–Siècle Vienna, and South Asian Studies. The common interest is the way works of art transmit memory. In 2013, he began the Burning Books literary review podcast.