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

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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But the memorial turned out to be too grim, in more than one way, and has been replaced by an intentionally more palatable work of architecture that strives to convey a similar message.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

The memorial's downfall came when it was taken over by people who had no respect for it at all. Because it was out of the way, the sanctuary eventually became a hangout for prostitutes from The Block, a shooting gallery for drug addicts, a public toilet for the homeless. When unsuspecting visitors went inside to read the inscriptions, they would be repelled by syringes and condoms and the constant stench of urine. It lost all effectiveness as a place of remembrance.

Radical overhaul

Troubled by the memorial's condition, council members turned for assistance to architect Jonathan Fishman of RCG Inc. He proposed a radical overhaul that literally turned the memorial around so its entrance faced the Inner Harbor and replaced one set of architectural symbols with another.

Fishman's solution was to start over by removing as much of the previous memorial as possible, including the trees, hillside and troublesome sanctuary. The only objects he kept were the concrete monoliths, which became all the more visible when the hill was gone.

Instead of again treating the monoliths as abstract symbols of the Holocaust, however, Fishman suggested a more literal imagery. The 70-foot-long slabs, he observed, had roughly the same proportions as the railroad boxcars that were used to transport Jews and others to Nazi concentration camps. That observation provided the starting point for the introduction of imagery representing trains and travel, freedom and incarceration.

"One of the most horrific aspects of the Holocaust was the way people were transported by rail from the ghettos to the killing centers," Fishman said. "Proportionally, these monoliths were similar to boxcars. Our notion was to conceive of the site as an abandoned rail yard. The idea was to evoke a sense of vacancy, an image of abandonment."

To further suggest the idea of rail cars, Fishman created a plaza leading up to the concrete slabs and specified that sections of railroad track be laid next to and beneath them. Ornamental grasses were planted between the tracks to evoke weeds in an abandoned rail yard. At the ends of the mono-liths, there are even metal attachments that evoke cow-catchers on a locomotive.

On the south side of the monoliths are inscribed the haunting words of Primo Levi, an Italian-Jewish chemist who chronicled his Holocaust experiences in the book "Survival in Auschwitz": "On both sides of the track, rows of red and white lights appeared as far as the eye could see. With the rhythm of the wheels, with every human sound now silenced, we awaited what was to happen. In an instant, our women, our parents, our children disappeared. We saw them for a short while as an obscure mass at the other end of the platform. Then we saw nothing more."

The shape of an isosceles triangle dominates the plaza leading to the monoliths. At the apex is a Joseph Shepherd sculpture that was added to the old Holocaust Memorial in 1988, a gift from Baltimore businessman Jack Luskin and others. A waist-high, triangular plaque contains information about the Holocaust period, 1933 to 1945.

Meanwhile, on the northern third of the block, the area that formerly served as an entrance to the sanctuary has become a manicured lawn, surrounded by black wire fencing that might enclose a concentration camp.

According to the architect, this area represents "inaccessible paradise" -- a lush green space that one can view but never enter. It suggests green fields that Holocaust victims may have seen from the train on the way to the concentration camps. But like much of the memorial, he said, it is open to different interpretations.

"I wanted the memorial to have enough of a narrative that it was readable, but to keep it abstract enough that it wasn't a one-liner," Fishman said. "That way there can be layers of interpretation."

All of this makes sense, to a point. One can admire the creative way in which the monoliths were salvaged and the tracks were inserted to suggest a rail yard, without being overly hokey. The new memorial makes a clear statement. The problem is, it isn't a very powerful statement or a very satisfying public space.

Much of the problem stems from the relationship between the concrete monoliths and the barren, austere plaza. The ground plane was designed to be wide open so that no one can hide there and do any more damage. But that also means there is no real sequence of spaces to give people a compelling reason to get out of their cars and walk toward the boxcars. There is no tension between the monoliths and their surroundings, no walls to block out the noisy traffic and encourage people to pause and contemplate Levi's words.

Furthermore, despite its prominent location, the Shepherd sculpture adds little to the composition and does nothing to reinforce the abandoned rail yard theme. The absence of benches makes the plaza an unpleasant place to linger. And, unlike the first version, there is little about the new memorial that imparts any sense of hope.

Compromise

To be sure, the Jewish council should be commended for maintaining a downtown presence and cleaning up the blighted memorial. The architect offered a resourceful solution to a difficult problem.

But ultimately, it comes across as an unsatisfactory compromise -- still too out of the way to attract Inner Harbor tourists and too unengaging to touch the people who pass by it every day. An acre in the heart of the city is much too valuable to devote to an architectural sound bite such as this, no matter how well-meaning.

In its effort to make the memorial more accessible to the general public, the council seems to have reduced it to exactly the sort of simplistic object that Kann and Valk sought to avoid -- a drive-by sculpture that doesn't take much effort to understand and is easy to forget as a result. It's a classic case of the dumbing-down of American architecture to reach the lowest common denominator.

Pub Date: 10/05/97

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