by Heike Fahrenberg
Experiential Architecture: The Holocaust Memorial, by Irene Gonzalez, UG, program participant (with permission by the author)
One of the good things of having friends and family visiting in Berlin is that I get to go back to those “touristic sites” which I otherwise would not have visited so many times. One of these typical sites is the Holocaust Memorial and over my visits, I have each time perceived something new or have had a new idea about the place.
Some of the visitors that I had did not like this place; they found it excessively big and depressing. Others liked it, and thought that it was an important reminder of a tragedy in world history that should be avoided. I think these opinions have a lot to do with the country that they come from and how this idea of “dealing with the past/ dealing with our mistakes” is handled.
In my opinion the importance of the Holocaust Memorial as a site is not about liking it or not, it is about the message that we get from it. Without having read anything about the original intentions of the architect/artist with this memorial, here are some of my perceptions about this site in the center of Berlin:
You start from the outside, looking over the structure and trying to make sense out of what you see. The first reactions are always questions: Are these graves? Anonymous graves? Why are some of them bigger than others? Why is it all grey? Is the number of graves symbolic? What am I supposed to see in it?
I believe the real experience starts when you walk into the structure, in between the blocs. I find in this walk a symbolism related to what living under an authoritarian regime or a fascist ideology such as that of the Nazi time would be like: at first you can look over the blocs, you think to be controlling the situation, you think to know what is happening around you. Inevitably, as you walk in, the height of the blocs starts rising and before you realize it, you cannot see anything around you, but grey walls and the narrow walkways around you. This as a symbol of the Nazi time could mean how people thought they knew what was happening around them, they felt in control of their lives, they thought to had a full view of the situation … and without realizing they were part of a regime in which they couldn’t really see or understand what was happening around them.
I find another symbolism when I think to be alone walking through this structure. Suddenly, when the paths of these blocs cross, I find someone. While being in between these blocs we cannot see if there is someone on the other side, or if something is happening to them. We might be able to hear something, but it sounds too far away as to be happening right next to us. In this line of though, I have also heard many people who lived during Hitler’s time who say to have not known what was happening for a very long time. Not even if it had to do with their neighbor or just people outside of the city. Also the idea that the paths of many people crossed during this time, maybe coming together to help each other but also being traitors.
One of the characteristics of these blocs that I always realize other than it’s gray color and cold touch, is that they are not parallel to each other, but tilted in different directions. To me, that shows how this period of history and these ideologies affected people regardless of their identity and how they were “trapped” anchored in this structure, even if they tried to take any other direction.
The same happens with the floor: it is not just a flat surface, but one with slopes and ups and downs. Although we may want to walk forward, look forward, and think that the end will be there soon, the floor may bring us lower down than what we want; further away from the piece of sky above our heads, which is the only freedom that we see.
I don’t know if with these ideas I am taking too far the symbolism of this site, but I guess that with any piece of art, their value is really what they mean to us. These previously explained feelings and thoughts, are my experience of the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin.