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The Architecture Of Death : To Design The U.s. Holocaust Museum, James Freed Had To Challenge The Values That Had Guided His Work--and Confront Old Horrors.

April 18, 1993|JOSEPH GIOVANNI | Joseph Giovanni is an architecture critic and architect. His last article for this magazine was on Frank Gehry and the Walt Disney Concert Hall

IN THE LARGE, SHADOWY CENTRAL HALL OF WITNESS IN THE UNITED States Holocaust Memorial Museum, long, threatening straps of steel belt solid brick walls, just as they do the ovens displayed on the third floor. "The ovens were belted by steel to keep them from exploding under the tremendous pressures caused by the continuous combustion--there was so much fire in the overused ovens," says James Ingo Freed, the architect of the museum, which President Clinton is scheduled to dedicate this Thursday on the National Mall in Washington.

Freed took this image of expediency in the service of the Holocaust, along with many other practical building details from the concentration camps, and worked them into the design of the memorial--a five-story, limestone-and-brick structure, neoclassical on the outside, but factory-like inside. What Hannah Arendt has called the banalization of evil was made possible by industrial engineering that made murder routine through assembly-line techniques. The long arm of factories along the Rhine and in the Ruhr Valley reached to the death factories in Eastern Europe.

The task of designing a museum that would evoke the void and final silence of the Holocaust at first stymied Freed. "I spent four weeks looking at blank paper," remembers the prolific New York architect, a partner of I.M. Pei and the designer of the Jacob Javits Convention Center in New York, the 58-story First Bank Place tower in Minneapolis and the new Los Angeles Convention Center, now being completed. He needed an approach radically different from his other buildings because, he says, "architecture is not the central issue. The real issue is how people can be made to understand the Holocaust and keep it from happening again.

"I was hopelessly stuck," he says. "There is a certain thing about death that can't be exploited." To break his designer's block, he decided to visit the heart of the darkness and journey to the camps themselves. "To get closer to the Holocaust, I had to see its remnants, because what I knew I understood intellectually, not emotionally," Freed says.

Freed and Arthur Rosenblatt, who was then director of the Holocaust Museum, arrived in Auschwitz on All Saints' Day in 1986, when thousands of candles had been lit by citizens to commemorate the victims. Freed was quickly overwhelmed. He found that he could exhume a bone simply by kicking the ground. There were sacks of ashes. Distant memories of his own childhood in Germany rushed back: Kristallnacht, when Nazis trashed synagogues and stores and schools owned by Jews, and he and his father spent the night riding a trolley in Essen, their heads buried in newspapers. Hitler's parade through town. Fleeing Germany in 1939, carrying a passport stamped with a red "J"--for "Jew"--as he, a 9-year-old, led his 4-year-old sister on buses, boats and trains to relatives in Chicago.

"When I walked into this place," Freed says of Auschwitz, "some archaic memories stirred, because emotionally this was a turning point for me." He realized that but for a few months, he might have been one of the dead for whom the candles burned.

To protect himself from being overpowered and immobilized, Freed took refuge, during his several trips to Auschwitz and other camps, in his architectural instincts. He found that he avoided looking at the camps as complete ecosystems of murder, gravitating instead to their architecture: He started looking at parts of buildings and how they were put together, their tectonics.

"I began to see how everything was framed on the buildings, how things were strapped together, certain peculiarities," he says. The windows of Josef Mengele's labs in Auschwitz, for example, had blinds that allowed light in but restricted the view, perhaps to keep the doctor from seeing the "killing wall," where people were lined up and shot in the court opposite, perhaps to keep prisoners from seeing his experiments.

"I couldn't look at the Holocaust directly, but only out of the corner of my eye, and came away with the notion that the tectonics could influence the design. With the details--the straps, the bricks, the towers, the tectonic parts--I could confront the Holocaust obliquely. It gave me a distance. I could use tectonics repeatedly, like a Tibetan prayer wheel going round and round and round: Sooner or later it would call the gods to attention. Not by making things directly, but by sliding into the brutality."

With his insight, the tall, thin architect with the full, graying beard was on his way to discovering a way to design the museum, and the path to the discovery would change his own self-understanding. "I had assimilated into American culture and buried knowledge about the Holocaust, like many people who left, but it surfaced with the project: I had to become Jewish to do it."

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