There has always been a sombre link between the United States and memories of the Holocaust. Many Jewish people from Europe sought refuge in the USA while other Americans left to fight in Europe. The Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust by Belzberg Architects pays reverence to the individuals, families and communities who were directly or indirectly affected by the horrors of the Holocaust. In the sprawl of LA’s architectural trends and fashions, Belzberg Architects have created a much-needed place of repose and a space of contemplative sanctuary.
In 1961 a group of Holocaust survivors in Los Angeles longed for a place to memorialise their lost loved ones and educate the world about what had happened in the bleak history of the Holocaust – and so the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust was founded. The museum’s collection found many homes but none of them were permanent, now that’s all changed thanks to Belzberg Architects’ design, the new face and home of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust.
The unknowing passer-by may very well not ‘see’ the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust itself. Belzberg Architects have buried the bulk of the building underground – an emotive gesture of descent from the sights and sounds of the world above into a commemorative space. In submerging most of the museum beneath the earth, much of the surrounding parkland is preserved and articulated.
The museum’s undulating landscaped roof features fractal geometric lines of concrete that divide its surface into a series of zigzagging pedestrian paths. An elongated, descending entry ramp slices through the museum’s volume, flanked either side by translucent glazing that admits streams of natural light into the museum’s inner spaces from above. Lighting is subtle and at times faint, adding to the architects’ emotive play on compression and darkness.
Movement through space is almost cinematic. The museum takes visitors through a narrative journey beginning first with tales of life before the Holocaust and ending with stories of the concentration camps. The sequence of these evocative collections is strongly accentuated by choreographed architecture – dark and cramped spaces match the images on display and at times make visitors feel uneasy, yet when stories of hope and liberation are detailed, a visitor may turn a corner to witness unexpected light.
The first room, entitled “The World That Was,” incorporates a large, single interactive table that mimics the social comfort of pre-war communities. The lighting then dims as visitors descend into a subsequent room containing exhibits depicting Kristallnacht and book burnings. After continual descent the space gets darker and visitors reach the room called “Concentration Camps.”
The interior of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust is housed within a provocative concrete structure evocative of bones, creating a chilling dialogue with visitors. Structural columns are twisted and sculpted, creating organic shapes that relate to the surrounding parklands but also suggest a disordered world. Belzberg Architects have merged together building as container with an emotionally powerful story like the directors of a film.
The collection is enlivened with interactive digital media along with still images, videos and reports from local newspapers – the material and information is vast and varied both in content and form. Students who visit the museum start their journey by collecting earphones and iPods at reception, allowing them to hear, view and understand the histories and narratives of others while they construct their own narrative of the experience of their journey through the museum.
The exhibits and the architecture follow a structured, linear logic, which, at the end of its journey, opens out to a foyer where Holocaust survivor volunteers share recollections of their experiences. From here, steps lead out the memorial: an enclosure of concrete blocks pierced with holes to represent the 1.2 million Jewish children who died during the atrocities. Students are encouraged to write notes on scraps of paper and push them into the holes in a gesture similar to leaving prayer notes in the cracks of the Western Wall of Jerusalem.
For the most part, architecture makes people feel welcome, comfortable and ‘at ease.’ In order for a museum to recall the atrocities of the Holocaust, that very notion is turned completely on its head. The new Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust is a raw, emotionally charged space that resonates with a horrific period of history. Ultimately what Belzberg Architects have created is a new commemorative monument of permanence in a city so infamous for its love of the impermanent. +
IMAGES Courtesy of Belzberg Architects, Benny Chan, Iwan Baan
1. Zigzagged pedestrian paths on top of the museum’s landscaped roof. 2. The fractured roof is landscaped with paths that emphasise the language of surrounding parklands. 3. Streams of light enter the interior through panes of glass flanking the elongated ramp. 3. Entry to the monument. 5. The first exhibition