precedent: MEMORIAL to the SIX MILLION JEWISH MARTYRS

Title: Memorial to the Six Million Jewish Martyrs

Architect: Louis I. Kahn

Location: New York City, USA 

unbuilt, 1967- 1974

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In 1966 – after  many failed attempts since the late 40s – the Committee for the Commemoration of Six Million Jewish Martyrs, chaired by Vladka Meed, a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto, brought together 34 Jewish groups to commission a memorial for the city of New York. Through personal connections to committee members, his considerable national recognition, and his Jewish heritage, Louis Kahn was invited to develop a first design proposal. Kahn envisioned an “environment of light created by nine piers in a square without ritualistic direction.”

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He presented to the committee a grid of nine solid glass blocks, each measuring 12 by 12 feet, separated from one another by 12 feet, and standing 15 feet tall on a raised platform. The intentional lack of Judaic symbolism, writing or imagery in his design asserted an abstract but spatially powerful concept. His ambition was to create a memorial without accusation: the shadows of the blocks would be filled with light, never casting the visitor in darkness; the changing light would allow the memory to never cease, while evoking a sense of generation and ever-renewing life.

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Kahn found that his ideal concept turned out to be near impossible as he informed himself at the Corning Glass Works on cost, casting methods and color of the solid glass blocks. He discovered that the original design was too expensive, structurally unfeasible, and that the thickness of the glass would make the ideal colorless, transparent material of his plans unattainable.

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Un-accusing through its embrace of light, the Memorial would allow a broader and more timeless interpretation due to its lack of ritualistic elements, symbols, or narrative imagery. It was criticized for speaking optimistically to future generations, rather than evoking the atrocities still present within living memory.

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His design was met with much conflicting criticism. Some parties argued that the memorial would not be specific without Judaic symbols – that it didn’t refer to the holocaust without dialectic representation. Other’s found the non-accusing nature outrageous, calling for a much broader statement human suffering. Finally, he compromised with the board by changing the number of blocks to six blocks – symbolic of the six million Jewish victims, the six points of the Star of David, etc – and adding a seventh hollow one in the middle to function as a chapel. It would be covered in Hebrew, Yiddish and English text, glow a soft lilac color and have an artistic Jewish symbol applied to the ceiling. Against the six lifeless, dark blocks, this seventh block would be illuminated, symbolizing new life.

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The Memorial’s prospective site was Battery Park, a historically loaded space at the tip of the Manhattan peninsula already crammed with monuments. Kahn;s design would absorb its surrounding memorials by its openness, especially gesturing to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island as symbols of immigration and refuge.

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The project was never built, though Kahn continued to develop his design until his death in 1974.

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