About the 2005 Berlin Holocaust Memorial

A Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

A boy in a red jacket hops from one to another of the 2,711 stellae, concrete tombs that together make a memorial
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

American architect Peter Eisenman stirred controversy when he unveiled plans for the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Critics protested that the memorial in Berlin, Germany was too abstract and did not present historical information about the Nazi campaign against the Jews. Other people said that the memorial resembled a vast field of nameless tombstones that symbolically captured the horror of the Nazi death camps. Fault-finders decried that the stones were too theoretical and philosophical. Because they lack an immediate connection with common people, the Holocaust Memorial's intellectual intent may be lost, resulting in a disconnect. Would people ever treat the slabs as objects in a playground? People who praised the memorial said that the stones would become a central part of Berlin's identity.

Since its opening in 2005, this Holocaust Memorial Berlin has stirred controversy. Today we can take a closer look back in time.

 

A Memorial Without Names

aerial view of the construction site of The Berlin Holocaust Memorial within site of the Reichstag
The Berlin Holocaust Memorial Lies Between East and West Berlin, Germany. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Peter Eisenman's Holocaust Memorial is constructed of massive stone blocks arranged on a 19,000 square meter (204,440 square foot) plot of land between East and West Berlin. The 2,711 rectangular concrete slabs placed on a sloping stretch of land have similar lengths and widths, but various heights.

Eisenman refers to the slabs as the plural stelae (pronounced STEE-LEE). An individual slab is a stele (pronounced STEEL or STEE-LEE) or known by the Latin word stela (pronounced STEEL-LAH).

The use of the stele is an ancient architectural tool to honor the dead. The stone marker, to a smaller extent, is used even today. Ancient stelae often have enscriptions. Architect Eisenman chose not to enscribe the stelae of the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin.

Undulating Stones

aerial view of memorial, hundreds of casket-like shapes seemingly of different heights but apparently of similar lengths, forming rows when lined up
Peter Eisenman's Effective Design. Juergen Stumpe/Getty Images

Each stele or stone slab is sized and arranged in such a way that the field of stelae seems to undulate with the sloping land.

Architect Peter Eisenman designed the Berlin Holocaust Memorial without plaques, inscriptions, or religious symbols. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is without names, yet the strength of the design is in its mass of anonymity. The solid rectangular stones have been compared to tombstones and coffins.

This memorial is unlike American memorials such as the Vietnam Veterans Wall in Washington, DC or the National 9/11 Memorial in New York City, which incorporate victims' names within their design.

Pathways through the Berlin Holocaust Memorial

A labyrinth of passages wind between stone slabs at Berlin Holocaust Memorial
Stone Pathways Between the Tall Memorial Slabs. Heather Elton/Getty Images

After the slabs were in place, the cobblestone pathways were added. Visitors to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe can follow a labyrinth of pathways between the massive stone slabs. Architect  Eisenman explained that he wanted visitors to feel the loss and disorientation that Jews felt during the Holocaust.

 

Each Stone a Unique Tribute

construction site with cranes and workmen placing individual slabs of stone in a field
The Berlin Holocaust Memorial Being Constructed Within Site of the Reichstag Dome. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Each stone slab is a unique shape and size, put in place by the architect's design. In so doing, architect Peter Eisenman points out the uniqueness and the sameness of the people who were murdered at the time of the Holocaust, also known as Shoah.

The site lies between East and West Berlin, within sight of the Reichstag Dome designed by British architect Norman Foster.

Anti-Vandalism at the Holocaust Memorial

Detail of the Berlin Holocaust Memorial creates an abstract image of geometric light and dark solid objects
Abstract Geometry of the Berlin Holocaust Memorial. David Bank/Getty Images

All of the stone slabs at the Berlin Holocaust Memorial have been coated with a special solution to prevent graffiti. Authorities hoped that this would prevent neo-Nazi white supremacist and anti-semitic vandalism.

"I was against the graffiti coating from the start," architect Peter Eisenman told Spiegel Online. "If a swastika is painted on it, it is a reflection of how people feel....What can I say? It's not a sacred place."

Beneath the Berlin Holocaust Memorial

person observing lighted tomb-like structures within a room
Underground Information Center at the Berlin Holocaust Memorial. Carsten Koall/Getty Images

Many people felt that the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe should include inscriptions, artifacts, and historical information. To meet that need, architect Eisenman designed a visitor's information center beneath the Memorial's stones. A series of rooms covering thousands of square feet memorializes individual victims with names and biographies. The spaces are named Room of Dimensions, the Room of Families, the Room of Names, and the Room of Sites.

The architect, Peter Eisenman, was against the information center. "The world is too full of information and here is a place without information. That is what I wanted," he told Spiegel Online. "But as an architect you win some and you lose some."

Open to the World

extreme close-up of cracked slab within a field of slabs
Visible Cracks Appeared in Stellae by 2007. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Peter Eisenman's controversial plans were approved in 1999, and construction began in 2003. The Memorial opened to the public on May 12, 2005 but by 2007 cracks appeared on some of the stele. More criticism.

The site of the Memorial is not a space where physical genocide took place  — extermination camps were located in more rural areas. Being situated in the heart of Berlin, however, gives a public face to the remembered atrocities of a nation and continues to carry its somber message to the world.

It remains high on the list of venues experienced by visiting dignitaries — including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2010, U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama in 2013, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras in 2015, and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and Ivanka Trump all visited at different times in 2017.

About Peter Eisenman, the Architect

white man, white hair, thin-rimmed glasses, Berlin sign in background
American Architect Peter Eisenman in 2005. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Peter Eisenman (born: August 11, 1932 in Newark, New Jersey) won the competition to design the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (2005). Educated at Cornell University (B.Arch. 1955), Columbia University (M.Arch. 1959), and the University of Cambridge in England (M.A. and Ph.D. 1960-1963), Eisenman was best known as a teacher and a theorist. He headed an informal group of five New York architects who wanted to establish a rigorous theory of architecture independent of context. Called the New York Five, they were featured in a controversial 1967 exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art and in a later book titled Five Architects. In addition to Peter Eisenman, the New York Five included Charles Gwathmey, Michael Graves. John Hejduk, and Richard Meier.

Eisenman's first major public building was Ohio's Wexner Center for the Arts (1989). Designed with architect Richard Trott, the Wexner Center is a complex of grids and a collision of textures. Other projects in Ohio include the Greater Columbus Convention Center (1993) and the Aronoff Center for Design and Art (1996)  in Cincinnati.

Since then, Eisenman has stirred controversy with buildings that appear disconnected from surrounding structures and historical context. Often called a Deconstructionist and a Postmodern theorist, Eisenman's writings and designs represent an effort to liberate form from meaning. Yet, while avoiding external references, Peter Eisenman's buildings may be called Structuralist in that they search for relationships within the building elements.

In addition to the 2005 Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, Eisenman has been designing the City of Culture of Galicia in Santiago de Compostelaa, Spain beginning in 1999. In the United States, he may be best known to the public for designing the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona — the 2006 sports venue that can roll out the turf into the bright sunlight and rain. Really, the field rolls from inside to outside. Eisenman doesn't balk at difficult designs.

Sources

  • SPIEGEL Interview with Holocaust Monument Architect Peter EisenmanSpiegel Online, May 09, 2005 [accessed August 3, 2015]​
  • A place of information, Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, visitBerlin, https://www.visitberlin.de/en/memorial-murdered-jews-europe [accessed March 23, 2018]
  • Merrill, S. and Schmidt, L (eds.) (2010) A Reader in Uncomfortable Heritage and Dark Tourism, Cottbus: BTU Cottbus, PDF at http://www-docs.tu-cottbus.de/denkmalpflege/public/downloads/UHDT_Reader.pdf
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Craven, Jackie. "About the 2005 Berlin Holocaust Memorial." ThoughtCo, Mar. 24, 2018, thoughtco.com/the-berlin-holocaust-memorial-by-peter-eisenman-177928. Craven, Jackie. (2018, March 24). About the 2005 Berlin Holocaust Memorial. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-berlin-holocaust-memorial-by-peter-eisenman-177928 Craven, Jackie. "About the 2005 Berlin Holocaust Memorial." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-berlin-holocaust-memorial-by-peter-eisenman-177928 (accessed April 23, 2018).