It’s Memorial Day in America, so let’s talk for a moment about memorials. The other day I came across the image above, from an unveiling on a road outside of Detroit. Even acknowledging the centrality of the highway in American life, this seems a bit crass to me. (New Yorkers might think of the Ari Halberstam Memorial Access Ramp to the Brooklyn Bridge, a tribute that makes a bit more sense, as Halberstam was murdered on the bridge.) The naming above was tied to the opening of the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills, MI.
This is the museum, a work of architecture parlante by Neumann Smith & Associates. Here’s a bit of the firm’s description of the building: “The gray and blue striping on the second story reminds visitors of the camp clothing Holocaust prisoners were forced to wear. The cables criss-crossing the exterior brick represent concentration camp fencing. Even the shaggy greenery around the perimeter is reminiscent of the meadow grass that flourished near the camps. All of this uncomfortable imagery is deliberate to convey the great destructive force of intolerance.”
Do we really need buildings like this to educate? We have films and artifacts to teach the specifics—I think a showing of Shoah is enough to permanently instill the horror of the camps on any visitor.
The absurdity of the Detroit memorial museum only reinforces the manifold virtues of Peter Eisenman’s Monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe, in Berlin. This seems to me everything that a memorial should be; physically and emotionally powerful, but not trite. Eisenman is the most cerebral of architects, and his gridded, Cartesian thinking here is still evident. But it is as much from the gut and the heart as from the head, a combination of humors that suits. If only we could have something so deceptively simple and powerful for Ground Zero. It’s a vast improvement over what we’re getting, to say nothing of this.
Meanwhile, in about an hour, a parade of fire trucks and antique cars will file through the quaint Berkshire town where I find myself this holiday weekend. I expect a fine turnout, and can’t imagine a nicer way to honor local veterans.