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OCT 13, 2010

Stealth Museum: The New Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust Gives New Meaning to Green Architecture (The Jewish Daily Forward)

That said, it is hard not to conclude that the building’s underground location also has deeper significance. In one sense, the building’s self-effacing character might be seen as reflecting an assimilationist reflex on the part of L.A.’s Jewish community. After all, some of the city’s most important Jewish institutions, such as the Museum of Tolerance and the Skirball Cultural Center (designed by Moshe Safdie in the years 1986 to 1995), have strived not to appear architecturally Jewish in any way, a strategy that echoes their universalistic mission of reaching out to non-Jewish audiences. Firm founder Hagy Belzberg’s recent remark to L.A.’s Jewish Journal, that LAMH deliberately has “no Jewish identification” and that it aims to “attract people already in the park who might not have come there intending to step foot in a Holocaust museum,” suggests that the building indeed may be following in a longer tradition.

Yet, LAMH’S underground location actually has more to do with the meaning of the Holocaust or, more precisely, with the question of how architecture should properly address its legacy. In a 2008 interview, Belzberg firmly declared his opposition to the postmodern tendency of architects to utilize historically symbolic forms such as “barbed wire and bricks” in the design of Holocaust museums. As he put it: “Architecture has nothing to do with the Holocaust. It was the people that had to do with [it].”

Instead, Belzberg embraced a more deconstructivist strategy of avoiding literal representation in favor of subtle allusion. In a 2008 interview, he noted that embedding LAMH into the natural environment of a public park represented a commentary on how the Holocaust transpired in the midst of ordinary German life. Citing Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, in Berlin, whose location in the heart of the busy metropolis lends itself to such prosaic activities “as picnicking and playing Frisbee,” Belzberg observed that the daily occurrence of these same activities near LAMH would symbolically underscore the chilling fact that during the Holocaust, “people knowingly or unknowingly went on with their lives while extraordinary events were taking place.” Given this claim, the museum’s relative inconspicuousness as architecture does not so much hide as illuminate one of the more disturbing facts of the Holocaust: the coexistence of atrocity and normalcy.

Whether this subtle message will be grasped by park-goers is unclear. It may not register with casual passersby, but visitors who enter the museum and see its exhibit will probably understand it. In a brilliant move, Belzberg guides visitors into the museum by moving them, from their aboveground arrival point, down a long ramp to the museum’s entrance, 13 feet below grade. As they leave the sunlight above, they enter progressively smaller and darker spaces that echo the exhibit’s powerful narrative of worsening anti-Jewish persecution. By the time the exhibit arrives at the war’s end and liberation, the spaces open up again and become lighter. In so doing, the museum drives home Belzberg’s claim that the distance between normalcy and atrocity is indeed small. LAMH’s subtleties may not succeed in drawing in every visitor to Pan Pacific Park, but those who take the short journey to the shadowed past from the sunlit present may well emerge convinced that one city can legitimately be home to two Holocaust museums.

Gavriel Rosenfeld is associate professor of history at Fairfield University. His book, “Building After Auschwitz: Jewish Architecture and Jewish Memory Since the Holocaust,” will appear in the fall of 2011, from Yale University Press.

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