Trauma related art is generally more effective when it is transactive, where the user’s senses are trigger in a seemingly quasi order, which forms a medium where a single narrative is communicated. Psychologists argue that trauma cannot be articulated within a conventional space, because it is experienced as a “hole in the psyche”. We, as humans, perceive death as the absence of a whole person, rather than the vague idea of loss of life. Thus, memorial design usually utilizes non-space, or absent space by speaking to the senses and conveying a “sensed space”.
In this piece I will examine three different sense manipulatory architectural occurrences; Yad Vesham – the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem, the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, and the Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC. These three examples are chosen for the abundance of information on how the designer successfully attempts to manipulate more than one sense to communicate a specific, yet subtle, narrative. Initially, I will state some background facts of each architectural cases; and then, based on found research, illustrate the similarity or differences used to manipulate each sense referring to the intended narrative. Finally, I will give my take on the auditory phenomena that is experienced enhancing the overall apprehended phenomena.
Yad Vesham is a landscape in remembrance of the heroes and lost lives of the Holocaust; and evolved over a series of generations. The different buildings plotted in the landscape are designed to follow the communities ideology adopted at the time. Initially, the buildings’ designed, in the 1970′s and until the mid 1980′s, signified and glorified fighters and heroes. Starting from the late 1980′s, the communities ideology shifted to denote respect for the losses of life and perception of survivors’ trauma.
The Holocaust Memorial in Berlin was designed to follow the latest ideology, as the competition was held in the late 1990′s and was finally built in 2004. Peter Eisenman’s design met allot of opposition due to the location of the site, in Germany, which has worked hard to overcome that part of its history. Thus, the design, effectively, uses subliminal narratives by speaking to the visitors senses, in lieu of physical evidence.
On the other hand, the Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC is a part of the Washington Mall in the United States capital, which is a setting for many symbolically and significant buildings and monuments; such as the post civil war reconciliation. This indicates that the United States has not only recognized the loss of life, but also accepted the trauma of the war as an integral part of the Nation’s history. The Vietnam Memorial is considered to be an “absent space”; meaning it is only a reflective wall, where an entire space could be seen and experienced through the field of depth viewed within the reflection.
Conventionally, architectural works primarily speak to the visual sense. Every design and element is designed to manipulate our perception of light, sense of equilibrium, and human scale reference. All three architectural examples use similar design techniques, although very differ in materiality, but equally effective in manipulating the visual perception of the visitor.
Single file movement, forced by a tight space, concept is used in two different ways in Yad Vesham, as well as, the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. The inscribed diameter of the prism like main museum circulation path narrows at the darkest point of the path. Also, In the children’s museum, the entrance is through a small door and then bunker like tunnels, leading to a dark room. Due to the circulation path this subconsciously communicates solitude. In addition, the inability to clearly see ahead, where view is blocked by the visitors ahead, gives a sense of apprehension of the unknown destination.
On the other hand, in Eisenman’s design the free circulation offers a similar feeling of confinement. However, due to the drop in ground levels the visitor has a clear view in the distance, but no overall view; resulting in a risk of collision at every corner. In addition, this memorial differs where solitude is not what unsettles the viewer, but due to the free flow circulation and visitors always having to jostle their way past others; this results in an experience which one comes closer to oneself trying to avoid strangers.
Entering the Vietnam Memorial is via descending into a space set into the ground. The overall view of the Washington Mall space is impeded; only a partial views are visible, and distant views and visitors are cut off. This limits the feeling of the vastness of the grounds, forcing one to directly look at a highly polished wall and project within the space beyond the wall’s surface.
The human sense of equilibrium is strongly related to their view in relation to the horizon. Conventionally, humans sense of normality is strongly linked to flat orthogonal planes. When the ground and wall plans shift in angle, even the slightest, against the horizon humans impulsively and continuously try to find their center of gravity.
Slight angular deviation from the norm is used in Yad Vesham main museum and the Holocaust Museum. The different floor and roof planes, in the case of Yad Vesham, and concrete slabs of the Holocaust memorial change the viewers perspective emphasizing the feeling of insecurity and unsteadiness. In Yad Vesham, the main circulation artery is designed as prism, where the walls angles are constantly changing. This is along with the floor planes of the area, which ramp ramp 5 degrees downwards and then upwards, distorting the visitors perspective. Similarly, the concrete blocks in the Holocaust Memorial, which are all the same size of 238 cm, and spaced at equal intervals of 95 cm, are all at different in inclination. A further destabilization design element.
In the case of the Vietnam Memorial the only planer inclination is a ramp leading into the Memorial landscape. The top of the wall aligns exactly with the mount of earth behind it, which results in an unexpected experience when beginning to descend the ramp and entering the space. Furthermore, the perception of the absent space is incomplete without the human interaction. Directly facing the wall, the spatial depth perspective is adjusted depending on the height of the viewer. In addition, the viewer can see the others first before finding their own reflection. Hence, understanding that not only does one see oneself and others, but sees oneself in the other’s eyes. Heightening the self consciousness of the memorial’s visitor.
The idea of turning sharp corners and caught unaware by changes in view, are other destabilizing techniques that have been manifested in all three examples. On entering the main circulatory space in Yad Vesham, one has a clear view to the end of the space. However, the space is divided and roped, impeding direct accessibility forced by a zigzag motion. On entering the children’s museum, it is not a direct approach; the entrance appears as one comes around a bend, surprising the visitor.
At the outside perimeter of the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, the ground plan starts at grade level and concrete blocks are at a welcoming bench height. As the view welcomes one in to the hollow, the ground plane drops 2.4 meters below grade, and simultaneously the blocks grow to 5 meters. This change in scale happens quickly and unexpectedly. This sudden growth of view also occurs in the Vietnam Memorial. Often people come upon the wall unintentionally. This is because the wall’s top is level with grade behind it. The earth is scooped out in front of it to a depth of approximately 3 meters at the apex. What takes the visitor by surprise is the increasing number of names etched on the wall along the descent into the space.
The children’s museum in the Yad Vesham landscape is an architectural complex consisting of dark rooms lined with mirrors. Five endlessly reflected candles that signify the ‘souls of the children’ create a paradox within the space where light and darkness are mixed. As the visitor moves into the space, so do the reflections of the candles enhancing the disorienting experience. The darkness of the room here is like the highly polished surface, of the Vietnam Memorial wall, which do not allow for passive clear reflections. In the case of the Children’s museum the visitor, moving closely to the reflective planes seeing a dark reflection of their selves among the million splintered reflections of the candles. In the Vietnam Memorial, the reflection of oneself is seen behind the names of the lost individuals, engraved on the wall.
In both cases of reflectivity, in the children’s museum – Yad Vesham and the Vietnam Memorial, the smooth surface compels the viewer to reach and touch it. Touching the Vietnam Memorial wall verifies, solidifies, and grounds the engraved names from their apparent floating state. Another phenomena that occurs when touching the dark surfaces; a darker less lucid hand seems to be reaching forward from the space within; creating a connection to the separated and lost individuals.
Another, tactile manipulation is clearly found in the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin is the undulating and buckling ground, that forces a jerky unsteady walk. The feeling of the topology under ones feet throws normality out of kilter, enhancing an unsteady sensation, and gnawing at the sense of familiarity. Individually each of the previous sense manipulations are strong on their own. However, they are amplified when coupled with the manipulation of the auditory organ. What is heard, or unheard, is what highlights the subliminal narrative intended behind each design.
Aside from the obvious atonal music greeting the visitors to the children museum, at Yad Vesham, along with the recited names of the lost children there are other implications. The most obvious is found in the Memorial in Berlin and the children’s museum, both Eisenman and Safdi purposefully constrain the users visual ability, forcing the user to depend on their auditory sense to predict what is around the next corner.
In the case of Eisenman’s design, when standing at the parameter of the site, the visual sense is saturated by finding a pattern, where everything, seems monotonous, allowing for the other senses to awaken. When the visitor is within the concrete ‘jungle’, the only means of apprehending what is around the corner is what one hears. Similarly, and less subtly, Safdi moves the visitor in darkness. Even though the darkness is mixed with candle light reflections, eluding that the visual sense is working. It is not enough to navigate.
Tight spaces lined with smooth sound reflecting surfaces, such as the bunker like entrance at the children’s museum, and the smooth concrete faces of the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, reflect the visitor’s own sounds back to their ears; such as footsteps, breath sounds, and voice. Thus bringing one closer to oneself, and enhancing one’s self consciousness.
In the landscape of concrete blocks, of the Holocaust Memorial, act similarly to the Vietnam Memorial wall, detaching the viewer from the outside sounds of the city. Plunged in the center of the Holocaust Memorial, one can see the occasional bus drive by, but is unable to hear it. This is because not only are the concrete blocks acting as sound barriers, the sound waves that have not been blocked are traveling above ear level.
This applies to the Holocaust Memorial, and partially to the Vietnam Memorial, where the only sounds that are heard are from the landscape behind the viewer facing the wall, and the other visitors to the Memorial. Coupled with seeing others reflections in the space beyond the wall, this phenomena enhances the meant narrative of connection.