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Culture

Berlin Holocaust Memorial Takes Shape

After years of delays, Berlin's controversial Holocaust memorial designed by Peter Eisenman moves into a crucial phase this weekend.

"Undulating field" of concrete steles dedicated to victims of the Holocaust.

After nearly a decade of discussion and several delays in the selection of a design, construction on Berlin’s memorial to the victims of the Holocaust is finally getting underway. Under the watchful eye of U.S. star architect Peter Eisenman, the first of a total 2,700 concrete steles will be selected and erected on a giant open square between the Brandenburg Gate and the city’s newly redeveloped Potsdamer Platz.

The presentation on Saturday of the first group of gray concrete blocks, each measuring close to five meters in height and weighing several tons, is the first step towards completion of the mammoth monument in early 2005. Having commissioned 10 differently-sized concrete slabs, the 71-year-old Eisenman, who is regarded as one of the most important forces in contemporary architecture, is due to cast his eye over them before finally deciding which model will be duplicated in serial production. Starting in September the steles will be delivered to the site and slowly put in position.

After having dragged on for so long, first in the federal parliament, where politicians debated the very nature of constructing a physical memorial to the Holocaust, and then in the architectural competition where experts took their time theorizing the question of what just such a monument should look like to the actual selection and financing of the project, the slow building process seems only fitting.

An undulating field of reflection

The memorial itself is unlike any monument designed for Berlin so far. With the thousands of concrete steles lined up in rows across a 19,000-square-meter open area, it is slightly reminiscent of a graveyard. "The place of no meaning," as Eisenman once referred to the site in the hopes of dispelling fears that he was trying to symbolize the death of the Holocaust, however is intended as a confrontation with the past. The visitor, who finds himself winding his way through the forest of steles, will be struck by how distant the busy city center seems, and how quiet and reflective – but not graveyard-like – the atmosphere is.

Eisenman has said the design should give the impression of an "undulating field." There is no entrance or exit to the site; no prescribed path way through the steles. The uneven ground and the varying heigths of the steles are designed to create the sense of insecurity, but not overwhelming loss, Eisenman has suggested.

The memorial will also include a subterranean information center at the edge of the site which will house a permanent exhibition dedicated to six million victims of the Holocaust.

Undaunted by Graffiti risk

Despite the sensitivity of the project, Eisenman has rejected having tight security around the memorial when it is opened. Set on one of Berlin's most prominent streets, close to the German capital's central Tiergarten park, some fear it could be an easy target for anti-Semitic or attacks. But Eisenman wishes his monument to stay open for people to walk through whenever they want.

"Like a prison or concentration camp," Eisenmann said the monument should survive attacks unscathed, as the steles are "all made out of concrete."

He also said this week he would be unperturbed if the finished memorial became a target for graffiti artists. In an interview with the German weekly news magazine Stern, the architect acknowledged that "there are these destructive feelings once in a while," but he added, "we cannot keep everything squeaky clean. That would be the same behavior as in the 1930s." Eisenman previously said he didn't want the 2,700 steles to be treated with a special anti-graffiti-agent, maintaining that sprayers would find a way to paint on the stones if they really wanted to.

No Bratwurst allowed

But if graffiti is allowed, traditional German sausages are not. Eisenman said the most important thing for him is that no Bratwurst stand is set up near the memorial when it opens to the public on May 8, 2005, 60 years after the end of World War II. The commercialization of and profiting from the suffering of the Holocaust is something he adamantly rejects.

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