Skokie, IL - New Holocaust Museum Opens in Chicago Suburb
Skokie, IL - Steel and stone cannot speak, so it is only fair to ask how architecture can evoke the cries of 6 million Jews who were murdered in gas chambers, forced on death marches or shot at point-blank range and dumped into mass graves. In all honesty, it can’t. The evil of the Holocaust was so vast that architecture, which is charged with subdividing the infinity of space, cannot fully come to grips with it.
And yet, architecture can stir horror and sadness, provoke thought and introspection, and make the absence of victims palpable. In the last two decades, it has demonstrated that in such celebrated works as James Ingo Freed’s U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum Berlin and Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin.
Rejecting the bland neutrality of postwar modernism, these designs revealed that architecture can unite the visual and the visceral to memorialize the unthinkable.
The new Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center which opens Sunday in Skokie and was designed by Chicago architect Stanley Tigerman, is a very different sort of structure. It relies far more heavily on overt symbolism than its predecessors—with mixed results. Some of the interior spaces in this $45 million building are deeply moving. But the exterior is overloaded with metaphors that distract from the museum’s central focus of honoring the dead and enlightening the living.
Any judgments about this structure must be qualified because its interior remains, in crucial respects, incomplete. Less than three-quarters of the permanent exhibit is expected to be finished by Sunday’s opening, which coincides with Holocaust Remembrance Week. Nevertheless, the building is finished and it is already turning drivers’ heads along the Edens Expressway.
The museum’s presence in Skokie is rich in irony. In the late 1970s, neo-Nazis targeted the suburb for a march because it was home to thousands of Holocaust survivors. The march was never held, but the prospect of it mobilized survivors and led to the establishment in 1981 of the Holocaust Memorial Foundation of Illinois. The foundation, which opened a small storefront museum in Skokie in 1984, has now built a structure whose very existence represents a triumph against the continuing scourges of hatred, bigotry and genocide.
As designed by the 78-year-old Tigerman, it consists of a black pavilion and a white pavilion, which represent good and evil with almost melodramatic simplicity. The black pavilion’s lacquered steel, hard-edged industrial details and lack of windows make it appear stark and menacing. The bulbous white pavilion’s transparency suggests the redemptive power of education.
Tracks The space between the buildings is a fan-shaped void, faced in gray on the exterior, that Tigerman calls “the cleave.” It contains a German boxcar of the type that transported people to the death campus. Railroad tracks (left) run through the cleave, underscoring the idea that the Holocaust was a relentless journey forward with no turning back.
Visitors will enter the dark pavilion and descend through a windowless, mazelike series of exhibits depicting Jewish life before the Holocaust and after the rise of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich. At the low point of their descent is a hinge between the two buildings—a dark, cylinder-shaped room portraying the deportation of the Jews to the concentration camps. Visitors will then move into the light-filled space of the white pavilion, which contains more exhibits, a film theater and other commemorative spaces. It all sounds very neat and affirming—from dark to light—yet the reality is more complex.
The problems begin with the museum’s location. Originally, it was supposed to rise in a neighborhood east of the Edens Expressway. But in 2002, the Skokie Village Board denied permission after neighbors complained that they would be inundated with traffic.
Back-side So the museum shifted to a plot west of the Edens, but Tigerman did not rotate the building plans to make the pavilions face adjoining Woods Drive. He liked the idea of exposing the building to thousands of drivers. Yet as drivers whiz by, they only see the building’s top. And once people arrive, the faults compound. Visitors approaching on foot from a parking lot along Woods Drive encounter the museum’s concrete-faced back (left). A sign had to be installed to direct them to the front. Once they get there, they find the pavilion facades nearly crammed against a highway embankment. The roar of cars and trucks is ever-present.
Front The building itself is squat and cartoonish. Visitors will need an answer key to decipher its esoteric assortment of historic allusions and skewed grids. The key would inform them that the white pavilion faces east, symbolizing the Jews’ anticipation of the Messiah, while the black pavilion faces southeast, toward the Western Wall of the destroyed Second Temple. Two free-standing columns evoke the bronze pillars in front of King Solomon’s Temple but are built in a metal framework to suggest the lack of architectural permanence associated with a wandering people. And so on.
Ask Tigerman what all this has to do with the Holocaust and he’ll reply that Hitler not only wanted to destroy the Jews of Europe; he wanted to wipe out their culture. And so, to a fault, Tigerman has defiantly expressed that culture. His collage of forms nearly collapses under its overly literal weight.
Boxcar Fortunately, the museum’s interior leaves behind this studied symbolism for an architecture that is refreshingly direct. As noisy school groups enter the black pavilion, for example, the stark, industrial-strength spaces can be counted upon to hush them. Stepping inside the boxcar (left) will give visitors a stomach-churning impression of how Jews were herded to the camps like human cattle.
But the interior is not without problems. When visitors arrive at exhibits about the concentration camps, for example, they will be in the white pavilion, where natural light streams down from above. That forced the museum’s exhibition designer to put up black acrylic panels to darken the mood. And the fan-shaped cleave in the building’s center does not equal Libeskind’s cavernous concrete voids in making the absence of the dead palpable.
Skylights All should be forgiven, however, once visitors climb a spiraling staircase that leads to the museum’s memorial space, known as the Room of Remembrance. Here, Tigerman has shaped a skylit cylindrical space that is wrapped in light wood and has a semicircular bench that encourages visitors to face each other and talk. Columns of Jerusalem stone flank a book maintained by local Holocaust survivors about family members who were killed. The apex of the cleave pushes into the room, violating its Platonic geometry. Above, written in Yiddish, English and Hebrew are the first names of victims. The names get progressively larger and lighter as they rise, subtly suggesting ashes of human flesh rising through a chimney. It’s by far the building’s most powerful space.
Hall-reflection Visitors will then go to the almost-circular Hall of Reflection, which is bathed in natural light that seems all the brighter after the darkness of the black pavilion. Its 12 seats, representing the 12 tribes of Israel, are arranged in a square, allowing visitors to commune or be alone. The space is simple, but not stark, offering visitors a much-needed chance to decompress.
What they will take away from this haunting but ultimately uplifting structure is anybody’s guess. Clearly, the museum’s architecture will have engaged and enveloped them in a drama of dark and light, life and death, survival and transcendence. That is no small achievement even if this design does not rise to the level of other buildings that have confronted the challenge of giving voice to steel and stone.
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