Daniel Libeskind brings his Deconstructivist aesthetic to Ottawa as a contemplation of the humanity and politics behind genocide.
In 2007, Laura Grosman, an 18-year-old university student in Ottawa learned that Canada was the only Allied nation that didn’t have a monument to victims of the Holocaust.
The granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor, Grosman was incensed and began lobbying politicians. It was perplexing that Canada—a country that had played an integral role on the beaches of Normandy in 1944 and helped to end World War II—had no permanent marker for the civilian victims of that war.
Ten years later, Canada’s National Holocaust Monument—also known by its official title, Landscape of Loss, Memory, and Survival—finally opened to the public earlier this fall.
It was designed by Polish-American architect Daniel Libeskind, who first made a name for himself in 1989 upon winning the design competition for the Jewish Department of the Berlin Museum (now known as Jewish Museum Berlin). Since then, he has brought his jagged Deconstructivist aesthetic to malls, art museums, and residential buildings around the world. Libeskind also headed the master planning for the rebuild of the World Trade Center site in Manhattan after 9/11.
In Ottawa, Libeskind joined a team assembled by Toronto-based Lord Cultural Resources, a firm that consults on major cultural-institution projects and won the international design competition. “The Holocaust changed the world. It’s not just one more historical event; it’s an event that shook the foundations of [humanity],” Libeskind told CityLab. Genocide, he continued, opens up a perspective on what humans are capable of and what politics are all about, and it’s important to contemplate that often. “That’s why I did the competition. I think memory is key.”
From the ground, the structure appears like a collection of oversize walls of different heights and thicknesses, all cast in the utilitarian, heather-gray color and rough texture of concrete. The door frame at the top of its staircase is meant to symbolize an eternal flame and gives a view of the Peace Tower, a central component of the Canadian Parliament building that waves the maple-leaf flag.
That’s not Doris Bergen’s favorite view, though. She consulted on the project because of her extensive work as a Holocaust historian at the University of Toronto. She’s the only endowed chair in Holocaust studies in Canada. Of all the overt and abstract symbolism seen throughout the monument, her favorite part it is simply the sky. “The fact that the monument is open,” she said. “You’re both in this space—it’s a weird space; it’s underground in some places... and yet you’re in the world. I was so moved by that.”
The structure sits in an otherwise empty field at the corner of a busy intersection across the street from Ottawa’s War Museum, and just a mile or so away from Parliament. The plot will eventually be developed, said Susan Fisher, project manager and landscape architect with Canada’s National Capital Commission. “It’ll all be surrounded by development. It will evolve and change over time. We got in fairly early.”
The natural environment surrounding the monument will also morph. Currently the landscaping, designed by Claude Cormier, feels sparse and is mostly composed of short shrubs and tiny trees. Some will stay small while others will grow to meet the height of the structure.
The tundra-like landscape is familiar to Canadians and people from other northern communities, including many of the places where concentration camps were established. For Bergen, it conveys a sense of both life and death, as do the painted murals based on photos Ed Burtynsky took at former concentration camps in Poland, Germany, Austria, and the Czech Republic.
All of these components lend an austere, solemn ambiance to the monument—something that was extremely important to Bergen.
When the team first began brainstorming its submission to the design competition, she said the group initially began bandying about the idea of how to visually represent the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust. There was also an impulse from some of the political and financial backers to do some kind of design that’d be a celebration of Canada and of Holocaust survivors.
“I said, ‘Wait a second. I just have one question: Who’s the monument for? Is it only about the murdered Jews of the Holocaust, or is the monument broader?’” Bergen recounted.
To her, it was crucial to include other victims of the Holocaust—millions of gay people, disabled people, the Roma, Slavs, and others killed or forced into concentration camps—in the monument. It was also important for her to avoid positioning the monument as a celebration of survival and victory. “If you valorize survival, what does it say about the people who didn’t survive?” she said.
Strangely, though, the monument was first opened with a dedication plaque that failed to mention Jewish people or anti-Semitism at all. The federal government scrambled to replace it, but the faux-pas made headlines. Bergen called the error “stupid” and said the inscription had been shortened from a longer phrase that acknowledged the Jewish victims.
As for its design, Libeskind ultimately chose an uneven yet unified composition of six irregular triangles that seem random from the ground but, when viewed aerially, form a crushed Star of David.
“The Star was important. It was pinned onto people whether or not they were religious,” said Libeskind. That star continues to shine in some strange way, crossing over to darkness and continuing to haunt us, he continued. The shape also provides structural support for the monument, which can be accessed from nearly every corner. “It’s intertwined,” he said. “It’s not a simple thing.”