Architectural symbols are rarely more layered, complex or self-aware than in a Holocaust museum, where the architect's nearly impossible job is to mark murder on a mass scale while at the same time providing some sense of resilience and hope.
In some cases the resulting design takes on a slashing, dissonant form, as in Daniel Libeskind's 1999 Jewish Museum in Berlin. In others it tries to communicate at least a small part of the claustrophobia and confusion that awaited prisoners inside Nazi camps; that was among the central goals of James Ingo Freed, who designed the bluntly powerful 1993 United States Holocaust Museum on the National Mall in Washington.
Santa Monica architect Hagy Belzberg took a third approach in shaping the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, which occupies a sliver of a site on the western edge of Pan Pacific Park, across the street from the Grove shopping center. Eager to steer clear of direct architectural representations of either persecution or liberation — both of which, Belzberg told me, he thinks lead all too quickly to kitsch — the architect instead designed a sleek building full of liquid curves that is sunk partially below ground and topped with a steeply raked green roof. The walkways slicing through that rooftop landscape, along with the museum's curving interior walls and ceilings, are made of shotcrete, a kind of concrete that is sprayed on rather than poured and is common in the construction of swimming pools.
The result of all those architectural choices is an elegant, energy-efficient and economical building whose stance toward the city, and toward history, is oddly deferential. By tucking itself beneath the rolling landscape of the park, the museum seems happy to erase its public presence, even as it creates spaces for contemplation in its rooftop garden. The shotcrete walls, for all their appeal when seen from afar, have a rather insubstantial quality up close, unlike the poured-in-place concrete they impersonate.
As a community center or a small science museum, Belzberg's building could easily qualify as an inventive response to the range of constraints he had to contend with, including a tight budget and an unusually tricky site. As a Holocaust museum, it strikes a conflicted note, its cost-effective, rippling shapes seemingly miscast.
I don't know that a Holocaust museum, by definition, requires architectural toughness. But given that its contents are so horrific, there should be a sense that the container — the building — has enough heft, solidity and resolve to hold its own. A certain frankness about construction and materials would also seem fundamental, though that is largely missing here.
The new building, which covers 32,000 square feet and had construction costs of $15.5 million, represents the culmination of a long search for a permanent home by the Museum of the Holocaust, which was founded in 1961 and is the oldest Holocaust museum in the United States. For years it moved from one rented space to the next. Most recently it was located inside a Wilshire Boulevard office building. Finally the museum reached an agreement with the city to build on the site in Pan Pacific Park, adjacent to an existing Holocaust memorial erected in 1991.
Inside, Belzberg has produced an appealingly legible floor plan despite a number of complex circulation challenges. There are three ways, for instance, to reach the lobby. From the curb on the museum's western edge along the Grove Drive, where buses will drop off the schoolchildren who make up the bulk of the museum's visitors, a partially hidden ramp leads down to the front door. Immediately across from that entrance is another one bringing visitors in from the park. A third path is to come up in an elevator from the underground parking garage and enter the museum from the east.
Those three routes come together in a surprisingly small if high-ceilinged lobby. Behind a row of interior windows and above a sleek walnut ticket desk lie the museum's offices, as well as an archive for scholars.
After entering the museum, visitors start down another ramp, this one lined on one side by exhibits designed by Randy Schoenberg, president of the museum's board, in collaboration with Belzberg. The exhibits move chronologically; borrowing a strategy from Maya Lin's Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, the ramp takes museum goers into the depths of the war, and the Holocaust, before bringing them back toward ground level and daylight.
At the bottom of the ramp is perhaps the museum's most powerful, if also one of its most basic, exhibits: A model of the Sobibor concentration camp in Poland built (entirely from memory) by one of its former prisoners, Thomas Blatt. The display, chillingly simple, has the childlike quality of the architecture in a model train set.
One of the strengths of Belzberg's design is its resistance to narrow, simplistic interpretation. By avoiding direct symbols of the Holocaust — and, for that matter, of Jewish identity — he has created a piece of architecture that operates on a number of symbolic levels. Its rooftop forms — designed with the Colorado landscape firms K. Dakin Design and Evo Design — suggest an extension of existing pathways in the park.
Gavriel Rosenfeld, writing in the Forward newspaper, has even suggested, fascinatingly, that the museum's "self-effacing character" is the architectural version of an interest in cultural assimilation. "After all," Rosenfeld notes, "some of the city's most important Jewish institutions, such as the Museum of Tolerance and the Skirball Cultural Center ... have strived not to appear architecturally Jewish in any way, a strategy that echoes their universalistic mission of reaching out to non-Jewish audiences."
Rosenfeld also calls the museum an example of "stealth architecture." But ultimately the design is too aware of its own good looks — too fond of the bending formal flourish — to qualify. One gesture Belzberg leans on heavily — curving walls framing expanses of clear or opaque glass — begins after several appearances to feel gratuitously decorative. The notched row of skylights above the ticket desk, on the other hand, is a bluntly effective touch.
The decision to lower the building's profile in the park by sinking much of it underground, meanwhile, had as much to do with pleasing public officials and community groups concerned about new construction in the neighborhood as it did with Belzberg's architectural goals. But there is no getting around the fact that it has produced a rather apologetic landmark — not to mention a sign of the anemic support politicians and the public give to cultural as opposed to developer-driven architecture in this city.
To an extent Belzberg faced a paradox in designing the museum: Working with a minimal budget, how do you create a permanent, serious monument to the Holocaust in a city famous for its love of the impermanent and where the prevailing construction practices favor the flimsy, the stucco-wrapped and the expedient?
Ultimately, he decided to bring those two poles together, employing fluid, lightweight and relatively inexpensive materials to create an atmosphere of somber reflection. As you might guess, it is something of an uncomfortable marriage.