Sixty-one regional winners were entered into the Corobrik SAIA Architectural Awards. Six projects received Awards for Excellence, the highest distinction that SAIA can confer on a project in South Africa. The Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Foundation, by Lewis Levin, was one of them.
The world is sadly constantly confronted with the most barbaric acts of human violence and oppression. When these brutal acts are viewed in the sunlight of the distance of time and space we are all silenced by the horror portrayed or relayed from the words and experiences of the survivors. The reaction always seems to be the same when the collective voice goes up with the words; Never Again! Never Again!
Yet, mankind forgets again and again, in different places, in different circumstances and in different times. Mankind never seems to learn and we always find new reasons for acts of brutality against our fellow human beings.
The submission made for the building starts with the following words, and it is important to repeat them here;
I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation.
We must take sides.
Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.
Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.
Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner.
For any architect to design a building with this kind of purpose is a daunting task. Firstly, whatever the architect designs will be insignificant in terms of the sheer weight of the subject matter and secondly, the world has seen a whole series of buildings designed by very influential architects who have created an international benchmark against which each new addition to this type of building will be measured. This reality can be a high mountain to scale for any architect to find their own place in this legacy where they can be taken seriously and be respected for their unique contribution.
The architect quite rightly states;
Deriving architectural symbols for mankind’s greatest crimes was a humbling and moving process. We undertook this journey with survivors of the Holocaust and the Rwandan Genocide. From the outset, they suggested a strong motif: the railway infrastructure of Europe and Africa.
Trains and railways, once a symbol of industrial progress in the eyes of the 20th century modernists, were transformed by the Nazis and their collaborators into a vast killing machine. In Africa, the railways representing the great dream of the colonialists, not only brought along empire, but also oppression and human misery.
The reality and metaphor of the railway infrastructure lead the architect to the idea of the ‘industrial’ building. When so many of the death camps and genocide sites are viewed their industrial nature becomes prominent. These were real ‘factories of death’. This architectural reference then, became the most important idea for the architect. It informed the form and the most important material choices and the detailing of the building.
The visitor’s experience of the building is direct and uncomplicated. Unlike so many of the other Holocaust Memorials, the architect here does not ‘force’ the message onto the viewer. The architect does not also force a specific emotional response onto the visitor. In this building the visitor is treated as a responsible adult who would be able to form a personal opinion about both the building and the meaning of the exhibits. The building, its exhibits and the placing in its physical context does not impose itself on anybody. It is simply there and it tells its story to those who are inquisitive enough to want to hear it.
One of the most important aspects of the building is the infinite care with which it has been made. It is as if every brick has been placed with care and respect. Each detail pays homage to the departed and draws our attention to the fact that so many people died because wanton carelessness and evil motives. When one enters across the forecourt, paved with old broken tombstones, the visitor immediately understands that you are there to collectively ask for forgiveness for the inhumane transgressions of humankind.
The building is quiet, it does not impose and it reminds us with its unsettling presence that what is remembered here can happen again in our midst if we are not vigilant everyday, and when we do not speak up about the injustices of life.
The real architectural strength of the building is situated in its ‘ordinariness’. This may be the most important contribution that it is making to the international lexicon of architectural ideas of buildings and institutions assisting the world to remember and to hopefully avoid the repetition of our inhumanity to each other.
The Corobrik SAIA Architectural Awards were held concurrently with AZA18, Africa’s premier urban cultural festival focused on architecture.