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Breaking Point
Eisenman's memorial in Berlin is crumbling
Peter Eisenman's Memorial to the Murder Jews of Europe in Berlin. The project has been afflicted with numerous problems, most recently a furor over cracks in the concrete blocks.
Courtesy Eisenman Architects

Barely three years old, Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is looking a little worse for wear. The German magazine Cicero has reported that the memorial, a rolling gray sea of massive concrete pillars, is cracking.

one of nearly 400 cracks that have appeared on the eisenman Memorial.
Associated Press

Joachim Schulz, a structural engineer, found that 1,361 of the monument’s 2,711 blocks were cracked, a startling jump from the 400 or so originally thought to be damaged as of last year. “All these facts are new to us,” said Felizitas Borzym, a spokesperson for the memorial foundation. “No one knows for sure what to do, or why this happened.”

Schulz says the cracks were formed by water seeping into the concrete and freezing, but memorial officials suspect sun and shadow have, over time, stressed the blocks to their breaking point. The clue, said Bernd Hillemeier, an expert from the Technical University of Berlin hired by the memorial foundation, is that most of the damaged pillars are in the southwest corner of the five-acre site, where the sun falls the most directly. As the sunny sides heat up and expand, the opposite faces stay cool in the shade, building enough tension to crack the continued on page 3 Breaking Point continued from front page concrete. “But that’s only one idea,” said Borzym.

A spokesperson in Eisenman’s office said that the architect had no comment “except to say that the condition was anticipated.” Others agree that whatever the cause, no one is to blame; these things just happen. “Every building with this material has small cracks,” Borzym explained. In fact, Hillemeier told AN that in preparation for possible damage the tallest blocks were given extra reinforcement. “The cracks,” he said, “represent primarily a visual defect. The stability of the stelae is not endangered.”

That’s good news for the city—the $40 million monument is one of Berlin’s biggest attractions, drawing about 10,000 people every day. When it was first proposed, however, it wasn’t all that popular, and construction lasted years, slowed by controversy. Partway through the project, it was revealed that Degussa, the company that made the anti-graffiti paint coating the pillars, had ties to a manufacturer of Nazi poison gas.

Even before construction began, though, Eisenman was getting flak for his design, with critics calling the monument too abstract. The pillars are completely bare, but vary in height as you walk through them, from knee-high on the edges to almost 15 feet tall in the center. Claustrophobic and awe-inspiring at the same time, the memorial churns up feelings of oppression on an enormous scale. Whether or not cracks compromise that power is debatable—a tattered monolith is, after all, a bit less imposing—and the foundation is eager to patch things up.

But officials say repairs will have to wait until the spring, when the weather is warmer and drier. Hillemeier is working on a way to seal some of the smaller cracks while the foundation solidifies funding for the restoration efforts. They hope to get under way next month.

William Bostwick