Generally, the most effective architectural designs make you feel welcome and comfortable. But in a museum meant to recall the horrors of the Holocaust, that mission is turned on its head. So it’s no surprise that the most emotionally resonant spaces in the new Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust are those where the rawness and constriction of the building evoke a period that the museum doesn’t want you to forget.
Disjointedly located in Pan Pacific Park just behind the hyper-happy Grove in West Hollywood, the museum, designed by Belzberg Architects, is the new home for an institution that has existed since 1962. It previously occupied a relatively small and unremarkable space in an office building on Wilshire Boulevard.
Belzberg didn’t have the size or the budget of some of the world’s more famous Holocaust museums, such as Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum or Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, or Moshe Safdie’s Yad Vashem in Jersualem.
But within a 32,000-square-foot footprint, at about $350 a square foot, he managed to accomplish a lot. The boldest step was the decision to bury the museum underground, preserving the rolling parkland that was donated to the museum by the state and highlighting visitors’ movement into a realm distinct from their ordinary lives.
The structure’s undulating form echoes the curving landscape; the roof is planted with native fauna and a natural irrigation system, and concrete-lined pathways zigzag sharply, preserving the calm of the park but indicating that all is not quite right underneath.
As a jutting entry ramp compresses the visitor’s perspective and seems to slice through the ground, things start to change quickly. Circulation is carefully choreographed throughout, making you cognisant that you’re entering a building that Hagy Belzberg says “is going to provide some discomfort.”
That sense of discomfort is heightened right away by twisted shotcrete columns, which were formed from digital models and sculpted while still wet by a local pool contractor. Bleak raw concrete walls and ceilings slope in multiple directions, throwing perspective off and evoking a grim, trapped feeling.
Descending into the story of the Holocaust—told in separate spaces formed by flexible black cubicles that open up to the museum above—the sense of compression and darkness increases. The story starts in pre–World War II Europe; then the lights get dimmer and the ceilings lower as the full horrors of concentration camps and mass killings of the Holocaust unfold. Finally, as the stories of hope and liberation are detailed, the visitor turns a corner and returns to the light.
An educational system, via iPod, provides a more interactive experience. Exhibits include films, memorabilia, models, and digital components—including touch-screen technology—that allow more to be told in this relatively small space.
One of the most powerful aspects of the experience are the glimmers of natural light coming in from above, through translucent glass that reveals both glow and movement, but not clear views. The murky light provides some orientation while also evoking a sense of the isolation that Jews must have felt at the time. In a children’s memorial outside, the sound of children playing in a nearby park trickles in provocatively as you sit in a constricted space with only the sky above you. Nearby lies an amphitheater and a large memorial sculpture of black steel pillars by architect Herb Nadel that the museum inaugurated years ago.
I went through the museum twice, measuring my reactions. Belzberg could have gone even further with the darkness, twisting, and compression. Now you can only move so far into the darkness, while it might have been even more effective to make some exhibit walls touch the ceiling, heightening the sense of isolation. Concrete walls, ceilings, and floors make the space noisy, dulling the sense of dislocation as you move into the story.
Still, bold gestures far outweigh any shortcomings. Under difficult circumstances, Belzberg has created a memorable museum that broadens understanding not only of a horrible time but of the raw emotional impact that architecture’s spatial and tectonic qualities can deliver.