“Architecture is based on knowledge of the past and hope of the future but is rooted in the present” – Richard Rogers
There is a direct link between the architectural space and the way that people can remember events through collective memory as space and the way it is formed can heavily impact on the behaviour that one shows. From this site chosen, the architectural site is designed according to the history of the event of the Holocaust. It takes fragments of the past and re-shapes them into a modern yet sensitive design that performs a new function for the future – in this case, educating the people who visit.
A Gaullist-era architectural crypt situated in l’Île de-France, Paris is a memorial site that uses the importance of physical movement in a space to allow the viewer to connect with the memory of the history. The Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation is hidden below street level, where there is a silent enclosed area, 300 meters behind the great Notre Dame Cathedral away from the tourist crowds. The Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation is a sensitive site as it was designed by Georges-Henri Pingusson, a French architect, writer, teacher and urban planner, in order to commemorate the 200,000 French deportees from Vichy who were forced to leave their homes to the concentration camps during the Nazi regime of the Second World War. It is believed that 80% of the 200,000 were Jews. The Holocaust began in 1941 and ended in 1945 in which the Nazi party, led by their leader Adolf Hitler, had the aim of ‘disposing’ Jewish communities and other people who were not considered that of an ‘Aryan’ race – Hitler’s superior race. The Holocaust had killed more than 11 million Jews and in total more than 20 million people. Deportation was an important act which the Nazi authorities could initiate if there was any opposition from the resistance members or any undesirables. George-Henri Pingusson worked on this site eight years after the war ended from 1953 to when it was completed and was inaugurated by the then-President Charles de Gaulle in 1962. The memorial site is perfectly placed, looking out to the water of the Seine where the location is “hollowed out of the sacred isle, the cradle of our nation, which incarnates the soul of France — a place where its spirit dwells”.
The Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation design is beautifully constructed but is a work that promotes ‘dark tourism’. The way that the visitor moves through each section, even before stepping into the site itself, was thought out thoroughly by Georges-Henri Pingusson. The memorial was constructed to allow visitors to learn and remember the dark history of the Second World War where 200,000 Jews, homosexuals, and other non-desirables were deported from France to the Nazi concentration camps between 1940 and 1945.
Located at the back of the Square de l’Île de-France park, the crypt is the shape of an arrowhead where there are two sets of staircases on either side of the arrowhead. The entire memorial site descends downwards into the triangular courtyard via the narrow and steep staircases. When one enters the courtyard, they will see that the stone floor has the pattern in which it runs parallel to the arrowhead and eventually meets in the middle, creating a rounded off tip. The courtyard is minimalistic, allowing visitors to embrace the white pick-hammered textured concrete walls, the sky overhead and the Seine river. The only decorative element to this simplistic site is the black spears, located at the tip, resembling the concentration camp prisoner bars with triangle shaped spikes made out of black iron. It consists of seven longitudinal black iron spears downwards, each of different heights. The first, third, fifth and seventh spears are the thickest and longest ones where the second, fourth and sixth are rather thin and narrow in comparison. The black iron gate is placed onto the middle of the protruded concrete wall at the tip end. At the bottom of the black iron spears are the black iron gates in which one needs to be squatting to be able to view the river comfortably. Essentially, the design, if split down the middle, is exactly the same as it is almost like a symmetrical design. Georges-Henri Pingusson had wanted to create a sense of not being able to escape. Although there is an element of serenity and freedom with the sky above you and the river below, the 4-meter-tall concrete walls and the black iron elements prevents anyone from escaping – making the visitor think about how it may be like if they were in the concentration camps; the sense of anxiety and foreboding.
There is a narrow aperture leading into the memorial crypt that is formed by two blocks of white concrete – making you feel as if you are about to feel crushed as you move from light to dark. The interior of the crypt consists mainly of white concrete and black stone for the ceiling, the illuminated passageway and the flooring of the passageway Pingusson wanted to convey a feeling of claustrophobia, something that was felt in the concentration camps.
The memorial crypt is a hexagonal shape, mirroring the geographical shape of the country, and is underground as the site used to be a former morgue. The narrow corridor beings with the quote on the floor in the shape of a circle, “They descended into the mouth of the earth and they did not return.” From this room, you are able to see the Tomb of the Unknown Deportee, who died at the Natzweiler-Struthof concentration camp, with 200,000 illuminating crystal lights positioned on the long alleyway, symbolising each deportee. The tomb is located at the front of the passageway. The lights of the 200,000 deportees are illuminated against the black walls. There are two rooms on either side of the hexagonal crypt and the edge of the arrowhead are long corridors which are inside the 4 meter concrete walls. Set into the passageway are fifteen black triangular stones that have the concentration camps, death camps and labour camps engraved onto them with a red, scratched font resembling that of someone who wrote it by hand. Inside, there are a series of plaques and triangular urns containing the ashes of the perished and soils from the camps.
The path that the visitor takes is decorated with quotes and poetry written by people that were involved in the deportation. At the end of the passageway, there is a fire to represent eternal hope for the future. The font of these quotes and poems are ‘scratched’ onto the walls. The end of the corridor is inscribed with the quote “Forgive but do not forget”, a spiritual message to visitors.
Along the edge of the arrowhead, the interior of the Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation are information signs to help visitors get a better understanding of the rich and torturous history of the Holocaust and the site itself in which the SS Guards forced the people to move out of Vichy. The lighting inside produces a yellow shade rather than a white shade, including that of the illuminated lights and the overall lighting of the crypt itself – perhaps enabling a more subdued atmosphere. Black is a frequent colour that appears throughout the memorial site, with appearances of red brick that surround the recess of the wall. Inside the recess are information boards that are illuminated from the back with the light. The text in these information boards is also lit up to allow easy reading for the visitors. Most of the interior of Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation is dark and dim.
Even though to date this memorial site is one of the most emotional memory sites in terms of active participatory remembrance, it should be noted that when it was completed, the design was criticised for being too simple and had no connection to the 200,000 deportees whose lives they had lost. The concrete had no real meaning, however, architects, designers and visitors alike now understand the motion of walking as a passive form of collective memory.
The Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation is a void site; there is nothing to look at apart from the concrete walls, the sky, the water and the feeling that oneself can experience whilst there. Pingusson not only uses the aspect of light and dark but the aspect of latitude. Descending from the stairs into the courtyard to ascending back up into the colourful park and tourist areas of Paris. The construction and architecture were thought out well with the meaning and the symbolic nature of the war and the torturous journey that not only of the Vichy deportee’s but all of the victims had to experience during the Holocaust. Located away from the bustling noise of the tourist attractions of the Notre Dame Cathedral, by placing the memory site underground isolates the area, respecting the victims. It is important to realise how Pingusson designed the site.
Space, whether that be mental or physical, can trigger memories. Even though the Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation is not exactly an in-situ memorial site, in which the site becomes a container of the events that have occurred, the atmosphere and the journey even before entering the grounds of the site is what is the most meaningful. The use of movement and space of the descending staircase creates a moving composition for visitors as it mimics the way the 200,000-people got deported. Is it a staircase into hell? The fact that the staircase is narrow and steep may foreshadow the claustrophobic state that the deportees may encounter. According to the audiotape guide, Georges-Henri Pingusson designed the narrow and steep staircase descending down to the triangular courtyard in order to show the progressive journey of being able to see the landscape to slowly having everything disappear before your eyes – the noise fading and landscape blocked by concrete walls – to allow the feeling of forced “momentary imprisonment”. Deportation was a key act for the Nazi authorities to those that opposed them and the idea of visitors moving away, being ‘deported’, from the tourist areas to the memory site is an important transition as it is a territorial displacement; it’s a disorientating experience for the visitor. Walking reframes the commemorative experience for the visitor as it is “an act of remembering through an active/participatory practice”.
Not only is the way the memorial site was designed in terms of space, but the materials used to construct this memorial site adds to the overall experience. If not for the white concrete walls and instead if Pingusson decided on using limestone, then perhaps the atmosphere and the way the visitor interprets the history will not be as meaningful. Adrian Forty said that the Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation is an “inversion of the conventional form of the monument”. The walls of the memorial site are pick-hammered to create a rough texture. The materials are of superfine quality of concrete in which when pick-hammered creates and exposes dense and rich amounts of aggregates chosen from French mountains to create a “national rather than localised symbolism”. The rough texture represents the violence and the torture of the Holocaust victims. Concrete in itself has become an iconography in this memorial. The overall structure seems seamless as if it was “hewn out of a single rock”. With the anti-natural properties that come with the material of concrete, Pingusson chose concrete on purpose – the fact that it does not age and it does not have any colour forces visitors to concentrate mainly of the history of the site instead.
The inscriptions on the walls of the crypt are of meaning as well. The etched, almost scratching font, was carefully chosen. With very few curves on the font, the lettering was chosen in order to resemble the deportee’s and the Holocaust victims using a sharp tool to etch messages in their concentration camp cells – an act of desperation for freedom or an act of lost hope? The colour of the writing is a dark red, which stands out against the white rough texture of the concrete that is used throughout the entire memorial site. The dark red colour may suggest the bloodshed of the 11 million victims who lost their lives in the death camps or a warning to suggest danger of the crematoria and gas chambers.
There is a significance in the author’s chosen to be etched into the textured concrete walls as they were all writers who opposed Nazi Germany and Fascism whether it be in writing or in their actions. The author’s quotes chosen to be engraved on the walls were Aragon, Desnos, Eluard, Sartre, Saint-Exupéry, and Vercors. Names of the fifteen primary concentration camps were engraved into a black triangle stone that are recessed into the wall. In fact, it is worth noting that the shape of the triangle appears frequently in the Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation. That is because during the Holocaust, prisoners were required to wear triangular fabric badges on their clothing in order to be placed into different sections. The triangle shape is taken from the road signs in Germany in which triangular road signs are used to indicate a hazard ahead of the road. In theory, the badges warned the SS guards to identify different types of prisoners, essentially removing all of their human rights.
Ultimately, the Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation is a memory site that allows people to understand and experience the traumatic history of the Second World War and the Holocaust that had occurred. Though this memorial site is specifically designed to give knowledge of the past, as the materials are anti-aging, it will be in Ile da le Cite for future generations. In essence, memory sites do not need to be in-situ to be able to convey a message across emotionally or mentally. Therefore, so long as the memory site has a sense of movement it can initiate or help the visitor feel as if they were there during the Holocaust via active participation. The atmosphere and the physicality of the space allow visitors to interpret the history. By taking pieces of the past i.e. the triangle shaped plaques, the mimicking of the claustrophobic environment and the font of the text, each of these aspects of the Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation had been carefully chosen to re-shape history in the sense that rather than making people uncomfortable with the Holocaust, it will educate them in an emotional and emphatic way. As a result, this example of an architectural site allows us to explore the different ways in which architecture can be built upon from the historical background of the event itself, to constructing a site in the present which can educate future generations due to the fact that the materials used are able to last a long time without any weathering or damage done.