The landscape architecture of the London Holocaust Memorial

Government plans to make Victoria Tower Gardens (left) ‘sombre’ by installing an evocation of a shipwreck as a memorial to the Holocaust (right)

The winning entry has, in Kathryn Gustafson, a very good landscape architect who worked with winning architect, David Adjaye, on a great project for the Mall in Washington DC. So what went wrong in London? The problem lies with the choice of site and the brief. We should ask ‘why place the memorial in Victoria Tower Gardens?’ The above-ground part of the winning entry is at the west end of the gardens but, as the other finalist’s designs reveal, the entirety of the gardens was made available as a site for the memorial. So the question to ask is ‘why should the Victoria Tower Gardens become a memorial?’. There is no satisfactory answer and I hope Westminster Council will refuse planning permission. Victoria Tower Gardens is a cheerful public garden, much used for eating lunch and sunbathing. The competition brief (see excerpt below) called for the design to be ‘outstanding, ambitious’, ‘sombre’ with ‘design, landscaping and place-making to enhance Victoria Tower Gardens’ and yet ‘be a logical and harmonious addition to the existing memorials in the Gardens’. There is no logic in this: (1) why should a holocaust memorial be ambitious? (2) landscape design is placemaking, so how can it be combined with placemaking? (3) how can the Gardens be enhanced by them sombre?

Victoria Tower Gardens is managed by the Royal Parks charity and its Chairman, Loyd Grossman, is opposed to its conversion to a memorial.

I remember a conversation with Dame Sylvia Crowe about the Second World War, in which she served, and agree with her that most of what the Nazis did was on a par with other events in Europe’s blood-soaked past – but the Holocaust stands out as an act of exceptional infamy. So, at the going down of the sun and in the morning. We will remember them. But how should we be reminded of the need to remember? Memorials are something that should encourage us to remember past events in a subtle yet respectful way. Especially when the event that the memorial stands for is a sensitive one, it is important to be thoughtful. There should have been an ideas competition before writing the brief for a design competition. I might have suggested a landscape memorial. It could use the sun, the seasons, the land, the waters, animals and plants as reminders – combined with a powerful political declaration. While remembering the horrors of yesterday we could lay a symbolic platform for the dawn of better tomorrows.

Design Values for the Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre should:

  • Be an outstanding, ambitious, sensitive design that creates an emotionally powerful place for reflection and learning.
  • Become a landmark of national significance, highlighting the importance and relevance of the Holocaust to the United Kingdom’s history.
  • Establish a place where current and future generations can come to remember the Holocaust and commemorate its victims, and which is also a focal point for annual national commemorations.
  • Affirm the United Kingdom’s commitment to stand up against prejudice and hatred, inspire reflection and compassion, and encourage visitors to respect and embrace difference.
  • Be sombre but not shocking; convey the magnitude of what happened in a meaningful and comprehensible way: give visitors a deeper understanding of the Holocaust and its victims.
  • Combine design, landscaping and place-making to enhance Victoria Tower Gardens – improving the visual and sensory experience of the green space, giving it focus and civic presence, both for visitors and existing users.
  • Be a logical and harmonious addition to the existing memorials in the Gardens, all of which can be viewed as a physical representation of the United Kingdom’s conscience and values.
  • Address the sensitivities of the historic, political and national importance of the exceptional setting, adjacent to the Palace of Westminster, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the River Thames – and in one of the most visited, and recognisable parts of London.
    Be widely accessible and communicate to all visitors – regardless of age, faith, background, nationality, language, or knowledge of the Holocaust – attracting and involving people outside the established audience.
  • Convey the enormity of the Holocaust and its impact, reflecting the centrality of the destruction of European Jewry to Nazi objectives.
  • Appropriately represent the fate of all other victims of Nazi persecutions, Roma, disabled people, Slavs, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, and all other political opponents of the Nazi regime

Tom Turner

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