In October 2010, the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust – the oldest museum of its kind in the USA – finally got a permanent home, designed by Hagy Belzberg of Belzberg Architects. On a recent Sunday afternoon, Belzberg and I stand outside this glass and formed concrete building, and breathe in its surroundings: the public landscape of Pan Pacific Park, four lanes of busy West Hollywood traffic, and weekend barbecue crowds. The setting is anything but sombre and the museum to our left refuses to make it so.
In fact, the Museum of the Holocaust physically embraces its environment. “The building’s curve is the original topography that we sliced through,” says Belzberg. The museum folds into the landscape, its entranceway rooting deep into the earth. Its roof, a seamless continuation of park grasses and native plant life, is one of the largest green roofs in the USA. Purposefully free of iconography (“This is not a Jewish building or a holy building; it is everybody’s building,” says Belzberg), the museum roars with subtlety – and subtlety does take a minute to be heard above the sound of children in the park.
This dichotomy is at the heart of Belzberg’s design. “Here you have lovers on picnic dates and children playing,” the architect explains. “Well, in late 1930s Europe, people were likewise enjoying themselves while horrible things were happening just yards away. Horrible things are still happening just yards away.”
Inside, Belzberg’s structure navigates its visitors from the rise of Nazism through to liberation. As the history on display grows darker and heavier, so too does the museum; its ceilings gradually descending, its natural sunlight diminishing. In the first gallery, visitors gather around a single interactive table display – “forming a community or a village” says Belzberg – but by the time they arrive in the gallery titled “Concentration Camps”, they break apart fully, each going towards an individual video monitor, each now a single entity, physically alienated from others, forced to contemplate the weight of this experience alone. When history takes a turn towards “Resistance and Uprising”, the structure physically turns as well, beginning its measured ascent towards more sunlight and open space.
Although the exhibits proceed in chronological order, the museum is a comment on continuum. The walls between displays never reach the ceilings, so that no one event is disconnected from another. Between the galleries, a transparent display containing artefacts from Auschwitz (a little boy’s shoe, his chipped toy cup), allows visitors on one end of history to see and hear those on the other end. “The Holocaust did not occur in snapshots,” says Belzberg. “It happened over many years. So in this museum, you always see where you came from, and you have a glimpse of where you’re going.”
Clocking in at just 1,115sq m of exhibition space, the museum is made infinitely larger by interchangeable displays and a grid system below the slab that allows for any number of configurations. Furthermore, each visitor is issued an iPod Touch with “private tours” available in many different languages, at many different scholarly levels (from grade school to grad school, and more).
“The question is: which Holocaust story do you tell?” says Belzberg. But the architect maintains that the answer is not his to give. ”I tried to be quiet with this design,” he says. “The content tells the story; the building itself is silent as it accompanies you through what’s being told.”