Shoah Memorial in Milan
The Memorial is not a museum of itself but a space of awareness, working- through and passing on.
… a construction in which the original, very beautiful structure that Guido Morpurgo and Annalisa de Curtis have decided to lay bare plays a forceful part…. there is no longer such a great gap between the outside and the inside. but it is still a space that surprises and stirs. […] this Memorial seems to me to be one of the few interventions to have been realized in Milan in recent years which are at a european level. And it has a quality of its own in its terseness, in its materials, in its dimensions, in the fact that it is a true public service. It does not have the defect linked to most new works of architecture, which put themselves on display rather than being created to serve some other end. and I’m sure that the presence of people, even in large numbers, will not be able to demean this architecture, these spaces. In a public building this is one of the most important results you could wish for.
(from “Abitare” n° 530, Umberto Riva, Neither an abandonment, nor a comment)
In general, our projects “listen” to the area in which they will come to life and emphasize what already exists, improving the context by retrieving its precious history and quality, while transforming a public space into a community area, despite its original functions and equipment.
The area itself offers and creates experience, a testimony that comes to life and transforms the project.
Here, considering the strategic role that both the project and railway station hold, we were still able to guarantee a very efficient train circulation system.
The connection in our project activity between form and structure leads all forms, from the general design to the last detail, creates specific ways of experience and of space usage, with the desire of generating in the project itself involvement with the present and its continuous flow.
Reference conditions and Projectual Fundaments
Our project, rather than giving answers, tried to raise questions in order to give the site a comprehensible meaning that could be applied to the present: not a static museum, but rather a place of active experience, where the Shoah isn’t reduced to a collection of objects, evidence and images organized in display cases and panels, but a place where everything is documented and witnessed; where each element is experienced through a system of spaces – themselves evidence – that encourages the re-elaboration of the site, which presents itself at the same time as a Memorial and as a Memory Workshop, a laboratory for permanent activities.
The “belly” of Milano Centrale railway station, an invisible area where trains, between 1943 and 1945, were used to deport Jews and political dissenters to nazi concentration and extermination camps, is the keeper of a history made of physical material – its framework, marked by time, can be seen throughout the site, on platforms, tracks, train wagons – and cultural material – the testimony of survivors. The Shoah Memorial project re-elaborates the “relic” status of the concrete structure of the station and the stories of the witnesses, as fundamental and essential conditions for the legitimation of this project and their devices for the transmission of ideas that strengthen the existing structure,
without contaminating it.
The objectification of the Memory of the deportation is achieved by building a sequence of spaces and an apparatus that document, testify and establish, through the visitor’s psychological and physical experience, a new story.
The project interprets the connection between site’s form and structure, by a sort of “distancing principle” that separates what is tangible and what is temporary, between the new and the pre-existing.
Going through the various materials used in building the Station – concrete, iron, timber and glass – this project emphasizes the impossibility to become part of this site, to contaminate it: it measures and interprets the deportation areas as historic documents-monuments, affirming once more the importance of testimonies, considered here as the ethic dimension of Memory and fundamental for the construction of a Workshop of the present.
Interpreting the location: project and story/tale
While going through the abandoned train maneuvering spaces of Milano Centrale, we immediately realized that designing the Shoah Memorial meant dealing with the concept of “Forgetting”. Experiencing this place and its “presence” with the survivors allowed us to understand that the site-document was no longer able to tell its story and that “Memory is not an instrument for surveying the past but its theatre. It is the medium of past experience…” (Walter Benjamin).
The abandonment of the “invisible” postal sorting areas at the end of the 1990’s, adjacent to the passenger building manifests the objectification of forgetting, meant a refusal of responsibility.
At the beginning of the new Millennium the site was a technical and logistic area of Milano Centrale, emptied of its original meaning – as postal maneuvering area – and, later on, of its role as a place of atrocities.
The surviving area is only structurally whole and in the years following January 15th 1945 – when the last reported deportation took place - it lost its meaning because of later tampering and interference, which defaced its substance and meaning, form and familiarity of the place.
To us, awakening with this Memorial the conscience of the disruption of history brought on by the Shoah is an attempt to retrieve a lost meaning with the creation of a new one.
Digging and Remembering
The search for a meaning and its retrieval with the creation of the Memorial started as a sort of “archeological dig”.
In order to give back to the visible structures the original identity that characterized the site, we had to emphasize its current conditions, which reveal its status of archeological find of today.
The imperfections of the building – from construction flaws, such as defective jets – the decline and the transformations endured in time – omissions, cracks and breakage – physically testify the history of the place. The exposed concrete under the damaged surfaces, the consumed foundations emerging from the ground, the damaged pillars and the Hennebique slabs with the exposed beams, freed of all the messy alterations, do not lie: they are authentic findings, event-images that convey the violence witnessed by this place, they are crevices in the matter of the present that exposes the memory, fragments that consult us […] letters of an alphabet that precedes all other alphabets (G.Didi-Huberman).
The maneuvering area is a “relic” that generates a meaning related to the historical events that took place here and, at the same time, it recounts them, highlighting the narrative dimension and the “recollection of a fragment.”
The ruined concrete structures of Milano Centrale are, in this sense, event-images: together they form a warburghian pathosformel that tie past and present, where form and content are connected through the indissoluble bind between an emotional charge and an iconographic formula.
The dig – which includes the demolition of a vast portion of the crawlspace above the first bay facing the street to connect the ground floor with the basement, which was originally separated from the rest of the area – turns into a sort of double archeology: as relic and as gaze; a relation between the “ruins” of the station and the visitor that observes and avails himself of its presence.
… Severity / fragility / awareness
It had already been my first impression, when I saw the structure of the parallelepiped that will house the library mounted, that it was very right for it not to touch the ceiling and the walls, for it had to be an element that stood out from its context, that made no attempt to t in with the rest of the space. I believe that in a place like this new interventions cannot blend in, and that they can make
a decisive contribution to the space but they should never, in any way, be mixed up with its qualities. In general, I like this severity, the fact that in the memorial there is never
a sense of abandonment nor a comment on the tragedy
of the deportation.
… Solidity / disquiet / emptiness
The general impression is that everything is solid, stable, af rmative. then, at some points, unexpectedly, you suddenly nd yourself in front of the precipice, with these parapets of plate glass that are almost invisible thresholds onto empty space. I nd this a very effective way of emphasising the sharp cut with which the oor slab has been interrupted at the point where the volume of the library stands. they are peremptory breaks, generating a sensation almost of panic, of danger. or even of fainting, a similar emotional effect to the one induced by a powerful theatrical stage set. (from “Abitare” n° 530, Umberto Riva, Neither an abandonment, nor a comment)
The so-called patio, the result of the demolition, re-establishes, as an interval between atrium and the library, a sense of lacking, a swerve between lost and present perception, which, now, the original absence can finally express. This project of Memory, the ascertainment of remembrance, is at the same time an archeology meant as analysis of the beginnings, but also as a discipline of the stratified present, an expressive and telling language, a necessary anamnesis for understanding the present. But how is it possible to “re-open” the past and transform a barbaric location into a place of culture through architecture?
The discipline of bays and the distancing principle
The preservation of the station as ruins is seen as a means of restitution, achieved with the transformation of a historic site into a contemporary museographic structure. It becomes an instrument used to generate the narration of the relic-document. Understanding the morphology of the site becomes a fundamental condition for actualizing this operation, through what we previously called distancing. The five bays that delimit the site, which develops over 100 mt with a depth of 60 mt, form a special linear space, punctuated with gigantic columns, exposed beams, colossal curbs of exposed foundation. These structures define the space through the enormous concrete skeleton that encloses them: a visible framework, an image-event, in which form and content coincide. Re-interpreting the obsessive rhythm of the bridge frame-work means respecting its geometry, but also distancing ourselves from it in order to create a new interpretation of order, because it is impossible to create integration and mimesis between what already exists and what is new. The type of bay represents at the same time the possibility to perceive the changes of the materials used, from their original conditions to their new life: from history to present.
The reinterpretation of the discipline of bays with the project’s concept of distancing highlights the figurative concurrence between map and building system, the architectural correspondence that runs through structure, form and content, a correspondence that the project tries to document, whether through a concrete building – the wall of Indifference and the ramp at the entrance, the wall of books inside the library; the cylindrical volumes of the suspended staircase and the lifts - or steel work – the exposed framework of the library, the same in the station, the “suspended” structures of the Observatory exposed on the traverse pit south of the tracks, the Rooms of the Testimony Hall that reveal the load-bearing structure, and Place of the Reflection, a volume composed of multiple visible layers. It is a space of emotional respite,
of recovery, of reworking, or even a inter-religious place of prayer, oriented to the east. It is a room of silence, a quiet and sheltered environment at the end of the itinerary through the Memorial. A stopping place, a junction between the thoughtful time of the visit and any activity in the Workshop of Memory.
Crossing, experiencing, witnessing: architectural devices and narrative configurations
The shift from Museum to Memorial brought on by our project determines a spatial translation with a sequence of “narrative configurations” (Paul Ricoeur) achieved with a system of permanent set-ups, testimony and documentation devices that organize the site in centers of physical and symbolic experience.
The set-ups, which are disposed according to simple geometrical shapes - squares, rectangles, triangles, circles – form a sort of primary shape alphabet, a pre-linguistic sort of writing, which develops in a series of generative figures inside the span-spaces emphasizing the centrality of themes such as transmission, reception, re-elaboration and polarization of Memory, in a constant movement between the immeasurability of the events that took place in the site and the dimension of personal experience. Since they are emblematic symbols of human reason, they are geometries defined by the principle of non-deformability: this principle fails inside the Memorial because of the numerous variations and alterations, which make these shapes lose their recognizability. Non-deformability is re-established in the Hall of Testimony at the center of the site: steel volumes drawn on a square (hence virtually cubic). But these slightly change each time, deforming the shell with walls and coverings that shift continuously, with gashes that interrupt the volumes and open the visitors’ gaze to the structures of the stations and to the consumed wooden wall on the first track, derived from the old railway wagons.
The correspondence between conical volumes that delimit the south and north extremities of the track area, the Observatory and the Reflection Hall “suspended” in the northern translation pit, is achieved with their different collocation in the hidden station. These spaces allow the visitor to have a personal experience of the Memorial, generating an estranging effect in relation to the narration of the survivors, an effect that starts with the traumatic passing from the atrium to the railway cars.
The Reflection Hall is a space that represents the link between the Memorial (Observatory-Testimony-platforms and railway cars-Wall of Names) and the Memory Workshop (Library-documentation center- Auditorium, didactic areas and support areas). Differently from the Observatory, the Reflection Hall is connected to the track area, through the deportation mechanism that this site witnessed: it develops on the railway embankment and it puts man back at its center. Through a critical interpretation of monument-document, this area reaffirms the responsibility and the ethical dimension of Memory.
Shoah Memorial in Milan