February 8, 2011
by Lisa Delgado

Event: Selections from Montreal International Festival of Films on Art (FIFA)
Location: Center for Architecture, 01.29.11
Speakers: Peter Eisenman, FAIA — Founder and Principal, Eisenman Architects; Luc Vrolijks — Founder and Principal, Urban Progress
Organizers: Center for Architecture; MUSE Film and Television
Sponsor: Cultural Services of the Québec Government Office in New York; Sony Electronics, Professional Solutions of America

Berlin Holocaust Memorial by Eisenman Architects.

Courtesy MUSE Film and Television

In a major public project, sometimes an architect’s creative vision emerges relatively unchanged and triumphant, but other times, it’s fraught with compromise and setbacks. Two documentaries explored the different outcomes of two large controversial projects: Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe by Eisenman Architects, and the renovation of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam by Cruz y Ortiz arquitectos, with Van Hoogevest Architecten as the restoration architect. The films were shown as part of Architecture on Screen, a two-day series of award-winning films from the Montreal International Festival of Films on Art at the Center for Architecture.

In Expansive Grounds, director Gerburg Rohde-Dahl trains her lens on the Holocaust Memorial from 2003 to 2007, during which construction was completed and the memorial opened to the public. The filmmaker interviews Peter Eisenman, FAIA, construction workers, the public, and others, along with exploring her own reactions to the monument, as she’s forced to wrestle with her complex feelings about her father, who was a Nazi during the war.

The design, an undulating field of 2,711 unmarked granite blocks, was plagued with controversy, with many critics complaining that it was too abstract. Even the construction process sparked contention, when one contractor was found to have manufactured poisonous gas for the Nazis.

At first Eisenman hesitated to take on the project, which seemed to present an overwhelming challenge beyond what an architect could achieve. “Architects solve problems, right?” he remarks in the film. In this project, “What is the problem? To solve German guilt?”

Instead of trying to evoke feelings of guilt, Eisenman decided to create an abstract design that could elicit a variety of emotional reactions, he explained in a live discussion after the screening. It creates an “experience of being alone, being in a place that you didn’t understand, being silent.” In that way, he aimed to evoke some of the sensations that Jews experienced in Nazi death camps, but through an architecture that was abstract enough that people could experience and react to it in many different ways. Ultimately, the monument’s tremendous popularity has validated the strength of his concept.

In The New Rijksmuseum, director Oeke Hoogendijk explores the travails faced by the architects and museum staff during an ongoing major renovation and restoration project for The Netherlands’s national museum, originally designed by Pierre Cuypers in the 19th century. Cruz y Ortiz arquitectos’ renovation design won a competition in 2001, but firm heads Antonio Cruz and Antonio Ortiz bemoan the fact that the design that won them the job soon goes under attack, as cyclists successfully agitate to change the design of a bicycle passage that traverses the museum.

Later museum director Ronald de Leeuw pressures the architects into reducing the height of a new addition (jokingly called the “incredible shrinking study center” by some), leading Cruz to worry that his firm might lose enthusiasm for the project. The museum staff’s morale starts to deteriorate, too, as various redesign and bureaucratic delays lead the projected completion date to slip back gradually from around 2008 to 2013. All in all, the film could be seen as a cautionary tale about the problems that can arise when many well-meaning people with different agendas all try to influence the design of a project that, in the end, grows stale and watered down in almost everyone’s eyes.

Lisa Delgado is a freelance journalist who has written for Oculus, The Architect’s Newspaper, Architectural Record, Blueprint, and Wired, among other publications.