Eisenman details German Holocaust memorial project during campus visit

February 19, 2009

Architect Peter Eisenman (B.Arch. '56) made his first official visit to campus as a Frank H.T. Rhodes Class of '56 Professor from Feb. 16-18.

At his public lecture Feb. 17 in Sage Chapel, "Memory and Memorial," Eisenman discussed two very different projects in Germany -- a holocaust memorial in Berlin, which was built, and a Nazi history museum in Munich, which wasn't.

"This should have been titled 'Memory, Memorial and Politics," Eisenman said before detailing his decade of involvement with the German government on the Berlin project, The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, completed in 2005.

His design went through three different iterations, and the project was nearly killed both times before the memorial was finally built.

After winning the design competition in 1997, in collaboration with sculptor Richard Serra, Eisenman agreed to a compromise design requested by then-chancellor Helmut Kohl that caused Serra to protest and then exit the project.

"He is not the kind of person who liked to make changes in their work," he said. "Architects are used to having to deal with it; sculptors rarely do."

The completion of Kohl's preferred version of the project, Eisenman said, depended on the outcome of the 1998 World Cup.

"The Germans lost the World Cup, Kohl lost the election, and sure enough, the project was dead," he said.

After the memorial commission was revived with the backing of a new cultural minister, a fear of anti-Semitic sentiment nearly doomed the project a second time, until public opinion changed about that sensitive issue. The political process is very public in Germany, he said; and "is very different from what I experience in this country."

He had to publicly apologize for choosing a graffiti-proofing chemical that, it turned out, was supplied by a company that also made the poison gas used in World War II concentration camps.

Eisenman said both he and the public -- more than 3 million visitors to date -- have been satisfied with the resulting memorial -- a field of 2,711 tall, rectilinear stone markers set on an undulating landscape, with archival space allowing visitors to remember the historic facts. The field evokes "the immemorable -- what can't be remembered," he said. "There's a certain otherworldly quality when you walk into the field."

Eisenman's exhibition of his other recent works in Galacia, Germany, France and Italy, "Presenting the Past," is on display through Feb. 27 in John Hartell Gallery in Sibley Hall, where a reception was held Feb. 16.

Eisenman stayed on West Campus and met with students at Hans Bethe House and in architecture studios in the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning. On Feb. 18 in Sibley Hall, he introduced three short films by Michael Haneke; and he presented a video Feb. 16 at Bethe House about his award-winning stadium for the Arizona Cardinals, with members of the Cornell football team among his audience.

The Sage Chapel lecture and the Haneke screenings were cosponsored by Cornell's Department of German Studies and the Institute of German Cultural Studies.

By Dan Aloi

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