Architecture: A sombre reminder of the mechanics of genocide: The Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington is not a comfortable place to visit. Stephanie Williams reports

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The Independent Culture
'COULD A FEW more of you move in?' More people shuffle into the bolted steel chamber, packing us close. Above our heads, ranks of spotlights spout from the blackened metal ceiling like a series of showerheads.

'That's right,' says the guard, 'It's all part of the experience.' The door glides shut and the lift begins to rise.

We are in the Holocaust Memorial Museum, which opened in April in Washington DC, a stone's throw from the Washington Monument. Outside, the day is full of brilliant sunshine. Inside the Holocaust Memorial Museum, it is impossible to get away from the sense that, instead of getting into a lift, we may have just entered a gas chamber.

There are no more than one or two places in this new building in which you can draw breath and comfort. From the moment you step beneath the broad gaping dome of the entrance rotunda - a disquietingly vacant response to the classical dignity of the nearby Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials - you become aware that the inspiration behind this building is very disturbing.

It begins with the details. There is a menacing heaviness in the steel frame of the entrance and a promise of incarceration in the unburnished brick and concrete of the high, enclosing walls. The grey paint on the steel girders and grilles in the walls is surely that of the army of the Third Reich, and the the lamps look as if they have come from Nazi headquarters. Even the spotlights resemble loud-hailers. And, again, those lifts - lined with grey/black panels of steel, bolted on to the walls as if designed to withstand incineration - from which no escape is possible. This is the visual vocabulary of warfare, of imprisonment, and of death.

There are other museums where the victims of Nazi oppression and the Holocaust are remembered: in the torture chambers beneath the former SS headquarters in Berlin; at Auschwitz; and in the Red Cross Museum in Geneva. But none has been purpose-designed as the very embodiment of the mechanics of genocide.

The architect is James Ingo Freed, a refugee from Nazi Germany, who travelled to America in 1939 at the age of nine, accompanied by his sister. Freed studied under Mies van der Rohe and cut his teeth working on the legendary Seagram Building in New York. Since 1956 he has been a partner of I M Pei, the architect who designed the pyramids at the Louvre. Freed's work, largely commercial, has not until now attracted international attention.

Since it opened, much has been made of the content of the Holocaust Memorial Museum, where visitors are invited, within the limitations of modern exhibition techniques, to experience the harrowing story of the Holocaust. The exhibition does not spare the visitor, but neither does the building.

Freed was commissioned in 1986, three years before those who were to work on the exhibition itself were appointed. He found the subject so emotive it was nearly impossible to deal with the commission creatively.

'I realised that I had to see the remnants of the Nazi concentration camps and ghettos in a last desperate attempt to grasp this nettle-like subject,' he recalls. 'There I settled on an approach - the use of the tectonics of the camps, ghettos and some official buildings I had visited, along with a certain muted, somewhat abstract symbolism.'

The result is a building that owes as much to the architecture of mausoleums and crematoria as it does to factories, prisons and military camps. Externally, its relations with its Washington neighbours are formal and polite. This was the site, after all, once considered for a memorial to F D Roosevelt, and later for the Vietnam War memorial. On one side of the building, red brick pays homage to the deep red of the gothic Auditor's Building of 1879; on the other, clean white limestone acknowledges the enormous neoclassical Bureau of Printing and Engraving.

But this is no more than a game of facades. Were you able to see it from the street, the skyline would completely give the game away: a row of red-brick, lead-roofed turreted watch- towers, linked by glass and steel bridges, the roofline of prisons the world over. Subject matter and building have become one.

The building's heart is the Hall of Witness, a central atrium. The walls are brick reinforced with steel crossbars, broken at intervals by grey steel grilles and stacks of cruel-looking lights.

At the western end, a staircase recedes into a squat brick arched doorway set into a black marble wall and cut in the shape of the entrance to Birkenau, the killing centre at Auschwitz. Above, a series of high glass bridges are suspended over the space. The people walking across look down as if they were prison warders.

Overhead, a giant skylight is supported on a steel frame skewed on angle 13 degrees out of true; on the floor a pathway of glass bricks disappears at an angle that is way out of line. The receding perspectives, the skewing lines, the floor that drops away before it reaches the wall beneath a steel barrier: this is a world that is out of joint.

Up in the exhibition halls, the architecture falls away into blackness. But glance overhead on the second level, where you reach 'The Final Solution'. Overhead the ceilings have disappeared, and pale grey pipes carrying the sprinkler system and the back-up lighting are left bare. Beneath the wooden walkway the floor is covered with pave.

Cross the glass bridges, into the sunshine, between walls of glass engraved with the names of towns and villages that gave victims to the Holocaust. Bask in the light from the sky overhead, as did those who endured life in the confines of the ghetto and the concentration camp, before you return to the galleries on the north side of the building. These are like tombs, or reliquaries, each beneath a low brick oven-like arch: they hold thousands of discarded shoes, bales and heaps of human hair, glass cases of scissors, toothbrushes, dentures and hairbrushes.

Shattered with grief, exhausted with rage and, above all, sick with horror at man's eternal capacity for evil and, inevitably now, the way history is repeating itself in Bosnia, you emerge at last into the Hall of Remembrance, a sombre, quasi-religious space that serves both as a place of contemplation and as a memorial to the six million who perished in the Holocaust.

Again, as with the rest of the building, the Hall of Remembrance evokes a host of memories: of churches, synagogues and mosques, of chapels of rest, war memorials, prayers for the dead and appeals to the saints. Outside, the Hall stands divorced from the rest of the building, a six-sided closed box of noble proportions, a simple and elegant Jewish memorial.

Inside, the space is a cathedral-like hexagon. You cannot see out except through the narrowest of slits at the corners of the walls. Attention is focussed on walls of white limestone, the floor of blood-red granite and, opposite the entrance, an eternal flame burning on a low slab of black marble. High above, the six points of the skylight echo the Star of David.

There is no other building like the Memorial Holocaust Museum. This is a building that succeeds as powerfully as a memorial as it does as a museum. With all its sense of being inspired by other buildings, Freed has yet managed to avoid all sense of pastiche. The result is the evocation of a place and a time, but above all a sense of an atmosphere: of oppression and foreboding, of psychotic evil and relentless terror. It is not a nice place to visit.

(Photograph omitted)