The Evidence Room

Léa-Catherine Szacka
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At the 15. Venice Biennale the installation by the Waterloo University School of Architecture sheds lights on the battle for truth, connecting architectural evidences with the recent history of the Holocaust.

With his Biennale – “Reporting from the Front” – curator Alejandro Aravena intends to tackle the many “battles” that need to be fought by architects today: from inequality, to pollution and segregation, mediocrity, crime, traffic, and so on.

One battle could however be added to the list: the battle against injustice and lie. The installation “The Evidence Room”, curated by a Canadian team from Waterloo University School of Architecture and composed of Robert Jan van Pelt, Anne Bordeleau, Sascha Hastings, and Donald McKay, sheds lights on precisely that kind of battle for truth, connecting architectural evidences with the recent history of the Holocaust.

How does forensic intersect with architecture and how can it be productive and recast as an esthetic experience in the name of memory? These are some of the questions set by “The Evidence Room”, a small display installed in room Q at the Giardini’s Central Pavilion. There, upon Aravena’s invitation, the Canadian team recreated, spatially and visually, parts of Auschwitz-Birkenau’s murder factory, using architecture as a tool that not merely narrates yet another story of the Holocaust, but translates “the necessity to remember what is undeniable and yet stands beyond comprehension.” [1]

In the year 2000, architectural historian Robert Jan van Pelt was called as a witness in a libel suit to challenge assertion by a revisionist, British historian and Holocaust denier, David Irving. Irving, maintained that there had been no gas chambers in Auschwitz and that therefore the Holocaust didn’t happen. Thanks to the forensic interpretation of the blueprints and architectural remains of Auschwitz Jan van Pelt was able to establish the truth.

Following the so-called “Irving case”, Jan van Pelt published The Case for Auschwitz (2002), a book that presented the compelling evidence contained in the original experts report and detailing the way this evidence played out at the trial.

Moving from the book to the display, “The Evidence Room” claims something truly powerful and cruel: that architects can also design factories of death. Therefore, as Jan van Pelt reminds us, the understanding of the architecture of the gas chamber might be as important as knowing how to read the history of the great cathedrals. Inspired by his mentor, Renaissance historian Frances Yates, author of the famous The Art of Memory (1966), Jan van Pelt’s work is based on the concept of “building as a vessel of memory”. In “The Evidence Room”, white plaster was used as the material symbolizing evidence. No broadcast, no audio, no graphic, and almost no text either. “We didn't want it to look like a reconstruction of the gas chamber”, says McKay, “we wanted to purge the room from sentimentality.” The result is a reminder rather than a reconstruction. “The Evidence Room” wants to recall the space of Crematorium 2, a large underground homicidal cyanide gas chamber offering standing room to 2,000 people.With the help of students, the team from University of Waterloo created an exhibition made entirely of white life-sized replicas and casts of key pieces of architectural evidence (such as a gas column, gas door, wall section with gas-tight hatch, blueprints, architects’ letters, contractors’ bills, photographs etc.) Using plaster – a material often use to record evidences – and the act of casting, was a strong curatorial choice. If the resulting environment might seem too pristine, it offers a metaphorical reading that shed light onto some of the darkest hours of our history, while emphasizing the symbolic of the act of casting, insisting on the inseparable complicity between presence and absence.

As Anne Bordeleau beautifully explains in the exhibition catalogue, “The Evidence Room points to different ideas – institutional, cultural, and architectural – of a room.”

From the crematorium room, to the trial court room and the display room, it was relying on a visual and perhaps also tactile experience that the curators may recreate or suggest something from the experience of those who pass “the gate through which no one will enter more than once.” Occupying yet another room, a smaller version of the Biennale display will be exhibited in the Octagonal Gallery at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal, from June to September 2016.

The Evidence Room