The moral conscience of architecture

Lorenzo Pignotti
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Lorenzo Pignatti analyses the Evidence Room installation at the Venice Biennale and reflects on the moral extremes of architecture and the provision of professional skills for crime.

In Sole 24 Ore, Fulvio Irace described an installation in the central pavilion of the Giardini at the 2016 Venice Biennale as “beautiful and chilling”. The Evidence Room was set up by a group of professors from the University of Waterloo (Canada), composed of Anne Bordeleau, Sascha Hastings and Donald McKay, all coordinated by Robert Jan van Pelt, an architectural historian who has always focused on the history of the Holocaust, closely studying the extermination camps and Auschwitz in particular.

Robert Jan van Pelt was the expert witness before the Royal Courts of Justice in London in 2000 who disproved a false claim by revisionist Holocaust historian and denier David Irving. He argued that there were no gas chambers in Auschwitz and that the Holocaust never happened. Key to these proceedings were the forensic interpretations of architectural evidence regarding Auschwitz and van Pelt’s painstaking testimony reconstructing the real and historic evidence of the crime perpetrated at Auschwitz via actual documents rather than the oral testimonies of its survivors. His interpretation and evidence on the design and functioning of these buildings as means of mass extermination were crucial to the positive outcome of the trial and to asserting the truth on the Holocaust, the most dramatic crime of the 20th century. Van Pelt’s report – published as The Case for Auschwitz – has become a prime reference for a new discipline sitting on the borderlines of architecture, technology, history, law and human rights: forensic architecture.

That same evidence and documentation was reproduced at the Biennale. The Evidence Room consists in life-size replicas and casts of architectural features at Auschwitz (a gas column and a gas-tight hatch – both used to pump Zyklon B into the gas chambers – a gas-tight door, copies of the blueprints, architects’ letters, contractors’ bills, photographs and more). As a whole, they provide concrete confirmation of the post-war testimonies of both survivors and executioners, proving beyond all reasonable doubt that Auschwitz was a purpose-design factory of death equipped with large gas chambers and mass incinerators, and where more than a million people, 90% of them Jews, were murdered.

Those visiting the central pavilion in the Giardini might pass quickly through the Evidence Room, given its small size and position along a transit route but this is not the case because the anomalous and “chilling” subject is grasped by even hurried and distracted visitors. The space is small but well designed and calibrated by a regular grid supporting white panels on the walls. The space is lit by strong white light to create a sense of suspension. All the documentation – drawings, photographs and plans – becomes abstract because presented in white plaster models, their content read primarily via the shadow of their relief. Some of the architectural features and technological components of the gas chambers are arranged in the space, the most terrifying being a metal column through which Zyklon B was pumped into the gas chambers. It was constructed using heavy metal grilles with vertical and horizontal reinforcement against potential interference by the victims; this solid construction may seem excessive but stemmed from the building/technological efficiency provided by those who designed and built it – testimony to their attention to the detail of the single components.

The Evidence Room is strongly tactile installation. You must touch the plaster panels to best perceive the parts in relief. You have to touch the architectural features to grasp their solidity. You have to touch the hatches and doors to understand their robustness and weight. Touching to understand. A Holocaust survivor visiting the University of Waterloo workshop in February 2016 during the construction of the pieces to be sent to the Venice exhibition touched the column with his hand and found this simple tactile gesture hugely and deeply emotional: “I felt the cold hand of history on my spine, a new visceral recognition, all these years later”.

The key to the terrible story narrated by the Evidence Room is that architects, engineers, technicians and urban planners did their very best to create a highly efficient and perfectly functioning death machine. Whether forced or broadly acquiescent, the technicians worked on and designed Auschwitz to the best of their ability, providing their skills and technical knowhow to perfect the most terrible of architectural works. As well as the technical details shown in the Evidence Room via drawings and documentation recording the efficiency of the gas chambers, a masterplan of Auschwitz reveals the most up-to-date urban culture of the times, heir to the Rationalist thought and all Germany’s pre-war urban planning. Auschwitz was almost a model city with a hugely rational layout, axial design, hierarchy and precise distribution of services (including those of death) in relation to the accommodation. Notes handwritten by technicians on the copies of drawings show their calculations re the maximum capacity of the accommodation huts which, simply by increasing the bunk-bed places from three to four, rose from 550 to 744 internees per building. Indeed, the records provide all kinds of examples on how to improve efficiency and general conditions in Auschwitz.

Van Pelt cites the historian Nikolaus Pevsner who, speaking of the extermination camps and Holocaust, said “The less said, the better.” Certainly, the generation that lived through that period wanted to speak as little as possible about the drama of the Holocaust. However, Aravena’s Biennale placed the social role of architecture and, more importantly, the knowledge and sharing of experiences at its heart. The Evidence Room shares the drama of the gas chambers and casts light on an attempt to deny their existence but, above all, it reflects on the moral and ethical responsibility of producing architecture.

Addressing the moral extremes of architecture and the provision of professional skills for a crime, the Evidence Room does not join the chorus of those keen to keep its memory alive, rather it personifies the drama of Auschwitz.

The moral conscience of architecture