Your visit starts in an unremarkable city park adjacent to a generic shopping mall. Local kids are playing tag, while a man in short sleeves throws a stick for his dog and a family picnics on the grass. You follow a concrete path, which turns into a gently sloping ramp descending into the ground. On either side of you, concrete walls rise to meet an angled green roof, slowly blocking out the sounds of people enjoying the park. The laughter gets more faint, the excited chatter less distinct. As you enter the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH), you get a hint of what Jews and other persecuted people must have experienced on their way to Nazi concentration camps, gradually losing contact with the small pleasures of the everyday world. The architectural procession, as designed by Hagy Belzberg, confronts you with what Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil,” a phrase that chills us still because it conflates the quotidian with the horrific.
Tucked into the side of Pan Pacific Park, behind a parking lot servicing a post office and a shopping center called the Grove, LAMOTH is easy to miss. Instead of aiming for the heroic or monumental, Belzberg used a “layered strategy combining the urban and the metaphorical,” he explains. By “urban” he means a design that fits into its park location and works with the residential neighborhood just beyond. And by “metaphorical” he means a building that alludes to the Holocaust without being literal or specific. Because the museum deals with other genocides in addition to the one perpetrated by the Nazis, Belzberg steered away from any Jewish iconography.