For 70 years, a square in the northern quarter of Warsaw has been a site of strife and conflict, memory and mourning. In 1943, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising emerged from the streets around it, as Polish Jewish partisans fought the Nazi occupiers bent on their extermination. Following the liberation of Poland, and the more complete comprehension of the Holocaust, a monument to that heroic resistance effort was built in the square in 1948, from stones the Nazi architect Albert Speer had sent to Warsaw.
This April, the square was newly framed against the backdrop of the long-awaited Museum of the History of Polish Jews. The museum’s strongly delineated rectilinear volume glows in its pale-green screen-wall enclosure of fritted glass panels. A monumental concrete entrance portal is sinuously carved into the eastern facade, facing the monument. Even ahead of the completion of permanent exhibitions and an official inauguration (2014), throngs of visitors have streamed across the square’s renewed and planted landscape toward that portal’s spatial drama and the museum’s superbly organized facilities.
Late this summer, Finnish architect Rainer Mahlamäki, one-half of the Helsinki-based design practice of Lahdelma & Mahlamäki Architects, stood in the museum’s sublimely high entrance hall. The building’s design and construction had consumed Mahlamäki’s days since his partnership won (to the surprise of many, given that the other invited competitors included Peter Eisenman and Daniel Libeskind) an international competition for the commission in 2005. “The proponents of the museum wanted a monument to recognize the long, tragic, heroic, and now revitalized presence of the Jewish people in Poland,” Mahlamäki says. “In particular, the site of the museum–in the center of the former Warsaw Ghetto–necessitated a building of monumental character to honor the events of World War II that occurred there, as well as that political, social, and cultural history.”
The commission is the first for the partnership outside of Finland, despite 20 years of designing highly regarded public and buildings throughout that Nordic nation. Aware of the history of culturally responsible architecture without being weighed down by a compulsion to overtly signify through form, the architect designed the museum on more restrained terms: “In our view, such a monument could only be approached with quiet dignity rather than with too-confident formal expressiveness or flamboyant material pyrotechnics. We won the competition, we think, by virtue of our more modest Nordic sensibility, in which the drama of the design, and indeed the drama of the museum’s contents and purposes, are concealed within an elegant exterior.”
The strategy has paid off. The museum’s glowing presence in the square compels attention, and the institution has already hosted a broad range of public performances, temporary exhibitions, and discussions, promoting it as an important cultural actor in Warsaw.
At 197,000 square feet and with six levels, the museum’s scale against the square is aided by the placement of its permanent exhibition space below grade, in a “black box” now a common element for many museums. Above-grade floors contain galleries for changing exhibitions, an auditorium, conference facilities, cafeterias, a restaurant, library and bookstore, staff offices, and exhibition-preparation areas—all within a tightly controlled perimeter. Conventional tectonic systems informed construction and modulate the disposition of the program: a column grid laces through the largely concrete bearing wall. But the entrance atrium was a complex engineering and construction feat: the geometries of the space were eventually rendered into a textured concrete layer sprayed onto a complex double-curved steel backing frame. The museum’s glazed western facade—a spider-system curtain wall—also strained structural and material limits. Throughout the building, the architects made an effort to use some locally crafted materials to give the museum a more personal touch.
A project of such cultural significance poses an essential question: Can architecture communicate cultural meaning and historical understanding? As the art historian James E. Young has poignantly asked of museum designs devoted to Jewish culture, “Can the construction of a contemporary architecture remain entirely distinct from, even oblivious of, the history it shelters? Is its spatial existence ever really independent of its contents?”
The wisdom of the architect’s approach to these questions is evident in the Warsaw museum, through methods more subtle and substantial than those employed in the Jewish or Holocaust history museums in Berlin or Washington, D.C., or San Francisco. The complementary relationships of orthogonal external geometries and expressive interiors evoke multiple images of a wave, a cave, a canyon, a crevasse. Those analogies refer to reconciliation–a temporary parting of the seas, a tectonic shift of cultures, a temporal chasm of history–but without simple one-to-one symbolism. To the contrary: if architecture can have a representational capacity in our culture, the designers articulate a distinctly quiet but still deeply felt language.
Owner: City of Warsaw and State of Poland
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197,000 square feet
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