Visu­al Arts

Build­ing After Auschwitz: Jew­ish Archi­tec­ture and the Mem­o­ry of the Holocaust

Gavriel D. Rosenfeld
  • Review
By – January 3, 2012
As the world rebuilt after World War II, Jew­ish archi­tects achieved new-found promi­nence. In his sweep­ing sur­vey of Jews and archi­tec­ture, Gavriel Rosen­feld, asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry at Fair­field Uni­ver­si­ty in Con­necti­cut, explores the emer­gence of these archi­tects, the influ­ence of Jew­ish con­nec­tions and themes on their work, and how they ulti­mate­ly faced the mem­o­ry of the Holo­caust.

In the imme­di­ate after­math of the war, mod­ernism held sway in archi­tec­ture, with its rejec­tion of his­tor­i­cal ref­er­ence and its abstract uni­ver­sal­ism. Jew­ish archi­tects — or, more accu­rate­ly, assim­i­lat­ed Jew­ish archi­tects — worked in this ahis­tor­i­cal style even when design­ing syn­a­gogues. But dur­ing this peri­od one of the most influ­en­tial and admired archi­tects of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, Louis Kahn, broke with mod­ernism, and his work began to draw on the past, includ­ing the Jew­ish past. With the unrest of the 1960s in Europe and the Unit­ed States and with a break in the silence that had sur­round­ed the Holo­caust, archi­tec­ture, like the oth­er arts, acknowl­edged the frag­ment­ed world and the fail­ure of ratio­nal­ism and respond­ed with post­mod­ernism and a return to his­toric ref­er­ence, which for Jew­ish archi­tects often meant incor­po­rat­ing the mem­o­ry of the Holo­caust and Jew­ish themes into their work. Holo­caust muse­ums and memo­ri­als, as well as syn­a­gogues, offered an oppor­tu­ni­ty to inter­pret the hor­ror of the Shoah not only in phys­i­cal archi­tec­ture but also in its emo­tion­al impact.

The bru­tal­i­ty of the Holo­caust found expres­sion in decon­struc­tion­ism, exem­pli­fied archi­tec­tural­ly by such inno­va­tors as Peter Eisen­man, Daniel Libe­skind, and Frank Gehry, born Frank Gold­berg, all of whom expe­ri­enced anti­semitism and a sense of oth­er­ness” and cit­ed their Jew­ish back­grounds among their sources of inspi­ra­tion. Along with Stan­ley Tiger­man, Richard Meier, and Moshe Safdie, as well as oth­er Jew­ish archi­tects, they are inter­na­tion­al­ly rec­og­nized; in the con­tem­po­rary world their Jew­ish back­grounds and inspi­ra­tion have not been obsta­cles to their suc­cess. Does this mean that there is a dis­tinc­tive Jew­ish archi­tec­ture, a par­al­lel to Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture or Jew­ish music? Rosen­feld con­cludes that this not the case. Rather, mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism, the engage­ment with the Holo­caust, and the post­mod­ern move­ment allowed for a flow­er­ing of Jew­ish cre­ativ­i­ty and imag­i­na­tion and an embrace of Jew­ish themes and inspi­ra­tion.

With its hand­some lay­out, 175 pho­tographs, and acces­si­ble if occa­sion­al­ly aca­d­e­m­ic lan­guage, Build­ing After Auschwitz is a rich cat­a­logue of Jew­ish archi­tec­ture. Brief pro­files of almost every Jew­ish archi­tect — Mar­cel Breuer, Max Abramovitz, Richard Neu­tra; the list is long and sur­pris­ing — are a use­ful ref­er­ence, and chap­ters on Israeli and post­war Ger­man Jew­ish archi­tec­ture pro­vide thought­ful con­trasts and insights. In the end, how­ev­er, Build­ing After Auschwitz tells the read­er almost as much about the Jew­ish expe­ri­ence of post­war cul­ture and soci­ety as it does about Jew­ish archi­tec­ture. Illus­tra­tions, index, notes.

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

Discussion Questions