Westminster is the wrong place for the Holocaust Memorial

A small park is not the best location for a Holocaust Memorial, says Barbara Weiss

December 27, 2018 11:48

When, in January 2016, David Cameron pledged £50m towards the creation of a long-overdue Holocaust Memorial, “with associated world-class learning centre”, little could he have imagined that his decision would have unleashed a major controversy, one which is now enveloping the Jewish community.

At the core of the disagreement is the selection of Victoria Tower Gardens, a small, idyllic, Grade II Royal Park, adjacent to Parliament by the Thames, as the site for the memorial and its more controversial learning centre. Triangular in shape and screened by a double row of ancient plane trees, Victoria Tower Gardens is an oasis of peace and quiet, part of the Westminster World Heritage setting, and home to Rodin’s Burghers of Calais and to the exquisite Buxton Memorial commemorating the Abolition of Slavery.

Just off the overcrowded Parliament Square, it is enjoyed year-round by locals, office workers and visitors.

Not surprisingly the decision to offer up this park for the new complex was met with enormous resistance from a large variety of Londoners and also from heritage and landscape institutions, the former horrified by the impact on a sensitive historic context, the latter by the idea of building in a Royal Park at all, and by the distinct likelihood of excavations killing off the majestic plane trees.

These concerns have become only more prevalent since an international competition selected David Adjaye and Ron Arad’s scheme, with its jagged, bulky sculptural entrance, and its dark and cavernous underground exhibition space, partly concealed by an incongruous artificial grass mound above it.

If built, this proposal will split the park into two, obliterate unique views of Parliament, destroy the calm beauty of the existing green swathe, and concrete over a large area of the grass. With its associated security and visitor numbers it will fundamentally change the unique character of this small park.

As a co-founder of the Save Victoria Tower Gardens campaign, as the daughter of a Jewish refugee, and as the architect of the Wiener Library, I not only believe that this site should be protected for future generations, but that it simply does not do justice to the rightly ambitious “world class” project originally envisaged.

The park is too small, too constrained by the trees, and by its triangular geometry. The underground space is woefully insufficient for large visitor numbers, claustrophobic, and will be extremely expensive to build. The approach and security arrangements are inadequate, and unrealistically developed.

There is however a second strand of opposition that is making itself increasingly felt — stemming largely from inside the Jewish community — which relates to the wasteful duplication between the new learning centre’s content and purpose, and what is on offer at the Imperial War Museum, where the already impressive Holocaust and World War Two galleries are currently being significantly upgraded, with the generous support of many donations from the Jewish community.

Less than a mile away from Victoria Tower Gardens, the IWM was one of the original sites considered for the Memorial, then discarded because of the stigma of being “on the wrong side of the river”.

Baroness Deech has been bravely championing the community opposition to this scheme, highlighting the risk of ending up with a totally unsatisfactory Memorial and Learning Centre, should the UKHMF promoters continue to refuse to engage in debate, and consider alternatives.

The submission of a planning application this week will increase the intensity of the controversy and widen in its scope.

With a large number of Jewish names among the more than 10,000 signatories to the petition calling for the location to be reconsidered, the community must now join the debate, expressing its preferences and concerns.

All Londoners want this important and overdue project to be a success, and the Memorial and Learning Centre to become a destination that proudly brings people together.



December 27, 2018 11:48

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