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Frankfurt, Germany – Contemplating the void: Jewish memorial

Proposed Jewish memorial monumentalises emptiness

Absent Monument is a challenging idea for a Jewish memorial in Frankfurt. The international design competition sought a monument for outside the city’s Großmarkthalle, the building where the Nazis gathered over 10,000 Jews between 1941 and 1945 before deportation to concentration camps.

Out of the 135 practices that participated - and the other four that made it on to the shortlist - this design by Danish practice OP stands out, not least for its singular situation in the River Main itself.

The Großmarkthalle is due to become the new headquarters for the European Central Bank, which intends to extend its premises with a giant tower by Coop Himmelb(l)au. Partly in response to this large architectural gesture, OP explored the alternative approach of making a statement with removal rather than addition. ‘By “taking away” a part of the Main we create a void, a space of absence reminding us of the lives that were taken away,’ says Niels Lund Petersen, OP’s project leader and partner.

OP looked to the river as the most powerful place to make its intervention. ‘Creating a void in the water is different from making a hole in the ground. The void is not meant to mimic a grave - it is about a sudden fall, or change of direction,’ explains Petersen. ‘The void will ask visitors to confront, in a very direct way, the meaning of deportation and segregation of the Jews, and yet the river also has a great symbolic value as a symbol of life and a symbol of time passing,’ he continues.

While Absent Monument solicits a strong emotional response from the viewer, it would also, no doubt, prompt the mind to wonder how on earth it is done. Working with engineers Rambøll, the practice has come up with an essentially quite simple solution. Hidden beneath the water is a concrete open-topped box positioned on the river bed, with an adjustable steel superstructure to allow for the river’s ever-changing water levels; the water is continuously pumped from the structure back into the river (the revealing section is reproduced below).

‘The most challenging aspect’, Petersen expands, ‘isn’t building the monument, but keeping boats from falling into it.’ Sceptical about the project’s feasibility, the jurors initially didn’t ask OP to work up its plans for the final stage, but were later convinced to do so after a letter from the architects and engineers.

‘This time “no” was just perceived as a different way of saying “yes” ’ the architect says persuasively. Next year the public will vote on which one they think should be built, but ultimately the jury will decide which to proceed with. ‘We hope we will get the ultimate “yes” too,’ concludes Petersen.

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