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Museum of the Holocaust by Belzberg Architects, Los Angeles, USA

Using level changes and exposed structural elements Belzberg Architects aim to tell the story of the now distant Holocaust in a powerful visitor experience. Photography by Iwan Baan

As the Holocaust recedes into the past, there’s an ever-stronger urge in Europe and America to memorialise the horrors and draw lessons from that shameful era. The Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust provides a permanent home for an institution that was established in the 1960s by a group of camp survivors. A core collection of photographs and memorabilia was displayed in a rented office space, and a memorial of six black stelae was built at the edge of a mid-town park.

Belzberg Architects was commissioned to design a building, but chose instead to embed the galleries within a corner of the flood-control berm that surrounds the park, separating the museum from the post office and shopping mall that flank the site. A path leads to the memorial across a roof planted with wild grasses and defined by low retaining walls that mirror the winding paths of the park. A ramp leads down from the drop-off point for school buses to the entrance and the story of a culture uprooted and extinguished unfolds in a succession of displays that loop round the ramp.

As Hagy Belzberg explains, ‘we wanted to maintain the open green space and realise an allegory. As you leave the sights and sounds of the world above, you unearth the atrocities that were ignored by people who lived close by in those times, just as we choose to look away from instances of genocide today.’ Descending into the earth can be a powerful experience, as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, and the Monument de la Déportation in Paris show in different ways.

Daniel Libeskind simulates that journey in the Berlin Jewish Museum (AR April 1999), but his geometries are derived from points in the city - an intellectual construct that is self-sufficient. Belzberg’s geometries are pragmatic, and his interior is expressive but deliberately understated.

He wanted to provide a container that would subtly intensify the story, rather than abstracting camp architecture, as James Ingo Freed did in the US Holocaust Museum (AR February 1994). He achieves this by twisting and bending the structural columns, creating organic shapes that relate to the park, but also suggest a disordered world.

The monopitch roof over the first sequence of galleries pulls in natural light from a row of openings at the top and from the expanses of fritted glass to either side of the ramp. The roof tilts down almost imperceptibly, so that, as you reach the darkest part of the story, you feel confined within a low-ceilinged space. As you return along the other side of the ramp, compression gives way to release. These shifts of height and lighting reveal how Belzberg has integrated container and story in a cinematic fashion.

He has employed interactive digital displays, still and moving images, and reports from local newspapers to engage the attention of students of many nationalities, for whom this story must appear as remote as the Black Death. Kids pick up earphones and iPods at reception, allowing them to reach out to individuals and construct their own narratives.

At the end of the circuit, in a space that opens out of the foyer, survivors who volunteer as docents provide a reality check, recalling what happened 60 years ago when they were the same age as their audience. From here, steps lead out to the park, the memorial and an enclosure of concrete blocks, pierced with holes of different sizes that symbolise the 1.2 million Jewish children who died in the Holocaust. In an evocation of the Western Wall, students write notes on scraps of paper and push them into the holes.

Belzberg was challenged to create the museum on a confined site and the tight budget had to cover the cost of excavating to a depth of 11m, mitigating emissions of methane gas, and constructing a vast concrete shell to withstand pressure from the high-water table. For the visible concrete structure, the builders sprayed shotcrete onto reinforcing rods and trowelled the surfaces, rather than pouring concrete into forms, to achieve fluid curved shapes. They are modelled in natural light that bathes the open and office areas, shifting through the day.

Much of the cement was recycled, while the green roof provides insulation and filters the rainwater, making the museum a model of sustainability, as well as a powerful visitor experience.

Architect Belzberg Architects, Los Angeles
Structural Engineer Risha Engineering
Mechanical Engineer John Dorius & Associates

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