05/09/2005 03:34 PM

SPIEGEL Interview with Holocaust Monument Architect Peter Eisenman

"How Long Does One Feel Guilty?"

American architect Peter Eisenman's new monument to the Holocaust will be officially opened on Tuesday in Berlin. SPIEGEL ONLINE spoke with him about German guilt, the meaning of monuments and why he doesn't care if it is soon covered with graffiti.

Peter Eisenman's Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe will be officially opened on Tuesday.

Peter Eisenman's Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe will be officially opened on Tuesday.


Berlin has been watching the monument take shape for years. You've been working on it much longer, close to six years to be exact. Are you happy it's over?

Eisenman: No. For sure not. It's like saying you're happy you're going to die. I am not a finisher, I am a starter. And I am always thinking, what is the next project, we are working on, and those are the things that are exciting to me. Endings are like, I always say, like a women's pregnancy. When she has a child, she is happy to have the child, but there is a thing called postpartum depression, that is that she is no longer carrying the baby. Is it exciting to see and having gotten it finished? Is there a sense of accomplishment? Is it more than I could have thought? Yes.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Are you satisfied with the finished product? Does it look like you wanted it to look?

Eisenman: What is interesting to me is how much I have learned in doing the project. Just yesterday, I watched people walk into it for the first time and it is amazing how these heads disappear -- like going under water. Primo Levi talks about a similar idea in his book about Auschwitz. He writes that the prisoners were no longer alive but they weren't dead either. Rather, they seemed to descend into a personal hell. I was suddenly reminded of that passage while watching these heads disappear into the monument. You don't often see people disappear into something that appears to be flat. That was amazing, seeing them disappear.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You hadn't thought of that effect when you designed the monument?

Eisenman: No, I hadn't. You pray and pray for such accidental results, because you really don't know what the finished product will be like. For example I didn't realize that the sound would be so muted inside. You don't hear anything but the sound of your footsteps. Also, the ground. We didn't want to use any materials that came out of the soil because the soil was for the Germans. "Blood and Soil" was the ideological moment that separated the Jews from the Germans. And here, the ground is very uneven and difficult. My wife yesterday got dizzy walking in the memorial because it slopes in several directions. It was really extraordinary.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Is there anything you don't like about the finished product?

An aerial photo of the completed monument: "I wanted the ordinary, the banal."

An aerial photo of the completed monument: "I wanted the ordinary, the banal."

Eisenman: I think it is a little too aesthetic. It's a little too good looking. It's not that I wanted something bad looking, but I didn't want it to seem designed. I wanted the ordinary, the banal. If you want to show a picture, just show it -- don't spend too much time arranging it. And unfortunately it looks a bit too arranged.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: A lot of people say it looks like a cemetery.

Eisenman: I can't think about it. If one person says it looks like a graveyard and the next says it looks like a ruined city and then someone says it looks like it is from Mars -- everybody needs to make it look like something they know. There was an aerial shot in the paper on Saturday -- a beautiful photo. I have never seen a graveyard that looks like that. And when you walk in, it certainly doesn't feel like one. But if people see it like that, you can't stop them. It's fine.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Is there a feeling or an emotion that you wanted to generate in the people who visit the monument?

Eisenman: I said all along that I wanted people to have a feeling of being in the present and an experience that they had never had before. And one that was different and slightly unsettling. The world is too full of information and here is a place without information. That is what I wanted.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You were against the building of the Center of Information underneath the monument, weren't you?

Eisenman: I was. But as an architect you win some and you lose some.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Who is the monument for? Is it for the Jews?

Eisenman: It's for the German people. I don't think it was ever intended to be for the Jews. It's a wonderful expression of the German people to place something in the middle of their city that reminds them -- could remind them -- of the past.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: An expression of guilt, you mean?

Some have criticized the monument by saying it looks like a gigantic cemetery.

Some have criticized the monument by saying it looks like a gigantic cemetery.

Eisenman: No. For me it wasn't about guilt. When looking at Germans, I have never felt a sense that they are guilty. I have encountered anti-Semitism in the United States as well. Clearly the anti-Semitism in Germany in the 1930s went overboard and it was clearly a terrible moment in history. But how long does one feel guilty? Can we get over that?

I always thought that this monument was about trying to get over this question of guilt. Whenever I come here, I arrive feeling like an American. But by the time I leave, I feel like a Jew. And why is that? Because Germans go out of their way -- because I am a Jew -- to make me feel good. And that makes me feel worse. I can't deal with it. Stop making me feel good. If you are anti-Semitic, fine. If you don't like me personally, fine. But deal with me as an individual, not as a Jew. I would hope that this memorial, in its absence of guilt-making, is part of the process of getting over that guilt. You cannot live with guilt. If Germany did, then the whole country would have to go to an analyst. I don't know how else to say it.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The monument is specifically devoted to remembering the Jews who died in the Holocaust. Do you think it's right that the other groups victimized in the Holocaust are excluded from this monument?

Eisenman: Yes, I do. I changed my mind on that a few months ago. The more I read about World War II history, the more I realized that the worse the war went in Russia, the more Jews were killed by the Nazis. When the Nazis realized they couldn't defeat the Bolshevists, they made sure they got the Jews. Now I think it's fine that the project is just for the Jews.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But now there is the danger that all other groups will want a monument and Berlin will turn into a city of memorials.

Eisenman: I don't know about that. I'm certainly not going to do another one. I'm not into doing these monuments.

"You pray for accidental results."

"You pray for accidental results."

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You're project was originally chosen in 1999 from among hundreds of proposals. What was the most difficult part of the six years that have elapsed since then?

Eisenman: The project was heavily politicized. And knowing how to deal with the political process was difficult for me. I am an American and I don't fully understand the sensitivity or the sense of humor that operates in this country. Sometimes it has been difficult to know how to maneuver. There were a lot of problems and if you sit in a room with 20 politicians of different colors around a table, each one of them has to speak. That's a beautiful thing, but also very tedious. In the end, there is no such thing as a pure client who gives you totally free reign. And the best clients in the world are the people who cause you to struggle.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Now that the monument is finished and open to the public, it probably won't be long before the first swastika is sprayed onto the monument.

Eisenman: Would that be a bad thing? I was against the graffiti coating from the start. If a swastika is painted on it, it is a reflection of how people feel. And if it remains there, it is a reflection of how the German government feels about people painting swastikas on the monument. That is something I have no control over. When you turn a project over to clients, they do with it what they want -- it's theirs and they occupy your work. You can't tell them what to do with it. If they want to knock the stones over tomorrow, honestly, that's fine. People are going to picnic in the field. Children will play tag in the field. There will be fashion models modeling there and films will be shot there. I can easily imagine some spy shoot 'em ups ending in the field. What can I say? It's not a sacred place.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you have a favorite monument?

Eisenman: Actually, I'm not that into monuments. Honestly, I don't think much about them. I think more about sports.

Interview conducted by Charles Hawley and Natalie Tenberg


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