Dezeen Magazine

"However brutal, the Yolocaust website gave meaning to Berlin's Holocaust memorial"

By juxtaposing selfies taken by visitors to Peter Eisenman's Holocaust memorial with archive photos from concentration camps, artist Shahak Shapira has revealed why design that shames is important, says Owen Hatherley in his latest Opinion column.

I came across Yolocaust on the Twitter account of historian Alex Von Tunzelmann. Clearly unsure about whether or not to link to it at all, she prefaced it with "warning: link leads to VERY graphic images". Obviously I clicked.

The link led to two juxtaposed photos: one in colour of a young woman in sunglasses standing on one leg and waving a cup of coffee in the air on one of the concrete stelae of Peter Eisenman's Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and another in black and white, where she had been photoshopped so that she was standing on a mass grave.

Created by the Berlin-based Israeli artist Shahak Shapira, the website featured a selection of photos of hip young people gallivanting around the memorial. When you moved the cursor to the images, you saw the people in them transplanted onto images of the Holocaust. Their grins and poses became utterly horrifying as they put their thumbs up on trenches of bodies or leaped between them. In design terms, it resembled the darkest work of photomontage artists like John Heartfield and Gee Vaucher, and was frighteningly successful in doing what it set out to do – shame.

The grins and poses became utterly horrifying

A link at the bottom let people whose photos had been used ask for them to be withdrawn. Unsurprisingly, most of them did so. A few people criticised the site for being sledgehammer in its approach – there is a subtler webpage, Tindercaust, which archives photos taken in the memorial by users of the hook-up app.

Eisenman, by all accounts, was not prescriptive about how the memorial be used. But if it isn't intended to induce some sort of solemnity or respect, what could it possibly be for?

The architect's relaxed approach to the structure was rather unusual in the politicised memorial-making of Berlin in the 1990s and 2000s, which resulted in dozens of monuments and a thousand PhD theses. In his Jewish Museum extension, over on the west side of where the Berlin Wall used to run, Daniel Libeskind very clearly intended to make users feel and think in such a way that they would be confronted with the rupture and break in the fabric of Berlin, and Europe more generally, caused by the Holocaust. Much more dubiously, it appeared to hope that its dark, non-orthogonal spaces might give something of the sense of horror that being witness to these events induced.

This was all hugely discredited by how much Libeskind used an almost-identical visual language for other buildings – this might have had some rationale when designing Manchester's Imperial War Museum, but had much less when the brief was designing a student union for London Metropolitan University.

If the memorial isn't intended to induce some sort of solemnity or respect, what could it possibly be for?

Eisenman has always been one of architecture's immoralists; his early career as a writer in Oppositions saw the Marxist-aligned avant-garde produce a critique that conveniently exempted architects from having to think anymore about, say, public housing or the economy (why bother, when capitalism always wins). And he spent much of his life composing a book on Giuseppe Terragni, the 20th century's greatest card-carrying fascist architect, whose oblique systems of grids and voids have been the most significant source for Eisenman's own architecture. Ideological neutrality has always been Eisenman's game, and the lack of grand claims was always, to some degree, the point of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.

The very first time I saw the memorial in 2005, I was surprised to see children playing hide and seek in it, and it lends itself to this well; the enormous width of the site, the various slopes of its cobbled ground, and the multiple heights of the stelae, make the memorial into a huge great maze. Its total lack of explicitness about what it actually commemorates helps this too – there are no images of atrocity, none of Judaism (much unlike the earliest Holocaust memorial, the Socialist Realist Ghetto Fighters memorial in Warsaw) and not even much in the way of text.

This is all intentional – Eisenman wanted "a place without information", in a public sphere choked with it. When asked about graffiti (which is deterred on the stelae by a special coating, against his wishes), he's always shrugged his shoulders.

Yet Berlin doesn't lack for other places that impose a meaning on the unbelievable atrocity Germany was responsible for. Nobody would take a selfie in the Topography of Terror, for instance, the memorial complex built around the former Gestapo and SS headquarters; although it is easily as architecturally ambitious as Eisenman's memorial, if anything more so, because of its attempt to combine architectural abstraction with dense historical and spatial information.

Shapira's site performed a service – it imposed the meaning that Eisenman wouldn't

I find this all a little uncomfortable. The transformation into space-age kitsch of the anti-fascist memorials of the former Yugoslavia, for instance, most of which do actually stand on the sites of mass graves, seems to me utterly grotesque, as does the pervasive culture of Holocaust selfies (which, in many cases, are actually taken by tourists at the preserved camps themselves). Each seem part of a combined search for the "real" of history (the real camp, the real totalitarian memorial) and a vacuous relation to it (heaven forbid you might also read a book).

What Eisenman did in the Memorial, for all its strange and eerie power, was shrug his shoulders about such dated subjects as "meaning" and "politics" and let people decide what it is for themselves. Yet that casualness seems at odds with the rigour of the design, the sheer scale of the monument, and the extreme gesture in placing this field in the centre of the reunified capital, a dense void at its heart.

Architecture may be impotent in all of this, totally unable to impose or maintain a fixed meaning; the culture around does so instead. And for that reason, however brutal it was, Shapira's site performed a service – it imposed the meaning that Eisenman wouldn't.

By apparent coincidence, in the same week Shapira put up Yolocaust, the far-right German politician Bjorn Hocke of the Alliance for Germany, the first far-right party to get any electoral success in Germany since the 1930s, criticised the memorial using precisely those terms used by Shapira – "shame", specifically the shame that a country's most atrocious act should be commemorated by a huge space in the centre of the capital. The resurgent extreme right want to shake off their shame, and for precisely that reason, design that shames is important.

Photograph by Steven Lilley.