Joel Shapiro’s Loss and Regeneration poignantly addresses the disintegration of families and the tragedy of lives interrupted by the Holocaust. Shapiro’s work, situated on the plaza along Raoul Wallenberg Place, consists of two bronze elements that engage in symbolic dialogue.
After visitors have viewed the exhibitions chronicling the ghettos and the death camps, they enter the second-floor lounge to encounter a wall drawing by Sol LeWitt, entitled Consequence. Five large squares dominate the long wall.
Each square is bordered in black, and contains a central gray square outlined with a band of white. In between the white and black contours are subtle colors of varying hues.
The rhythmic pattern of squares within squares invites introspection, while the fields of color suggest absence. It represents lives, families, and communities made vacant as a consequence of the Holocaust.
Visitors encounter Ellsworth Kelly’s work in the third-floor lounge after touring the exhibition sequences that recount the escalation of Nazi violence between 1933 and 1939. In contrast to the dimly-lit exhibition spaces, the lounge is high-ceilinged and filled with light.
On two opposing walls are Kelly’s four wall sculptures, collectively entitled Memorial. The largest of four pieces is a white fan-shaped panel that stretches almost 27 feet at its widest point and floats several inches from the wall.
Opposite are three identical, evenly spaced white rectangles that also project several inches from the wall. Kelly’s sculptures create a constant interplay of light and shadow that changes throughout the day.
The Museum’s first floor holds the Hall of Witness, a large, three-story, sky-lit gathering place. The elements of dislocation that are first introduced outside the building reappear here.
Visitors move through a canopied entrance and cross over a raw steel platform to enter the Hall of Witness. It is a transitional threshold that separates and displaces the visitor from the outside world.
The building employs construction methods from the industrial past. The raw brick is load bearing, turnbuckles connect tie rods, and structure is exposed.
The glass roof shears the building on a diagonal line. The skylight drops beneath the flanking brick walls to the third-floor level, pressing down upon the open space below even as it opens the visitor’s view to the sky above.
Above the skylight, visitors in the Hall can see spectral-like figures crossing overhead on glass bridges that connect the north and south towers, lending an unsettling air of surveillance. The fissure underscores a sense of imbalance, distortion, and rupture, which are characteristics of the civilization in which the Holocaust took place.
Design features that fill the Hall of Witness and recur throughout the building summon more directly the tragic themes of the Holocaust. Crisscrossed steel trappings seem to brace the harsh brick walls against some great internal pressure.
The Hall’s main staircase narrows unnaturally toward the top, like receding rail tracks heading to a camp. The west wall of the Hall of Witness is made of black granite, the east wall of white marble – the former ominous, the latter hopeful.
The play of light and shadow, along with contrasting wide and narrow spaces, arouses contradictory notions of accessibility and confinement. The entire Hall is defined by unpredictability and uncertainty.
Altogether, the interior suggests a departure from the norm, informing visitors that they are in a profoundly different place. It is an environment that stimulates memory and sets an emotional stage for the Museum’s exhibitions.
Memory, above all, defines the Hall of Remembrance, the national memorial to victims of the Holocaust. Occupying the interior of the hexagonal structure that overlooks Eisenhower Plaza, the Hall is a solemn, simple space designed for public ceremonies and individual reflection.
Epitaphs are set onto the limestone walls that encircle an eternal flame. Diffused sunlight illuminates the Hall as it passes through the translucent glass of a high, center skylight.
The floor is red granite, spattered and cracked by natural fissures. Narrow openings on the side walls let in light and offer partial views of the Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial.
Jack R. Landry has worked in the travel business for 10 years. He has many recommendations of things to do in Washington DC.
Jack R. Landry