Forensic Architecture

“Reporting from the Front” is the name picked by curator Alejandro Aravena for the 15th International Architecture Exhibition in Venice. Among the exhibits in the central pavilion is The Evidence Room, developed by Robert Jan van Pelt, Donald McKay, Anne Bordeleau, Sascha Hastings and a team of students from the University of Waterloo School of Architecture. The Evidence Room, which has an accompanying book, will be on exhibition in Venice from the 28th of May to the 27th of November.

The three monuments: the gas-tight door (front and back), the gas hatch (front), and the gas column, as they are arranged in The Evidence Room. Drawing: Siobhan Allman, Anna Longrigg, Donald McKay, Michael Nugent, Nicole Ratajczak, Alexandru Vilcu.

Border Crossings: You have said that one of your objectives is to ground the discipline of architecture in a moral universe. How do you do that and why is it necessary?

Robert Jan van Pelt: The original purpose of architecture, as far as we can understand on the basis of the archeological evidence reaching back some ten thousand years, was to establish a framework for a moral universe that brings together not only the living but, more importantly, the living and the dead. I believe that the consciousness of our own mortality is the enduring basis that makes a moral life possible. The ancient Greeks recognized this when they determined someone was fit for public office by the way he tended the graves of his ancestors, and today Jews recognize it when they define the act of burying the dead as the highest mitzvah, since it is the only act between human and human in which one of the parties cannot reciprocate.

It was easy to recognize a figure like Josef Mengele as evil because he violated medicine’s moral code in the experiments he conducted at Auschwitz. But there is no code for architects, so where does the moral grounding of the discipline you talk about start?

Robert Jan van Pelt: Let me quote Thomas Hardy in response: “If way to the better there be, it exacts a full look at the worst.”

What will people see when they enter Room Q in the centre of the International Pavilion at the Biennale?

The three monuments, the east and west walls of shelves, and the ceiling of the room as they are arranged in The Evidence Room. Drawing: Siobhan Allman, Anna Longrigg, Donald McKay, Michael Nugent, Nicole Ratajczak, Alexandru Vilcu.

Donald McKay: Unlike almost any other exhibition in the central pavilion this year, when you enter our space, you enter a coherent room. The space is a difficult one: a small room—only a bit more than six metres by eight metres in size—with a low ceiling, a floor and walls a bit battered, difficult to light, with two doorways on axis into it, each leading from a large, expansive skylighted room. It’s a compressed chamber, almost an antechamber, a room the Biennale’s Executive Manager, Manuela Lucà Dazio, describes as ugly, but one she has also said we have made beautiful. Beauty, per se, was never our intention and I don’t think her sense of beauty is conventional in this instance. I think she sees the deliberateness of it. By introducing a new, transparent ceiling of wire grills, we could reshape the room, and claim it for our purpose. Visitors will see three monuments: first, the gas-proof hatch and ladder used to introduce Zyklon B into the gas chambers; then, the gas-proof gas chamber doors— where we made both sides, so the inside and the outside could be considered separately—and finally, the gas column, the ‘improved’ device for introducing Zyklon B into the gas chambers. In making the room, we have created a threshold condition at each entrance, but because of the insistent nature of the exhibits on either side—exhibits where there is the inevitable object in the centre of the room—the visitor approaches the room obliquely. One or another monument is always in sight, off-axis from the doors. There are several good reasons why The Evidence Room is, in all its parts, rendered in shades of white. Initially I wanted everything in the room to be white so that it would not be interpreted as a reproduction. And we didn’t want anything graphic: no black-and-white typography, no colours claiming an audience for themselves, no audiovisual aids, no trick sound effects. All those things put interpretations of one sort or another between the audience and the things we wanted them to consider—the monuments—the instruments of murder. The things we have made are very accurate, painstakingly, full-scale models; you might imagine them as sculptures of the things themselves. And all around them, tiling the walls, are the exhibits, the white plaster reliefs of the drawings and correspondence, the contracts, drawings and photographs. And perhaps I thought that white might be the colour of truth. I don’t know.

The architects, draftsmen and construction managers of the Auschwitz Central Construction Management gathered on the porch of their office, 1943. These men deliberately designed the Auschwitz gas chambers and crematoria as factories of death. Courtesy Archive-Birkenau Memorial and Museu, Oswiecim.

Novelists who create murderous characters aren’t murderers themselves, but they have to imaginatively figure out what it takes to be one. I know from writers I’ve talked to that entering that imaginative space can be emotionally and psychologically devastating. When you were making the implements of death did you feel implicated in any way because you became the perfect designer/copyist of these objects?

Donald McKay: Each of us, at random moments in the process, confronted the grotesqueness of these things. Only one example: early in the process one of my students—a bright young woman who had done similar work with me in the past—spent a deadline weekend sitting across the table from me producing realistic, computer-generated perspectives from my drawings. At one moment, she stopped to ask about a detail, the wire screens protecting the peephole on the victim’s side of the gas-proof doors. Then the significance of it came at her full force, and she left the room to weep. When she returned 20 minutes later, composed, there was nothing to say; we both understood how this could happen with this work. I think our presence, working on the problem of remembering, was comfort enough for both of us.

What are the ethical problems that you had to deal with in making the exhibition?

Robert Jan van Pelt: The biggest challenge was to avoid falling into idolatry. Artists seeking to represent the Holocaust have always struggled with the interdiction of representation. The famous filmmaker Claude Lanzmann, who made Shoah, the epic 10- hour meditation on the death camps, once said that if he had found historical film footage of the gas chambers, he would have destroyed it. We are at the edge of what may be done; without having aimed to create a beautiful whole, I must admit that the room we have created is very beautiful, and this keeps me awake at night. My justification for the project as it has come together might convince or not, but here it is: we have tried to create an embodiment not of a gas chamber, but of the evidence for gas chambers. By focusing on the issue of evidence, I think that we have a reply to the possible charge of idolatry, but I also realize that not all will accept it.

Interior of the office of the Auschwitz Central Construction Management, 1943. Courtesy Archive-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, Oswiecim.

What effect do you hope The Evidence Room will have on people?

Robert Jan van Pelt: Our colleague Anne Bordeleau put it very well in her contribution to the book: “The room asks for a pause, questioning our relation to time and history as much as it questions the crowds rushing to see what is on at the Biennale this year. It offers a significant gap in time that for a split second might disrupt our obsession with the now and the future. It does not explain, nor elucidate. It merely poses a question that comes to its fullest answer when one effectively experiences the casts in their mute, fragile, ghostly, and yet indubitable presence.” ❚

Selection of a transport of Hungarian Jews, spring 1944. Women and children are lined up to the left, men to the right. The mother with the baby has been directed to the right-the direction of Crematoria 2 and 3. Courtesy Yad Vashem, Jerusalem.