Exclusive Release: The Evidence Room Interviews
Installation at the 15th Architecture Exhibition in Venice, May 28th to November 27th
The Evidence Room was organized by Anne Bordeleau, Sascha Hastings, Donald McKay and Robert Jan van Pelt for the Architectural Biennale curated by Alejandro Aravena. It is accompanied by a book of the same name published by the New Jewish Press. The following interview with van Pelt and McKay is an extended version of a piece published in a special issue of Border Crossings magazine on “Art and Architecture” (Volume 35, Number 2, Issue 138).
This issue will be on newsstands June 15, 2016.
BC: Robert, your interest in forensic architecture goes back three decades. What was it that first attracted you to this field?
RJvP: I more or less stumbled in to it: I became interested in the architecture of Auschwitz not because of its forensic aspects—that is, its significance to establish the nature and the scope of the crime—but because I believed it to be a key to an understanding of the full arc of architectural history. I believed that a history that does not account for both the best and the worst in the past is not worthy to be called a history, and I felt that in that sense architectural histories failed to measure up to the demands of the discipline. In all of this I was clearly inspired by William James, and his criticism of what he called “healthy-mindedness”, which is the optimistic view of life that believes in the power of positive thinking and constructive action: “Healthy-mindedness is inadequate as a philosophical doctrine, because the evil facts which it refuses positively to account for are a genuine portion of reality; and they may after all be the best key to life’s significance, and possibly the only openers of our eyes to the deepest levels of truth.” By nature architectural historians (and also most architects) are healthy-minded: they tend to believe in the perfectibility of both architecture and society. And hence they live in a make-believe world. I am a pessimist, be it a cheerful one, I hope, and as such I trust that I might have a somewhat greater grasp of the reality of things than many of my architectural-history colleagues—a pessimism that I believe is key to being a half-decent historian. Historians tend to be pessimists, if not by nature, then at least as a result of experience.
BC: 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?
RJvP: The original purpose of architecture, as far as we can understand on the basis of the archeological evidence reaching back some 10,000 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, of the fact that the dead were once alive like ourselves, and that we will be the dead for future generations, is the enduring basis that makes a moral life possible. The ancient Greeks recognized this when they determined if someone was fit for public office by looking at 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 as it is the only act between human and human in which one of the parties cannot reciprocate.
BC: We think of architecture as a positive practice, both through its aesthetic and functional dimensions. It doesn’t occur to most of us that architects would apply their knowledge and practical expertise to designing a factory of death. How profound a recognition was that for you as an architect?
RJvP: I am an historian and as an historian I may have a greater awareness of the follies and crimes of humanity in general, and of architects in particular, than the average practitioner. In general, historians have been quite adept at analyzing ruptures and catastrophes such as revolutions, wars, and the underside of human life, since they produce the raw material for great stories. It is only in the 20th century that historians began to try to understand continuities, but the histories they produced didn’t attract much attention beyond academia. Interestingly, historians of architecture (like historians of the other arts) were outliers in this respect: while they were very interested in change, especially in styles, they had a remarkable aversion to the seedy sides of the architectural past. Many of them, like myself, were attracted to the discipline because they loved beautiful objects and environments, and not because they had a good sense where the best story was to be found. Historians of architecture are still primarily connoisseurs, and not storytellers. I guess that in my identity as a historian of architecture, the storyteller trumped the connoisseur.
BC: 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 grounding of the discipline you talk about start?
RJvP: Let me in response quote Thomas Hardy: “If way to the better there be, it exacts a full look at the worst.”
BC: Your involvement with forensic architecture and the Holocaust begins with the Irving/Lipstadt case in England 16 years ago. What was it that compelled you to become involved in that particular case?
RJvP: In fact, my involvement began in the late 1980s when, looking for historical material on the gas chambers and crematoria, I found the Leuchter Report and read some of Holocaust-denier Robert Faurisson’s speculations. I immediately recognized that their methods violated every principle of conscientious historiography—to treat all sources with appropriate reservations; to give consideration to counterevidence; to be even-handed in one’s treatment of evidence; to weigh the authenticity of all accounts, and not merely those that contradict one’s thesis, etc. etc.—and hence I turned away from it in disgust. But when, a decade later, I had become an expert on Auschwitz because of my extensive study of the evidence, I believed I could not refuse to get engaged. As the deniers were misrepresenting the historical evidence about the genocidal function of Auschwitz, I felt under obligation to be, in a manner of speaking, the champion for the evidence—evidence that cannot speak without someone giving it a voice. Because I was the only historian who could do that at this time (a French pharmacist named Jean-Claude Pressac had also done important forensic analysis, but he was not a historian and was unable to organize the forensic material within what lawyers would call “a theory of the case”), I felt under obligation to make myself available. In a sense, I did not choose to get engaged, but was chosen.
BC: I’m not asking you to get inside the mind of Mr. Justice Charles Gray but how important do you think the eyewitness testimony was in the case?
RJvP: Throughout my expert report I cross-referenced the forensic analysis of material evidence with eyewitness evidence provided by both perpetrators and victims. Key in my strategy was the eyewitness evidence of Henry Tauber, and I aimed to convince the judge that his account about the design and operation of the gas chambers, especially the gas columns and the operation of the ovens, could be trusted. I proved successful: in his lengthy judgment, Mr. Justice Charles Gray explicitly considered the evidentiary value of Tauber’s statements, made in 1945, and they proved crucial in winning the Auschwitz part of the case. Given the importance of Tauber, the Evidence Room team has a cast of his portrait taken at the time of his testimony in the exhibition, and we dedicated our book about the exhibition to his memory.
BC: Let me skip skip forward and ask how did The Evidence Room come about as an exhibition?
RJvP: In 2007 I met Alejandro Aravena, and gave him a copy of The Case for Auschwitz, the book I wrote about the forensic interpretation of the Auschwitz blueprints and architectural remains. He remembered the book when he was appointed as the Curator of the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale, and asked me to contribute an exhibition. I realized that a book and an exhibition are very different things, and that I could not paste the pages of a book on the wall, so I asked Donald McKay, my friend and colleague at the University of Waterloo School of Architecture, for help.
DM: The problem with a book, even a very well-researched, well-written one, is that it makes a very poor exhibition. Books don’t translate that way. The Case For Auschwitz is a detailed and coordinated summary of the evidence of the Holocaust; it’s exhaustive and is meant to be read over days or weeks. An exhibition needs to be seen and understood in layers, and the outermost layer should be seen and grasped in moments. In those moments a member of the audience can decide to investigate what is going on in more depth or move on, for whatever reasons. But that first layer should have some effect on that audience. And the subsequent layers –– unraveling in time and in the space of this not-very-large room –– have to make the same contract: stay, look closer, you may see more. For this reason, the problem of The Evidence Room is a problem that goes back in some sense to a moment before the book, to the things it writes about. In effect, to the evidence. This was the point I made to Robert in our first meeting in August of 2015: The Evidence Room couldn’t be speaking to the deniers, or even about the deniers; it had to marshal the crucial architectural evidence of the Holocaust, the murder weapons, if you will, and it had to show them in a way that might go straight to the heart, to some embodied understanding of this monstrous crime. The first impression doesn’t need to be open to analysis, but it does need to communicate, and do so immediately.
BC: What will visitors see when they enter the Room Q in the centre of the International Pavilion?
DM: Unlike almost any other exhibition in the central pavilion at the Biennale this year, when you enter our space, you enter a coherent room. Beyond that room there are dozens of other exhibits, more-or-less calling out for attention –– with bright colours, with audio-visual presentations, with monumental and quite breathtaking constructions, with dozens, even hundreds of documents and models, often very many, very small works demanding close study. Inside The Evidence Room we create a reflective space, a comprehensive relief from the insistent drive for attention. We don’t need to insist that a visitor enters a single space with a single purpose. The existing space could be described as a difficult one: a small room, only a bit more than six meters by eight meters 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 in this instance I don’t think her sense of this beauty is conventional. I think what she sees is the deliberateness of it. By introducing a new, transparent ceiling of wire grills, we could reshape the room, and claim it for our purpose. (Early on in the process we were offered a larger space, which we declined; I think we sensed the natural advantages of our ugly duckling, and stayed with a space where we could create another within it.) From outside, the doorways focus on one or another of the monuments –– the gas column, the gas chamber door. 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 monuments is always in sight, off-axis from the doors. There are several good reasons 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, no matter what we did, 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 audio-visual 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, painstaking, 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.
BC: What was it like to be involved in making the ‘monuments’ as you call them?
DM: I found myself writing about this problem in the book The Evidence Room –– effectively the catalogue –– we produced to accompany the exhibition. It’s an awful problem. Obviously, I didn’t work alone on these; everyone on the team collaborated on them in one way or another –– some people (Michael Nugent, Bradley Paddock, Alexandru Vilcu, Tom Nugent, Bob Intini) quite intensely –– and much of the time each of us could be workmanlike about the problem. But there were always two problems in the crafting, and a third in the final work. The three monuments are, first, the gas-proof hatch and ladder, used to introduce Zyklon-B into the gas chambers, and then, the gas-proof gas chamber doors –– where we made both sides separately, so the inside and the outside could be contrasted, and considered separately –– and finally, the gas column, the ‘improved’ device for introducing Zyklon-B into the gas chambers. During development, we ransacked all the available evidence –– the photographs, the drawings, and the recollections of survivors –– for material to develop the most accurate representations of these things. Moreover, our team included people well-versed with restoration problems, with issues of architectural restoration, museological issues around machinery and fabrication, issues of historic practice. But each of us had to leave aside our natural inclinations to craftsmanship as we worked, and this was often the subject of considerate but insistent debate. Each of us had to consider the ruthlessness of the murderers, the pathos and the skills of the slave workers who made these things, and their purpose. Each of us had to develop a kind of impersonal craftsmanship, putting other people, or even the passage of time, or our research, ahead of our own inclinations to do the best work we could. Sometimes we had to be studiously, deliberately, careless. So the first problem is two-fold: how do you work from the point of view of both the murderers and the victims, victims who left their handiwork behind, in the devices that murdered them. The second problem is worse: how do you make these murder weapons into an effective exhibit, in effect, a monument. I think the problem resides in the use of the term ‘monument’. These are reminders, and while we are most often reminded of the glorious or the heroic, in this case, without resorting to melodrama, we have to make monuments to the shameful events in our past. And to this without glorying, even subconsciously, in the self-indulgent ‘horror’ of it all.
BC: Why is it important to be able to construct a replica of a gas chamber?
RJvP: We did not aim to construct a replica of a gas chamber and I don’t think we have ended up with such a replica. We have created a room, a universe of sorts, that presents the evidence of the design and operation of genocidal gas chambers. I stress the importance of “evidence.” We, like our ancestors, live in a three-tiered universe: the bottom consists of evidence, which supports facts (defined as statements made on the basis of evidence) and the facts are subject to interpretation. Today we face an incredible crisis, represented, for example, by the arguments put forward in the US primaries, in which not only the interpretation of facts have become a free-for-all but also the facts themselves have lost their “factual” character and stability. The freedom of interpretation was, of course, the great achievement of the modern age, but today it appears that anyone can have his or her own facts. This confusion, in which the freedom of opinion and expression has degenerated into a freedom of and from facts, means that the only basis for a shared human reality is the foundation of those facts: evidence. This makes the case of the gas chambers so important. The epistemological problem it presents will become visible, in a magnified manner, in climate change debates, or fact-free policy debates. In a fundamental sense, The Evidence Room is the foundation of our shared future.
BC: What you and your team have done is complicated. Novelists who create murderous characters aren’t murderers themselves, but they have to be able to imaginatively figure out what it takes to be one. Writers I’ve talked to say 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?
DM: 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 victims’ 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 twenty 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 probably comfort enough for both of us.
BC: What are the ethical problems that you had to deal with in making the exhibition?
RJvP: The biggest challenge is to avoid falling into idolatry. Artists seeking to represent the Holocaust have always struggled with the interdiction of representation. The famous film maker 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 everyone will accept it.
BC: There is a devastating irony in the overall project. In your evidence you are constructing a presence for an event which is defined primarily through absence. There are six million missing and missed humans. So your tracing through The Evidence Room becomes critical?
RJvP: Of the six million who were murdered, who are missing in your words, three million were murdered in gas chambers and of those, one million were murdered in the Auschwitz gas chambers, the evidence of which we seek to present. These people were herded into those rooms naked, in a condition of bare life so to speak, and then their lives were taken away in the most horrific of circumstances, as they were all pressed together, ten naked persons per square meter, old people, young people, men, women, children, babies. As the lights go out, and the Zyklon is introduced into the room, there is this panic, and while many die as a result of the cyanide, others are killed in the stampede that cannot go anywhere but into flesh and bones because of the crowded condition. So there is absence generated by the loss, and the overwhelming physicality of the catastrophe as it unfolded within the gas chambers. I hope that the physicality and, at the same time, the fragility of our exhibits in the relatively tight conditions of the room, might evoke some of the horror that cannot be really named nor represented.
BC: What effect do you hope the The Evidence Room will have on people?
RJvP: Our colleague Anne Bordeleau put it very well in her contribution to the book on The Evidence Room: “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.