Memory is not the same as history. –Peter Eisenman

On a recent trip to Germany, I came across a number of small brass memorial markers, set into the pavement in front of a house on the Richard Wagner Strasse, just around the corner from my hotel in Cologne. There were twenty-two in all, each with the name of a person who had lived in the house and been deported in 1941 to Riga, to die in a concentration camp. “Hier wohnte,” each one said–“Here lived”–followed by the name and birth date of the deportee. The memorials to Eva, Ludwig, Kurt and Louis Meyer formed a square, set apart. Else Meyerhof and her sister–or daughter–Eva were together in a cluster of their neighbors. I wondered why I had not noticed the markers before, since I had walked past that house several times, and concluded that I may have been sensitized by the total anonymity of Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, which I had visited over the weekend in Berlin. Once I noticed them, though, I began to find others, all over the quarter where I was staying, one of the few to have survived the bombings in World War II.

It was perhaps the expression Hier wohnte, identifying the building as a Wohnung, or home, that imbued the markers with an aura of loss and desolation. Each tells the same story: a dweller hauled from his or her home and carted away to die. That specificity of location would be diluted if the immense plaza where Eisenman’s memorial is installed were instead paved with 6 million brass markers, like the ones in Cologne, each with the name of an individual Jew known to have been evicted, deported and murdered. Hier would instead acquire a wider, more diffuse reference, applying not to the Jews of Berlin and even Germany but throughout Europe. One can imagine such a monument being almost blindingly bright on sunny days, polished by the incessant shuffle of tourists’ feet. Survivors could be escorted to the name of someone killed, as they are led to the name of the person they have come to grieve over at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. There is something achingly moving about the simple markers in Cologne, reminiscent of the vernacular shrines that appeared like wildflowers all over New York after 9/11, often with a photograph of a victim.

The ground where the memorial stands, not long ago a no man’s land, could not be more central–it is the heart of the heart of the country, to use William Gass’s expression. It is separated by a single row of official buildings from the Brandenburg Gate, the symbolic entryway into the city, and the western boundary of Unter den Linden, like the Champs-Elysées or Fifth Avenue the parade route of the nation. Sir Norman Foster’s dome for the Reichstag can be seen nearby, as well as the newly constructed chancellor’s office. In the opposite direction rises Potsdamer Platz, symbol of contemporary Berlin and a unified Germany, with its malls and jubilant glass towers. Across some undistinguished ground, not so long ago patrolled by police dogs and tripwires for machine gun emplacements, rise some very imposing “slab” housing in the dreary style of the former Communist East Germany. The southern edge of the memorial is bounded by a street named after Hannah Arendt. This is real estate drenched in symbolism, and since unification it has become very valuable property as well. That the German Parliament held the developers at bay while debating the installation of a memorial to the victims of an acknowledged national crime is little short of astonishing.

Debate on the principle of such a monument began before the site itself was available. After two competitions, one open and the other between invited contenders of considerable prominence, the commission went in 1998 to the team of architect Peter Eisenman and Richard Serra. Serra quit the project early on, unwilling to accept the kinds of compromises that architects are accustomed to making.

The designated area is sometimes said to be the size of two football fields–a better guide to visualizing its scale than measurements in square feet or meters. It is not an even playing field, to continue with the image–it dips down to a considerable depth in one direction, and then rises up. A grid of regular walkways is imposed on this irregular surface, not quite wide enough to accommodate two people. Between the walkways are more than 2,000 rectangular steles, in gray concrete, each just under a meter wide by 2.38 meters in length. A mapping of the field, drawn from above, would be a grid of rectangles, separated from one another by the walkways. Each walkway is an entrance and an exit–one can enter the memorial anywhere, follow any path and exit wherever one wishes. There is no fence. The memorial is entirely open to the city. You can use any of its paths as a shortcut to get to the other side. Nothing especially distinguishes one stele from another, so there is no special reason to head for one stele in particular. With two exceptions, the steles are all alike. They differ in height, and they differ in the degree to which the upper surface slants.

There are 303 steles more than four meters high, 569 steles from three to four meters high, 491 steles from two to three meters high, 869 steles from one to two meters high, 367 steles from zero to one meter high–and there are 112 flat platforms without steles. None of these figures carries any symbolic meaning, nor does the total number–2,711 steles–have any special significance. There is no code–nothing like the rather grating number of 1,776 that Daniel Libeskind seems proud to have selected as the height, in feet, of the Freedom Tower projected for Ground Zero. The difference in height is due to the unevenness of the ground: It enables the top surfaces of the steles roughly to line up with one another, forming a unified surface. If one follows a pathway that dips to the field’s lowest point, the steles on either side are among the highest in the whole complex, so one can feel somewhat lost. But this difference in elevation is not registered in the overall surface of the field of steles, which, because of the variation in slant, creates the sense of a gentle wave, like the surface of a body of water or, to use an example from Eisenman himself, like the surface of a field of grain. (There is also an incongruous stand of forty-one trees on the side facing the Tiergarten park, mandated by the overseer of the commission.) The result is a late Minimalist masterpiece of monoliths with variously slanting tops, together forming an undulating surface.

Viewed as a work of art, the memorial is impressive. Eisenman’s work is not beautiful, but it would, I think, have been an artistic defect had it been beautiful in the Kantian sense of yielding a certain disinterested pleasure. A memorial is not intended to be an object of aesthetic gratification but a reminder of something in danger of being forgotten. As Eisenman himself has admitted: “I think it’s 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.” One is reminded of what Marcel Duchamp said of his ready-mades: “The choice of these ready-mades was based on a reaction of visual indifference with at the same time a total absence of good or bad taste.” The difference, of course, is that, unlike Duchamp’s toilet, Eisenman’s banal, concrete slabs are not a subversive commentary on the nature of art but rather an attempt to honor the victims of an immense historical catastrophe. The spirit of the memorial is solemn rather than insouciant.

Because the aims of a memorial are by definition distinct from those of a work of art, the question naturally arises as to whether Eisenman’s Minimalist, mute creation succeeds in evoking a historical tragedy as vast in scale as the Holocaust. History tells us how many Jews, from how many places and under what circumstances, were casualties of the Holocaust. But who remembers the Holocaust as a series of names, places and statistics? Holocaust memories are specific, ineradicable images of people being hauled out of houses, forced into inhuman conditions and treated with the terrible, deliberate cruelty of which only human beings are capable. A representation of the Holocaust would arguably have to build into the image not merely the number of lives extinguished or ruined but the evil implied in its conception and execution.

The opacity of Eisenman’s memorial is a conscious choice, rooted in his sense of the enormity of the Holocaust, and of his suspicion of, as it were, graven images. As he has said, “The Holocaust is of such magnitude that it cannot be represented without such representation becoming kitsch, sentimental and hollow.” It’s almost as if he made a work that defies visual representation precisely in order to avoid such pitfalls. And since the memorial embodies nothing that belongs to what is conventionally understood to be the imagery of the Holocaust, it is radically abstract–a regimented complex of Minimalist monoliths that refuse to name what they are intended to commemorate.

The problem with making a work out of laterally uniform monoliths and arranging them in regular rows is that the result is likely to evoke a graveyard–something that obviously troubles Eisenman, who has alternately conceded and denied the resemblance when it has been pointed out to him. “The space isn’t a graveyard,” he has insisted. “I didn’t want names. It should be absent of meaning.” It is, of course, true that a field of monoliths cannot embody any specific meaning, and that the meaning is filled, or at least completed, by the viewer. But the title of the memorial clearly designates a set of individuals–the murdered Jews of Europe–and connotes a concept, that of genocide. So there is something troubling about the fact that nothing in the monument informs the visitor of either dimension of its meaning. No wonder it can so easily be mistaken for a graveyard or, as is often the case with young children, for a funhouse or playground.

Eisenman has an explanation for the absence of any visual cues, and it is one for which I have some sympathy. As he explains it, he was seeking not so much to represent the Holocaust–an impossibility–as to create a certain experience, an experience of nothingness and disorientation: “I was thinking about a field of corn that I was lost in in Iowa when I did it. I was trying to do something that had no center, had no edge, had no meaning, that was dumb.” Abstractly, this is a brilliant idea. Here, in the middle of things dense with information–the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag, Unter den Linden, the Academy of Art, the ghost of the Berlin wall, the no man’s land divided by the wall–is this black hole, a place intended to embody meaninglessness. It is as if he wanted to say to the German people that the Holocaust cannot be accounted for, that it is not part of the meaning of German history and yet it happened. It is an impossibility that actually took place. It is brilliant but too much to ask of anyone that they should say: This is what he is getting at, this is what the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is about! The experience is like being lost in a cornfield!

After all, nobody thinks of a cornfield in the middle of Eisenman’s memorial. True, nobody pauses to interpret the undulations, or to ask why the gravestones should undulate. So what do they do instead? They walk back and forth, talking on their cell phones. Or they photograph one another over the tops of the steles. Girls shriek with laughter and wave to one another–I thought of Valéry’s line “les cris aiguës des filles chatouillées“–“the sharp cries of tickled girls”–in his masterpiece, Marine Cemetery. Someone laid two yellow roses on top of a stele, someone else a basket with two plants. Some people place a single stone atop a stele. But boys still jump from stele to stele. It is a kind of formal stone garden, with custodians picking up debris.

Underneath the memorial there is a Center of Information, where visitors can learn about the Holocaust. Like the trees, the center wasn’t part of the original plan, but Eisenman resigned himself to it. “As an architect,” he said, “you win some and you lose some.” Still, though the center has the quality of an afterthought, I can appreciate the bureaucratic frustration that led to its creation, given the memorial’s failure to convey the appropriate kind of feeling. Great memorials are not mute. Unlike the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Eisenman’s work will not help heal the gap between German generations, or between Germany and the Jews, to the extent those gaps still exist.

Kant thought of works of art as “aesthetic ideas”–as meaningful without implying any specific meaning. They prompt the imagination to range over possible interpretations without foreclosing any. “If one person says it looks like a graveyard,” Eisenman says, “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.” Yet the issue isn’t what the memorial looks like but how one is supposed to feel about what it designates. Imagination is not the same as history. Memorials are tied to what happened.