I have been for a while interested in the architectural layout of spaces, and how those spaces dictate or facilitate our experiences and feelings. For example, Joan Meyers-Levy (University of Minnesota) and co-author Rui (Juliet) Zhu (University of British Columbia) published a consumer research paper in 2007 titled “The Influence of Ceiling Height: The Effect of Priming on the Type of Processing People Use” and found that “When a person is in a space with a 10-foot ceiling, they will tend to think more freely, more abstractly," said Meyers-Levy. "They might process more abstract connections between objects in a room, whereas a person in a room with an 8-foot ceiling will be more likely to focus on specifics.” Though Meyers-Levy and Zhu’s research focused on making retailers more effective in moving their goods, or in other words, how to turn consumers into better buyers, it’s not hard to make the connection to an experience one might have in a high-ceilinged art museum, or the leap to sculptural landscapes outside, which brings me to the Oregon Holocaust Memorial set in Washington Park on SW Washington Way and Wright Avenue in Portland, Oregon.
In June of 2014, my friend Matt invited me to meet Vince who was visiting from San Diego. The air was humid as we walked the length of Portland, from downtown to the Pearl district, and on to NW. We eventually found ourselves taking the brick steps up to Washington Park. I watched Matt and Vince’s budding romance expand in the park and around the Chiming Fountain, which had been dry with midges swarming about. We kept walking until we happened upon a circular European-cobblestoned area. We were about to rest on the stone bench, until I sat down and noticed a bronze-cast doll abandoned next to me, and I quickly got back up thinking aloud, “That’s eerie.”
We surveyed the mock-town square with its singular ornamental lamppost, and noticed the other items left behind memorialized in bronze: a battered suitcase, a boot and broken reading glasses, a ratty-teddy bear, a smashed violin all scattered along the path to the stone wall. The three of us took our steps gently along the cobblestone walkway toward the memorial. Matt stopped halfway, as Vince and I continued on. When Vince and I could go no further, we stood in front of the stone wall and read the inscriptions to each other: “All of us children were crying for our parents…My little sister gave me a frail and knowing wave…Fear has never left me.” Matt from behind called to us, and we turned around. “Say something,” he urged. “Like what?” I asked. Then he directed one of us to come stand where he was standing, so I walked back and took Matt’s place as he joined Vince. There was a playful leap and a grasp and quick squeeze of Vince’s shoulders that I witnessed. Matt turned around and directed me to “listen.” He turned back around and faced the wall to hold Vince’s hand. I could hear their quieted conversation clearly, and then when they turned around to speak at the same volume, their voices dispersed to an unintelligible level. Then Vince took his turn listening, as Matt and I spoke into the wall.
I could deduce meaning from the acoustic and artistic design of the memorial, but it still wouldn’t explain that for that moment to have occurred it was our appropriate odd number of three, our shape of a slivered triangle that led to that discovery. It took one of us to be apart, to set out alone to encounter the moment, to then come back to tell the other two about it. Certainly, it’s conceivable that the discovery could happen with a larger group, but think of the pairs or trios, think of the noise, think of the multiple bodies scattered and chattering about the town hall, distorting that acoustic secret.
It could be argued that the wall is the ceiling, that your voice is only ever understood in the context of history, facing it, acknowledging it.
The idea for the memorial was first conceived in 1994 by a local group of Holocaust survivors. In 1995, the City of Portland designated a site in Washington Park for the project and the Oregon Holocaust Memorial Coalition (OHMC) was formed. Owned by the American Jewish Committee, designed by Atlas Landscape Architecture and contracted by Walsh Construction Company, the Oregon Holocaust Memorial was dedicated on August 29, 2004.
The City of Portland describes the site as “…a stone bench adorned with wrought-iron gating, screened from the street by rhododendron bushes. The bench sits behind a circular, cobblestoned area - simulating a town square. During the Holocaust, many Jewish families were gathered in town squares before being loaded onto trains and taken to concentration camps. The square contains scattered bronzes of shoes, glasses, a suitcase, and other items to represent everyday objects that were left behind. A European-style, cobblestone walkway with inlaid granite bars, simulating railroad tracks, leads to a wall of history panels - giant, stone placards that offer a brief history of the Holocaust and quotes from Holocaust survivors. At the end of the wall is the soil vault panel. Buried below the panel are interred soil and ash from six killing-center camps of the Holocaust - Chelmno, Treblinka, Sobibor, Belzec, Majdanek, and Auschwitz-Birkenau. The back of the wall is engraved with the names of people who died in the camps, followed by the names of their surviving relatives in Oregon and SW Washington.”