In the memory of the horrendous murder of 65,000 Austrian Jews in the holocaust, the Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial rests in Judenplatz, Vienna. Designed by one of the leading artists of her time, Rachel Whiteread, the 10mX7mX3.8m sized memorial is the Expressionist sculpture that screams brutality and timelessness, yet, simultaneously invites you to feel the space. One can feel the void—unspoken and still. Quite literally, that feel is harrowing. Contrasting the Baroque art and architecture of Vienna, the memorial is not intended to be beautiful as a piece of art—its presence itself gives an aspect of discomfort and thought-provoking in the minds of the visitors.
The nature of abstraction of the Holocaust Memorial can be better understood by first, knowing the linguistic aspect behind it. The significance of signs and the relationship of architecture with language can be understood best by using—Charles Sanders Peirce’s three types of signs namely: Symbol, Sign, and Index.
C.S. Peirce, an American philosopher, logician, mathematician, and scientist, is known as the father of pragmatism. (According to Britannica: Within linguistics, “pragmatics” refers to the subfield that studies the relation of the language-user to the words or other signs being used.) Peirce’s Sign Theory (or Semiotic) is considered a chronicle of signification, representation, reference, and meaning. His work is distinctive for seizing the significance of interpretation.
The memorial is a closed, inaccessible, windowless room. That is a library sitting on a wide plinth with doors and shelves cast in concrete. But the walls are somehow fallen away, only leaving its traces and the casts of nameless books, which are now, turned inside of the unapproachable room.
According to Peirce, the first sign is SYMBOL, and to do its work as a sign-it requires an interpreter. Let us first understand the two basic ideas of seeing things: Denotation and connotation. Denotation is seeing the object as it is. It literally is what it is! While connotation is not what it is. When we want to build an idea, a metaphor, or suggest something else—it helps us designers to communicate complex ideas through this. Say an apple which is eaten a bite, and a hand is laid out beside it, suddenly tells a larger story. That’s creating narratives and giving extra information, without actually describing the whole story. These can look like a puzzle to understand. That is the essence of the symbol as a sign.
In this case, the memorial symbolizes the harsh and horrendous stories of the past. It is as if set in brutal concrete, with no sympathetic lines, and closed doors (with no handle or hinges), the memorial yearns for silence, muteness, memories, and eternity. With a stark representation, books as a symbol are used to showcase or rather as the carrier of the histories and stories of the past. Also, how can one be able to read a closed book? Why are these books not named? Why an inverted library? Many more such questions can be asked. What is significant is to understand this unsaid architectural vocabulary.
This nameless library as a sealed room of closed books symbolizes a large number of victims of the brutal holocaust and tells the untold stories of victims’ lives buried within them. The namelessness is an attempt to describe that can not be described or is not even readable. The sealed shut doors are the metaphor for the conclusion, closure, and that of—finality.
Just like you immerse yourself in the books and revisit the era of the past, this sculpture is a place where memories happen, needless to say, these are sad. And it also doesn’t console, rather it is intended to evoke the memories of the tragedy and brutality of the holocaust. From the religious perspective, the memorial provides an appreciation of Judaism: The concept of Jews as People of the Book (not to other Abrahamic religions), referring to an identity specifically rooted in the Torah.
The second sign, INDEX: the direct trace of the effect of an object on another. Say, for example, if smoke is coming out of somewhere, it would be an index for fire. Unlike a symbol, it doesn’t require an interpreter. In fact, the trace of an index is always a material trace—either visible or acoustic. For the memorial, showing it as an inaccessible library is more than enough to say: this place holds the stories of some unforgotten past. The trace is visually present.
The construction material used, i.e., the less-porous concrete that appears fresh but slight imperfections are intentionally made to make books look used—discolored edges of the pages are weathered with age. It gives the sculpture, you can say, a sort of sorry appearance.
The third sign, ICON: can be explained as it simply looks like the thing it represents. Here, the shape of the memorial is made to resemble a bunker. The style of the structure echoes the military bunkers of World War II, thus, reminding of the war and holocausts. So, it’s quite obvious that it reflects just that.
Thus, insofar analyzing the signs as a language to represent architecture that speaks to this vast landscape-like extent, shows the memorial’s position—in saying that—it is definitely the plethora of signs.