Exhibit of Auschwitz architectural documents a haunting experience
The Evidence Room, a haunting installation that summarizes a forensic analysis of the architecture of Auschwitz, was recently on view at Carleton University’s Azrieli School of Architecture and Urbanism.
The exhibit, which has been called a silent witness to “the greatest crime ever committed by architects,” was on view from January 12 until February 16 in the school’s Lightroom Gallery. It features more than 20 white plaster casts of documents that historian Robert Jan van Pelt introduced as evidence in a libel case in London, England, in 2000 when notorious Holocaust denier David Irving sued historian Deborah Lipstadt and her publisher, Penguin Books.
Van Pelt’s compelling testimony was key to the outcome of the case, proving that Auschwitz was purposefully designed as a death camp. The plaster casts are a reminder of architecture’s complicity.
Zachary Colbert, a practising architect, educator and Practitioner in Residence at Carleton University, guided Centre of Holocaust Education and Scholarship (CHES) members Judy Young, Batia Winer, Muriel Korngold Wexler, Sheila Robertson and friend Jennifer Zelmer through the exhibit.
The Evidence Room, which was created by van Pelt along with professors Anne Bordeleau and Donald McKay of the University of Waterloo School of Architecture, and independent arts producer Sascha Hastings, has also been shown in 2016 at the Venice Biennale and the Canadian Centre for Architecture, and in 2017 at the Royal Ontario Museum.
“The intent of the architects who designed and constructed Auschwitz-Birkenau is rendered plainly and clearly in the form of white plaster casts of drawings, photographs, and correspondences,” Colbert explained.
The replicas and casts consist of such architectural evidence as a gas column and a gas-tight hatch – both for the introduction of poison into the gas chambers – a gas chamber door, blueprints, architects’ letters, contractors’ bills and photographs. Taken together, they provide proof that Auschwitz was a purposefully designed factory of death, equipped with large, homicidal gas chambers and massive incinerators.
“As an orphaned child survivor whose close family did not return from Auschwitz, I found the Evidence Room strangely affecting,” said CHES member Judy Young.
She said that the exhibit presents “a deceptively discreet, minimalist, antiseptic-in-its-whiteness space as you enter.”
“At first you see nothing, except what looks like blank white canvases on the white walls. Get up close to see, and you grasp the evidence of carefully planned and executed mass murder: architectural drawings and plans with dates and instructions for building the gas chambers, prisoner huts, and crematoria; documents about Zyklon B gas; detailed drawings showing the gas chamber door opening out of the chamber.”
She said plans show the redesign of the chamber door – originally the door opened into the chamber, but was difficult to open because of the dead bodies piled up against it.
“One does not need the graphic images…. These understated images in cold plaster are meant to remain permanent in contrast to paper documents and drawings which decay or are lost.
“This is lasting evidence ‘carved in Stone’ of horror and inhumanity – but you have to look carefully and let it sink in.”