Building home for memory: Rainer Mahlamäki and his works on Jewish heritage

How to Build the Life Disappeared?

For those working in memorial architecture, the matter of place and space around it means much more than a technical requirement for a project.

The Finnish maestro of architecture Rainer Mahlamäki has quite strong point of feeling the space — especially so with regard to museums, and further on, in particular, regarding the museums dealing with history. “I believe, and I feel, that any museum of history would not succeed as a building out of the context of the space,” says Professor Mahlamäki. “I have had that experience with POLIN (the Museum of History of Polish Jews in Warsaw), and it is fundamental that the building is a part, continuation and reflection, all at the same time, of the place where it stays. Every time when I am coming to POLIN, and I do it regularly and quite often, the sensation of the fact that the museum stands in the very heart of the Warsaw Ghetto, makes me feel special. Now, with POLIN staying there, the much needed, and never occurred before dialogue of that so utterly tragic — and heroic — place with the reflections that we are having at the place today.”

Architect Rainer Mahlamäki at the ground-breaking ceremony for The Lost Shtetl Museum in Seduva, Lithuania. May 2018. (Inna Rogatchi)

Professor Mahlamäki is quite right. POLIN is visited by 1,5 million people from all over the world, and all those reflections indeed are connected to the place of where POLIN stays.

Recently, in the debate ignited by the outrageous law in Poland which aims to censor the narrative of Holocaust, well-known Polish artist and intellectual Dr Patricia Dolowy wrote: “All my life, I am living in Muratow, and after the war, there was no life there, just huge, overwhelming, haunting emptiness. Until the moment when the POLIN building had been erected there. The life, the sense, the feelings, all of it that has been whipped away so cruelly and so finally, had returned to us.”

I am thinking about this essence, the very sense of making the museum, of erecting the building also in Seduva, Lithuania, by the same architect who related his heart to his creations, in his customary under-stated manner. The design for The Lost Shtetl complex of building is stunning. It is as if it is coming from a dream. “How else one can relate the main message for this project? — tells the architect — the one on the life gone, disappeared, the life that had been so vibrant and full.”

Mahlamäki is saying that after being invited to design The Lost Shtetl, he was facing a serious challenge. “How do you create the building, a complex of buildings that would be telling, visually so too, on something that existed in a full measure, to be whipped from the face of the earth in no time and with such cruelty? It must be a dream, and there must be a light, I thought. Actually, the landscape of Seduva has defined a lot for me in  the project. That landscape with its plain serenity and greenery is quite similar to the Finnish landscape that I feel in detail. Light has been crucial for me as for the artist in all my buildings; but for the project like that, light has become an essential element of the design,” shares the author of The Lost Shtetl.

The Lost Shtetl Museum & Memorial Complex designed by Prof. Rainer Mahlamäki. (ARKLM, Finland)

What Rainer Mahlamäki has created as the result of his intense search for the right outcome for The Lost Shtetl  is a complex of buildings that reminds Fellini’s images in his immortal films: it is the reality which is born from a dream, and which embodies a dream. It is gentle and loving, and it is very harmonious. It is like one remembers one’s family from a distance of years: the further on, the more gentle these memories are.

I saw all five Mahlamäki’s projects on memorial architectures, three of them on the Jewish history and Holocaust, one on the Siege of Leningrad and another one on the embodiment of evil, the Documentation Centre-Museum of the Nazional-Socialism in Munich. Every time, I was deeply impressed by the degree of tact which the master has put into his projects.

In the case of POLIN, the Museum of the History of the Polish Jews in Warsaw, the great  Finnish architect has come with the idea of a splitted sea inside the building, and with placing the laconic, and enigmatic, to the certain degree, building in the heart of the place of the Warsaw Ghetto. From the ongoing conversations with the master architect of the memorial architecture, I have noticed that although the POLIN building had been staying in Warsaw for four years by now, the sensation of deep personal attachment to the place of his masterpiece is still felt strong by Rainer Mahlamäki. He returns to Warsaw repeatedly, he always finds something to check and improve on the building, he likes the people who are running POLIN. They are great people and great team, many of them the friends of mine, as well. I have an impression that built POLIN has become a magnet for its author. And it is very special and very rewarding phenomena in the pragmatic world of the modern architecture of today.

POLIN, the Museum of Polish Jews, Warsaw. (ARKLM, Finland)

Even from a short time perspective of just four years since the POLIN opening, we can see how vital the building of POLIN — and the POLIN Museum in principle — has become, both in general, and in particular, in the context of the alarming development in Poland today, regarding its absurd, but state promoted historical revisionism.

The Mahlamäki’s project for the UK National Holocaust Memorial and Educational Centre in London was shortlisted in a stellar company of the best world architects. It is completely different from his building for POLIN, and it does open the Doors of Impossible, using a water pool as a soft and endlessly reflecting background of the bottomless and so unique in every case drama that is the essence of the Holocaust and our memory of it. I have to tell that one can very rarely find such harmonious marriage between deep philosophic meaning and its elegant resolve in the architecture of today which in general fancies brutality and the grotesque.

Project for the UK National Holocaust Memorial & Educational Centre, London. (ARKLM, Finland)

The Requiem project for the Leningrad Siege Museum in St Petersburg shows a stunning building with incredibly sensitive understanding of the tragedy occurred in the besieged city during the WWII. No wonder that the project has won the public vote in St Petersburg. The people there were overwhelmed by the architect’s vision, his understanding, and his empathy. And it is there when Rainer Mahlamäki has said to the journalists who were asking him on how did he come to such stunning resolution for the future museum: “Compassion has no nationality.”

Project for The Siege of Leningrad museum in St Petersburg. (ARKLM, Finland)

Which is absolutely true. But there is one thing to read about it in a history books, and another to witness it in a real life. And in the projects which would be standing as a physical embodiment of this simple thesis for decades to come.

In the case of the project for The Lost Shtetl, never boasting about it, Rainer Mahlamäki was scrupulously attentive to the detail of his building from the point of view of its closeness to the Jewish authenticity and tradition. I would not even know about it at this stage of the project unless I would read some professional description of the project: “… such and such details are resolved in this way in reminding of the traditional Jewish way of cover roofs of buildings in shtetls.” Not only the architect produces the shape of his buildings in respect and commemorating the tradition of the people that had been whipped away in the mostly cruel way; but he is not boasting about it. It tells you about the person’s character, his depth and his attitude to life. In the case of Rainer Mahlamäki, it truly is a rare phenomenon.

The Lost Shtetl interior. Drawing by the architect prof. Rainer Mahlamäki. (ARKLM, Finland)

In the case of his buildings on memorial architecture, we and the future generations are really lucky to have as our contemporary the master whose buildings and interior design there, are not aimed to be dominating, pressing people for whatever reason, but to be very human, deep and understanding efforts to rebuild the life destroyed. In its small detail, in its laconic approach in which real love always speaks, or, as Elie Wiesel would say, would keep its silence in the way and at the level which is above speech. To create the space for reflections and thoughts, the space for memory to become living and breathing one. To make a home for it.

Lithuania — Finland

May – June 2018.

About the Author
Inna Rogatchi is internationally acclaimed writer, scholar and film-maker, the author of widely prized film on Simon Wiesenthal The Lessons of Survival. Her professional trade-mark is inter-weave of history, culture and mentality. She is the author of the concept of the Outreach to Humanity cultural and educational projects conducted internationally by The Rogatchi Foundation of which Inna is the co-founder and President. She is the wife of the world renowned artist Michael Rogatchi. Inna's family is related to the famous Rose-Mahler musical dynasty. Her professional interests are focused on Jewish heritage, Holocaust and post-Holocaust, arts and culture. She is twice laureate of the Italian Il Volo di Pegaso Italian National Art, Literature and Music Award, the Patmos Solidarity Award, and the New York Jewish Children's Museum Award for Outstanding Contribution into the Arts and Culture (together with her husband).
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