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The Thorney Island Society’s Response to the competition entries for the UK Holocaust Memorial

We are grateful for the chance to comment on the ten competition schemes, but we deeply regret that there was no chance earlier for anybody to comment on the choice of the Victoria Tower Gardens (VTG) as the site for the Memorial and Learning Centre. We know that the UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation (UKHMF) are aware that there is a great deal of dissatisfaction locally and London-wide about the selection of the site, but we are concerned that even now there are many other people locally and elsewhere who may be directly affected by the proposal but who are still completely unaware of it.  The publicity has been limited and there has been very little notice given of exhibitions and meetings. We had little more than a week’s notice of the meeting in the House of Lords on March 2nd, which was haphazardly, seemingly randomly, publicised and we see that the UKHMF website still makes no mention of the touring exhibition that will presumably be starting soon.

We at The Thorney Island Society represent approximately four hundred members, a third of who live in the immediate neighbourhood. Many others have lived or worked in the area in the past. Our remit is to protect the local amenities that people value.

We object to the choice of site for a number of reasons.
It destroys the character of the whole of this small park, now used for safe play and general recreation.
It alters the relationship of the park with the Palace of Westminster, part of a World Heritage Site.
It will create more congestion, both of people and traffic in an already congested area.
The Palace of Westminster is already considered a terrorist target – this will extend the zone requiring extra security measures and installations, which will seriously impinge both on the whole of the park and on surrounding areas.

We are aware that other sites have been considered in the past and that the VTG site was not initially thought suitable. The fact that the UKHMF has been unable to find other sites does not mean that VTG suddenly becomes suitable. We would urge you to explore other options, including reverting to a partnership with the Imperial War Museum, the proximity of which makes the construction of this new Learning Centre doubly absurd. In terms of value for money, we also suggest that the £50m pledged by the government will be ill-spent digging an expensive hole in VTG, and that the money could be better spent enhancing the existing Holocaust education centres around the country.

Below we go into our objections in greater detail. First are our comments on the Key Themes from the Competition Tender brief, with reference to the competition entries, followed by an assessment of how well the competition entries respond to what are the basic requirements of the brief.

The key themes of the Tender Brief in bold, with our observations in regular.

Be an outstanding, ambitious, sensitive design that creates an emotionally
powerful place for reflection and learning.

Be sombre but not shocking; convey the magnitude of what happened in a
meaningful and comprehensible way: give visitors a deeper understanding of the Holocaust and its victims.
These are incompatible with the requirement (p.11) of ‘respecting and preserving the character and existing use of the Gardens as a public park’. The competition entry Computer Generated Images gloss over this incompatibility by showing happy family groups and small children running about – this surely is not appropriate for a Holocaust memorial. In fact local residents and workers will feel uncomfortable using the park for recreation when it is freighted with such a sombre association.  It would go against most people’s instincts to play frisbee, do press-ups, or walk the dog on the green roof of a Holocaust Memorial.

Become a landmark of national significance, highlighting the importance and relevance of the Holocaust to the United Kingdom’s history.
The site is inappropriate for this – it is invisible for much of the year behind trees from the east, invisible from Lambeth Bridge to the south, and without much footfall along the heavily trafficked road on the west.

Establish a place where current and future generations can come to remember the Holocaust and commemorate its victims, and which is also a focal point for annual national commemorations.
Again this use is incompatible with VTG’s use as a green space. The grass would not withstand the number of visitors, especially in shaded areas and around the access points to the Learning Centre.

Affirm the United Kingdom’s commitment to stand up against prejudice and hatred, inspire reflection and compassion, and encourage visitors to respect and embrace difference.
As suggested above, the inspiration to reflection, compassion and respect for the victims of the Holocaust will actually drive away many of the park’s current users.

Combine design, landscaping and place-making to enhance Victoria Tower
Gardens as a public park — improving the visual and sensory experience
of the green space for both visitors and existing users.
There is a fundamental incompatibility between the overlap of the gardens as a public park and the proposed Memorial and Learning Centre, which should be used in a respectful manner, not as a recreational space. The proposal and designs disturb the balance of the availability of open space and re-shapes the gardens from public realm to a civic space, changing its intrinsic character.

There is also the implication in the Brief that the green space, as it currently exists, offers an inadequate visual and sensory experience.  We would totally    
disagree with that — it is granted that the temporary and unattractive Parliamentary Education Centre currently blights the view of the Palace of Westminster, but in due course this will be removed and the breath-taking view, framed by the magnificent plane trees, will be restored. This is enough in this small park and is much valued by all current users.

Be a logical and harmonious addition to the existing memorials in the Gardens, all of which can be viewed as a physical representation of the United Kingdom’s conscience and values.   
There are only two memorials that can seriously be described as ‘physical representations’ of our country’s values. One, the Pankhurst Memorial, commemorates the slow acquisition of female suffrage.  The other is the Buxton Memorial which is well-positioned, well-scaled and serves its purpose as an effective if not particularly emotive reminder of the anti-slavery campaign of Wilberforce etc. Both these celebrate the slow achievement of good things; the Holocaust Memorial does the opposite. Rodin’s Burghers of Calais is, strictly speaking, not a memorial but a sculptural group, which has no more relevance here than it does in the eleven other cities besides Calais where casts can be found. We do not wish to enter a debate about the UK’s conscience and values, but we do want to say that few of the entries pay any reference to the other memorials; and indeed all the entries swamp the other memorials in their scale and ambition.

Address the sensitivities of the historic, political and national importance of the exceptional setting, adjacent to the Palace of Westminster, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the River Thames – and in one of the most visited, and recognisable parts of London.
This is also one of the areas most over-burdened with monuments, as recognized in Westminster City Council’s Monument Saturation Zone policy.

Be widely accessible and communicate to all visitors – regardless of age, faith, background, nationality, language or knowledge of the Holocaust – attracting and involving people outside the established audience.
As the National Holocaust Memorial, this should be addressing and informing British people – it should not be seen as a part of the overseas tourist circuit. For this reason it does not need to be in such a central location, and a location easier for coaches to reach would be far more suitable.

Convey the enormity of the Holocaust and its impact, reflecting the centrality of the destruction of European Jewry to Nazi objectives.
‘Enormity’ does not mean that it warrants an enormous memorial.  The focus should be on teaching, and linkages with existing Holocaust education centres, one of which is less than a mile away.

Appropriately represent the fate of all other victims of Nazi persecutions, Roma, disabled people, Slavs, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, and all other political opponents of the Nazi regime.
We make no comment on the content of the exhibitions

Do the competition entries comply with this flawed brief?

Fulfilling the requirement for a sombre monument, conveying the enormity of the Holocaust
As said above, this is completely incompatible with the use of the gardens as a public park. The appropriate sombreness will overwhelm this small park.  The scale of the monument and learning centre will be such as to colonise the park completely.  The whole park itself will inevitably become the site of the UKHM.  It is disingenuous to suggest that this would be a memorial and learning centre in a park – it would be a park turned into a memorial and learning centre, by the very nature of the park’s size and enclosure; none of the entries avoid this.

Protection of the park for recreational use
We were assured by DCLG in an email of 10.10.16 that ‘Preservation of the park as a public amenity, protecting, as much as possible, the green space and the character of the Gardens is very important and will be emphasised more in the final version of the Tender Brief’. In the event this ‘emphasis’ has been achieved by renaming a sub-heading from ‘Civic Space’ to ‘Public Park’, adding the phrase ‘while respecting and preserving the character and existing use of the Gardens as a public park’, and changing ‘ensure that the Gardens maintain their historic park-like setting and ambience’ to  ‘ensure that the Gardens maintain their historic setting and ambience as a public park’. It has to be said that this was a difficult condition to fulfill and this is reflected in the range of design solutions, some more successful than others, but all, we would argue, changing both the historic setting and the ambience.

However the fundamental problem is that there is also a requirement for the memorial to be a sombre place with space for quiet reflection. None of the designs succeed in showing how a sombre memorial and museum can be combined with a restful and amusing, free and open park. A million visitors a year represents almost 3,000 people a day in the gardens over and above the current usage, totally undermining recreational use.

There is also a real incompatibility between most of the designs and the use of the park by children – as they stand most of the designs ignore the dangers: low walls beside ramps which will be attractive to skateboarders and raised earthworks and roof-forms from which children might fall, to name the most obvious. The final design will have to include precautions against accidents and will involve fences and gates, thus further and radically reducing the area of park remaining.

Protection of the park as a green space
Many of the designs take up too much of the central green space and dominate it – not conserving the character of the gardens.

The grass, especially the sloping landscape features in some of the designs, would not withstand heavy use and in many areas would be reduced to mud, especially in the substantial areas that do not get much sunlight. This would result in large areas of the park being fenced off, to protect the soft landscaping.

There is a fundamental conflict between the requirement to keep the park as open as possible, which draws the monument towards the southern tip, and the fact that the vast majority of visitors will be approaching from the north and will thus walk through the park to the entrance, putting more pressure on the soft landscaping.

There is no provision in any of the schemes for the rather tight security that would be a regrettable necessity for this particular building, and any building adjacent to the Houses of Parliament. Space for queues and airport-style security will further eat into the gardens.

For the above several reasons none of the illustrations for the schemes give an accurate impression of how the park would appear if the Memorial and Learning Centre are built there.

Do any of the designs show how the Learning Centre can be separated from the Memorial, as stipulated in the tender brief?
Generally, they do not. In most of the schemes the entrance to the Learning Centre is through the Memorial structure, or is an integral part of it.

The individual schemes

We have studied the individual schemes with all of the above in mind. None are acceptable, but it is self-evident that some would do more damage to the gardens than others. The most destructive are probably the schemes by Zaha Hadid and Studio Libeskind.