By Korey White
For the holidays I had the privilege to travel to Europe on an AIA Architectural Education Foundation Traveling Scholarship. As many of you know, the AIA EP Blog publishes blog posts from the AEF Scholarship winners periodically. I am working on that post but wanted to create a post about a side trip while it was fresh in my mind. One of the side trips we made was to Auschwitz – Birkenau.
The title of this post is harsh. But so is the place. Auschwitz has a devastating history. It is not a place that has ever served the health, safety and welfare of people. It was built to torture and imprison the innocent. Just to recap, an estimated 2.1-2.5 million people were killed in the gas chambers from 1941 to 1945. I have wanted to visit Auschwitz – Birkenau for some time. Other than being fascinated by WWII, the reason why is inexplicable. It is not a place of beauty. It is not easy to travel to. It is not a place people are excited to see. I was overwhelmed by hundreds of emotions before we ever entered the grounds. Until I visited, I wasn’t sure of the reason why I wanted to visit. But at the memorial commemorating all of those that died on the grounds, it finally made sense this visit was so important. The memorial read:
“For ever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity, where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women, and children, mainly Jews from various countries of Europe.”
The history of this place alone is overwhelming. Architecturally speaking, it defies all that we are taught. This is a place that was created to harm. The system of buildings is complex. It took great thought to develop and shield buildings that housed atrocities we can only imagine in our wildest dreams. It is easy to understand why prisoners were fooled into thinking the situation was temporary, that they might be working in exchange for freedom. The day I visited was quite sunny. It was mild for December and the sun made it comfortable to walk around for a few hours outside. The buildings at Auschwitz were constructed of brick with stone steps and wood floors. If I were to blindly examine the site, I might think it was a Midwest college campus, minus the barbed wire. It isn’t until we entered the barracks that I began to feel the weight of what these buildings were used for programmatically.
Seeing the vast amount of shoes that filled an entire floor, floor to ceiling only started to put into perspective how many prisoners were housed in the confines. However, the two tons of human hair that was then made into war uniforms was the hardest to stomach and was the closest remnant that still remains of those that were imprisoned.
I can only speculate as to how the architects of Auschwitz felt when they designed this place. Those involved in the construction of the concentration camp did so under the Nazi regime that they might not have done otherwise. Visiting places such as Auschwitz is not only a reminder to humanity of what can happen, but it serves as a reminder to architects and the importance of promoting places that do protect the health, safety and welfare of all mankind.