The Physical Effect of Architecture

Over the holidays I traveled to Israel for my Birthright Trip. If you aren’t familiar, Birthright is a free trip for young Jewish adults to take one free trip to Israel between the ages of 18-26. Seeing as my 27th birthday is less than a month away, I managed to get in at the last possible moment.

Needless to a say, a trip like this is a once in a lifetime opportunity. I am sure that most people are familiar with the historical sites of Israel at least through brief history lessons while in school or from respective religious school education. It’s truly amazing to experience places that have existed for more than 2000 years.

Each day of the trip was themed and one of the days focused on the Holocaust, no doubt a vitally important event for the state of Israel. Many of our days consisted of visiting a site and then discussing the history and visit later in a group session. We visited Yad Vashem, the Israel Holocaust Museum designed by Moshe Safdie, the 2015 AIA Gold Medal Winner. It might have been the circumstances surrounding the museum visit and the location of the museum, but architecturally speaking, this was one of the most powerful buildings I have ever visited.

Yad Vashem was designed in a way to provide the visitor with a feeling of physical discomfort throughout the visit. The concrete floor was sloped so that the visitor’s footing was uneven throughout the exhibits. The center hall was constructed of two slanted walls that had a narrow slit of light at the top with each of the exhibits adjacent, but not visible off the center hall.

I have visited many Holocaust memorials. It is a fascinating historical event and one that reminds me of the importance of hope. But it is also a numbing event in the history of our modern world. I feel that after many visits to various memorials, I have become somewhat numb to seeing the travesty that occurred during WWII. Yad Vashem woke me from this numbness and added a third dimension to visiting a Holocaust memorial.

Being the only architecture-trained person on my trip, I was able to help the rest of the group understand why they were experiencing physical discomfort after visiting Yad Vashem. To many, this was the first time they had a knowingly physical relationship with architecture.

After visiting, I spent a lot of time reflecting on this visit and how powerful a single piece of architecture could be. Last year, I had the great honor of seeing Moshe Safdie receive his Gold Medal as well as give a speech. It was powerful but became even more potent of a speech once I visited Yad Vashem.

This Birthright trip was significant in so many ways. Specifically, I did not expect to go to Israel and have a deep connection with the architecture. It is not a country that we spend much time on during Architectural History courses. However, it proves that architectural works cannot stand alone. A physical reaction to architecture exists most when you feel a real connection to the place and events surrounding the building. As I have recently finished up my licensing exams and the licensing process, the timing of this visit is very pertinent to the next steps of my architectural career.

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