Adjaye and Arad’s controversial Holocaust memorial wins approval from U.K. Housing minister

Wrangling In Westminster

Adjaye and Arad’s controversial Holocaust memorial wins approval from U.K. Housing minister

A night-time rendering of Adjaye Associates and Ron Arad Architects’ proposed UK Holocaust Memorial & Learning Center in London’s Victoria Tower Gardens. (Courtesy Adjaye Associates and UK Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Last week on July 29, U.K. Minister of State for Housing Christopher Pincher granted his official approval for the construction of a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust in central London. The commission, which was originally awarded to a partnership between Adjaye Associates and Ron Arad Architects in 2017, has been mired in controversy due to its proposed location in Victoria Tower Gardens, a small triangular park just south of the city’s Palace of Westminster.

The idea to erect a permanent Holocaust memorial in the United Kingdom’s capital can be traced back to 2014, when then-prime minister David Cameron convened the Holocaust Memorial Commission to explore the concept and its feasibility. With help from consultants, 50 potential sites were initially proposed though the UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation considered all to be inadequate. The foundation eventually entertained Victoria Tower Gardens as a possible site for the project and, in 2016, Cameron announced that the memorial would be built in the park.

After a year-long design competition and adjudication process, the entry jointly submitted by British-Ghanaian architect David Adjaye and Israeli designer Ron Arad was selected. The architects’ proposal intends to “retain Victoria Tower Gardens as a public park” and impact as little usable green space as possible. Accordingly, much of the exhibition space for the so-called UK Holocaust Memorial & Learning Center will be situated underground.

The most striking architectural feature of the proposed memorial is a series of 23 bronze fins that protrude upward from the ground, providing passage into the subterranean spaces via integrated stairwells. According to Adjaye Associates, the purpose of the fins is to offer “a sense of intrigue, encouragement, and desire for visitors to find out more.”

an aerial rendering of a long park along the Thames
An aerial rendering shows the bronze fins of the proposed UK Holocaust Memorial & Learning Center cutting through the grass in Victoria Tower Gardens. (Courtesy Adjaye Associates and UK Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Pincher, however, arrived at his decision to give the project the go-ahead despite considerable opposition from various stakeholder agencies, preservationist organizations, and members of the public. Protesters at the unveiling of the design argued that, while the United Kingdom should have a national memorial to the six million victims of the Holocaust, it should not take space from a small, critical green space in the city’s center.

Detractors were soon joined by voices from other parts of the British government, including Royal Parks, which operates Victoria Tower Gardens, and Historic England, which oversees the preservation of much of England’s built heritage. The local branch of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) also objected to the proposed location for the memorial. In April 2019, the designers responded to the criticism by reconfiguring the project’s entry pavilion to be less intrusive on park grounds, though many opponents want the scheme moved to an entirely different site.

In a statement regarding his decision to approve the concept, Pincher referenced the support it has received from the multi-party Holocaust Memorial Commission, as well as the important symbolic message it will send when housed next to the seat of the U.K. parliament. While the memorial’s original 2021 completion date was, obviously, delayed due to debates over its siting, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the dissolution of parliament in late 2019, there are hopes that it can be finished before many of the nation’s Holocaust survivors pass away. 

If implemented, Adjaye and Arad’s design would be the first major national holocaust memorial in the United Kingdom. In a statement to AN, Adjaye himself contended that the addition to Westminster’s architectural landscape will offer immeasurable benefits to the British public:

“We are profoundly relieved and appreciative of the government’s decision to move forward with the Holocaust Memorial & Learning Centre in Victoria Tower Gardens. Our entire team has been driven by the conviction that this memorial & learning centre is a crucial civic asset for Britain’s future generations—that there is a paramount importance in a society acknowledging its mistakes. Today’s decision is a huge milestone in bringing this project to reality.”