The little we’ve seen of the migrant detention centers along our southern border suggests that they are a disposable architecture, temporary and provisional. They are mere shells of buildings, sometimes no more than tents full of chain-link cages and barren concrete holding cells. When the crisis is over, perhaps they will mostly disappear, along with the painful shock to the American conscience of unattended children crying in despair as grim-faced politicians tour what are effectively American concentration camps.
A small but powerful exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum, however, challenges the idea that any of this will go away and asserts the power of architectural memory against the forces of oblivion or indifference. First seen at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2016, “The Evidence Room” is full of white plaster casts, some of them low-relief images of Nazi-era documents and photographs, others life-size reproductions of architectural and design elements essential to the operation of the gas chambers at Auschwitz. The installation is based on the research of its co-creator, Robert Jan van Pelt, who marshaled architectural details to discredit a prominent Holocaust denier’s claims in a famous libel case in London in 2000.
Van Pelt has called the design and making of Auschwitz “the greatest crime ever committed by architects,” and “The Evidence Room” provides a clear sense of how architects were involved and why they were needed. Killing people on an industrial scale required an industrial apparatus, which meant not just gas chambers and crematoria, but also thousands of small decisions about how those buildings would function. Would doors open inward or outward? How would guards see into the gas chambers? How would the gas pellets be delivered into the killing rooms?
By gathering that kind of evidence — gleaned from the testimony of survivors, architectural drawings and plans, and physical evidence the Nazis failed to destroy as Soviet forces approached the camps in late 1944 — van Pelt made Auschwitz tangible, and its place in history irrefutable. “The Evidence Room” reproduces some of this material — including the door of a gas chamber — in white plaster, a material with a long history in museums, including as the preferred medium for casts of classic statues from Ancient Greece and Rome. The plaster is ghostly but also comes with the morally fraught resonance of being pure and hallowed, a medium that seems to set truth before our eyes like the images on a Wedgewood vase, the frieze on a classical temple, or a spotless laboratory full of glass and metal glinting under bright light.
The architectural details, including a ladder and door for delivering gas pellets and a metal tube with wire mesh that defused the gas, foreground the idea of intentionality: Someone designed, planned and made these things for a specific purpose. Holocaust deniers will claim that legitimate historians misinterpret the purpose or function of an architectural space, that an underground gas chamber was, for example, just an air raid shelter. But by focusing on purely functional details, the curators of “The Evidence Room” draw the visitor ever deeper into the grim realities of a killing factory.
The door reproduced here originally opened inward when the room was used as a morgue. But when it was a gas chamber, the door had to be retrofitted to open outward because there were thousands of bodies blocking it from swinging into the room. And the wire mesh cage on the inside of the door covering the glass peep hole? That was necessary to prevent the victims from breaking the glass as they fought against panic, the pain of the gas and their imminent deaths.
The chain of these details also leads the visitor to the enduring and searing shame of Nazi genocide: that much of German society was mobilized to perpetrate it and that it could not have happened without innumerable small but vital contributions from seemingly ordinary people. Contemplation of this heavy wooden door, with massive sliding-bar locks and reinforced with metal, leads inexorably to a visceral realization of exactly what it meant to “just follow orders.” Architects, designers, craftsmen, workers, metal fabricators and other laborers all participated in making these spaces function. Some of these actors had more choice in the matter than others. Too many, though, especially at the organizational end of the production process, knew exactly what they were doing. They used their skills and talents to get a job done, and that job was killing millions of people.
“The Evidence Room” arrives in Washington at a critical moment in the degradation of America. The United States is operating detention centers on its southern border that are dangerously crowded, unhealthy and inhumane, according to independent observers. Cells meant for 40 men now hold more than 80, according to a report by the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general. Inmates held for weeks in standing-room-only cells press desperate notes to the windows when visitors come to see the horrific conditions in which they are captive.
Children, many imprisoned long after legal time limits on their detention, show signs of malnutrition, dehydration and psychological trauma. The United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, who is also a pediatrician, has deplored the centers, saying they “may constitute cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment that is prohibited by international law,” according to a U.N. statement.
“The Evidence Room” implicates architects, and those who execute their designs, in the mass murder of the Nazi era. Its visual indictment of cruel but functional architecture is particularly poignant as an American humanitarian crisis is intentionally exacerbated and politicized, as organizations such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement are made instruments not of state power, but of the personal ideology of President Trump and his anti-immigrant advisers. As we learn that Border Patrol agents routinely expressed overt racism in social media groups, the message of “The Evidence Room” is particularly bracing — and empowering. The atrocities committed by the Nazis are orders of magnitude worse than what is happening at the southern border today. But watching this country set up a complex and largely inaccessible network of detention facilities, while its political leaders animate racist discourse, makes a careful comparison of the two carceral regimes not only meaningful, but necessary.
Despite resistance to such comparisons, including by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (the “Museum unequivocally rejects efforts to create analogies between the Holocaust and other events”), the points of contact are manifold. There is a consistent vilification of the “other,” including American citizens, elected representatives and people of color who were born in this country. There is a conflation of lies and truth to create a miasma of misinformation, and a stoking of racial and religious grievance to solidify political animosities. And, equally as troubling, there is a personalization of politics and power at the executive level. The detention centers themselves are not just a response to an increase in migrant arrivals and asylum seekers, but also a key tool in terrifying and dissuading the politically dispossessed and refugees from seeking haven in this country.
“The Evidence Room,” however, encourages the audience to go beyond such political comparisons, between one of the most murderous regimes in the history of mankind and a democratic country that faces a mortal crisis of its own professed values. Instead, it reasserts the long arc of memory and flashes a warning to those who participate in inhumane state policies. History is reconstructed from shards, scraps and disparate pieces, and though conscience may fail a society in the moment, it will inevitably be reasserted in the long run.
Among other things, the Hirshhorn exhibit encourages us to ask: Who made these gray detention rooms in which Vice President Pence stood, in his khakis and dark blazer, while unwashed men crowded up to stick their fingers through the chain-link fences? Who laid the concrete floors and benches upon which they struggle to find space to sleep, with no bedding, blankets or pillows? Who installed the industrial-size roll-up metal doors and fixed an unintentionally sardonic “Exit” sign seen just behind Pence, as the president’s foremost apologist stood ashen-faced, staring straight ahead, seemingly not focusing on anything at a facility that was apparently so foul smelling that it nauseated visitors?
All of these are markers of intentionality, albeit small ones when compared with the businesses that directly profit from the more than $2 billion that ICE spends on private jails for migrants. “The Evidence Room” reminds us that seemingly small details can implicate seemingly neutral actors long after they have participated in an event, and with almost as much as power as the direct testimony of survivors. It invites us to look closely, and with forensic determination, at the mundane, trivial and functional. It encourages witnesses to gather and preserve the minutiae of how human cruelty is practiced because these details can have explosive power when the past is re-created and held up to the excoriating light of more humane and rational judgment.
Many of the Nazi documents reproduced in fine plaster along the walls of “The Evidence Room” resemble printing plates. One can imagine wiping ink over their raised lines and surfaces and pressing a piece of paper hard against them until an image formed. If they were made of copper, one could do this again and again, sending out numerous copies of documents that were never meant to be preserved.
Who knows how many people, today, are participating and abetting things that they might, in private, deplore and deeply regret? The dark and liberating subtext of “The Evidence Room” should give them pause, for it suggests that history has a way of replicating itself, transmitting its truth and implicating its actors across the ages, sometimes through something as simple as a door latch.