By Inna Rogatchi
The First Finlandia Prize for Architecture
In the end of 2014, my husband Michael and I were positively surprised: the first ever Finlandia ( the Finnish National Award for achievements in culture) Prize for Architecture was awarded to Rainer Mahlamäki and his team for their project of the POLIN Museum of the History of the Polish Jews in Warsaw, Poland. I remember vividly how Michael and I immediately wrote to the superb Finnish intellectual Sixten Korkman who had decided on the Prize that year thanking him for such elegant decision. And I also remember the Sixten’s reply in which he was sharing with us his ‘joy to be able to decide and to award the really best Finnish architect of our time for his outstanding international project”.
Certainly, the very fact that the Finnish state has recognised the one of the country’s finest architects for his overwhelming memorial to a dignified memory to be staying on the Polish soil for ever, was a thoroughly positive and deeply meaningful act. I just have to mention that to chose the best architect among the Finnish colleagues of Rainer Mahlamäki is somewhat similar of trying to choose the best performing musician in Israel. The field is overcrowded with able professionals, and the culture of architecture has mighty tradition, superb craft , and is highly developed in the country.
Remarkably, the Finnish architect Mahlamäki’s is the author of several outstanding projects on the Jewish history, its drama and its tragedies, and the related narrative of the modern history. The geography of those project is impressive and meaningful: additionally to Poland, it is Lithuania, the United Kingdom, Germany and Russia.
During the last decade, from 2008 onward, Rainer Mahlamäki is looking into the depth of the Jewish history intensely. The outcome of his thoughts and artistic vision is an array of distinct, ‘speaking’ buildings and projects . Each of those projects is characterised by the elegance of its aesthetic, uniqueness of its forms, and its appealing beauty. But there is also something special which can be found it his history-related architecture: his vision of a master expresses certain philosophy, and it puts the business of modern architecture into the dimension of humanism. Unusual qualities in our times. And the phenomenon worthy of its close examination, to me.
How To Build In The Middle Of A Ghetto? The Victory Of The POLIN Museum
I know several people whose families are originally from Poland and who did suffer a tragic destruction because of the Holocaust. Those people swore to themselves never to put a foot onto the Polish soil. They just could not touch it. It is, actually, quite well known phenomenon similar to the inability of many Jewish people , even in the third generation, to find themselves in Germany or to speak German.
You never know how the Holocaust and the war trauma in general affects individually. My mom, for the matter, who was a talented linguist speaking several languages, Polish and French including, had been affected as a child by the war and the Holocaust in the very spot where her talent laid. For her, the ultimate horror of the Holocaust and the war was exemplified in the German language. She was wounded by the sound of German speech till the rest of her life – similarly to the people who were refusing to visit Poland and who were terrified by a thought of stepping their feet onto the soil where their families were annihilated. Until the appearance of the POLIN museum in the heart of the Warsaw Ghetto in 2013.
“ After experiencing POLIN, we can, we are able to visit now the places where our families lived in Poland, for the first time in all these more than 70 years after the war, when our mother and her family were there for the last time” – our American friend has told us.
POLIN as the museum, and yet more importantly, as the fact of the recognition of the Polish Jewry has unique meaning for thousands of people all over the world. When I was coming to the POLIN to participate in the important international conference on the Jewish Cultural Heritage in the summer 2016, I was thinking on that importance in the light of the phrase on Poland which Simon Wiesenthal with whom we were friendly for a long time, has told me once: “After the end of the war, the Americans suggested to me that they would arrange for me to return home. “Home?”- I’ve asked them. “What home? Poland? It is a cemetery to me”. Simon and his wife Cyla has lost 89 members of their combined family in the Holocaust, and were left alone, just two of them.
It was Wiesenthal’s colleague, our dear friend Marian Turski, the legendary Jewish Polish and European intellectual and humanist, the chairman of POLIN museum who has put his heart into the quasi-dramatic task of erecting the museum of the history of the people who were once prominent in the country and who were annihilated there with unprecedented enthusiasm, to the shocking degree of 90% of the population. Marian was among those very rare survived Jews and intellectuals who did not leave Poland after the war although at certain stage his bags were packed for Israel, too.
Many people have asked that superb writer and very fine man on why did he stay in Poland, and many times Turski was telling them on his bond to the Polish culture and people there. But then, in 2013, when the building of POLIN was well in progress on the ground in the heart of the Warsaw ghetto, then 89-year-old maitre of letters and public diplomacy, born Moshe Turbowicz, has told so very simply as only an ultimate truth can be told: “My father and my brother, they had no grave and no memorial. And now, after all my long life, it seems that they will have it’. I never saw my dear always self-composed friend Moshe more emotional. I was crying with him.
I learned not to cry at the places where my people were annihilated. There are too many places like that in Europe, the shocking legacy of the Holocaust.
I had been in the places of many Jewish ghettos in Poland countless number of times. I was researching and filming there, was walking and reflecting. I did not cry for once. In 2016, during visiting POLIN and examining the museum thoroughly during several days of the international conference which I was addressing, I did not cry either.
But after my return from Warsaw, after that deep submerging into the milieu of the Jewish dramatic history in Poland, I did cry for a few days days non-stop. And the fact of the museum’s, the building’s location certainly had had to do with it. It was like a place of the magnet which was laid in the centre of the Tragedy and which attracted thoughts, memories and emotions far beyond the actual place and time.
Architect Rainer Mahlamäki and his team were facing the unique challenge, additionally to so many other major issues when they have started to work on the building which would become the one of the most praised museum buildings in the world. There were not less than 150 proposals for the project coming from all over the world, including all famous modern architects. The winner has become the Finnish project by Rainer Mahlamäki .
“The work on the POLIN museum did open a new line in my professional career – Rainer Mahlamäki have told me during the one of many of our conversations. – The theme dictated a principally different approach in creating an architectural project as such. The character of the crime which had been committed against the Jewish people and which had been of so overwhelming proportion in Poland and in Warsaw, in my understanding dictated a new kind of approach. The approach in which an allegory would become the main ‘tool’, the main way of expression”.
Rainer Mahlamäki has also told me that although he had been quite well aware with the history of the WWII, when he started to work on such demanding and big task as POLIN, he realised that his knowledge on that part of the WWII “was close to zero”. So, he has read everything that he could on the theme, to start to work on the museum telling the one of the most rich and tragic history of the modern history.
I am sure that it is because of that knowledge, the willingness to have it and ‘to process’ it, so to say, within himself, the great Finnish architect came to the conclusion which is the principal for understanding of his work on history-connected projects, in particular : “The main thing in creating the buildings and spaces which are embodiment of history, in my opinion, is a feeling of the space. And in this sense, my main objective as of an architect is to create the atmosphere” ,- says Mahlamäki.
He creates it by various means: by folding and unfolding walls in unusual way of building up curves; but opening constructions making up open ends literally; by giving to a light a special role in his buildings; even by inventing new materials for his projects, notably.
Creation of an atmosphere is an extremely challenging task, undoubtedly. An architect should be fully knowledgeable on the subject; he has to find a fine and precise balance for his expressive language. He has to be understanding, respectful, tactful when he deals with such theme in particular; and his work has to be elegant, appealing and modern. How to achieve all these criteria?
Mahlamäki found the answer in the philosophy of what he was doing : “ I was searching for the key message which would become the main metaphor of the essence of the POLIN building and which would also work as its main narrative, helping to generate all the ideas, images, and metaphors there” – tells Rainer. – “And I knew that it would be modern creative language of abstract art in which that idea would be expressed”.
What was the idea? That key which in fact opens the huge space of the POLIN Museum in such appealing way that a visitor has an impression that it had been there always, that around you is very natural environment.
The idea was the Splitting of the Sea. When talking about it, Mahlamäki is smiling and in typical for him under-stated way is saying that ‘it was, probably, quite obvious idea’. It well might be, I think, – but only if one is trying to understand the core of the Jewish history, and also the principle of making choices in Jewish tradition in the way the Finnish architect did.
I know that the people who are working at the POLIN Museum which had been awarded as the Best Museum in the world in 2016 and by many other spectacular awards all the time since its opening in 2013, are working there with a real pleasure, and the qualities of that outstanding building has a lot to do with their uplifted and highly motivated way of work.
The museum attracts millions of visitors who all are given a special tour on the POLIN architecture, so people would understand, or feel, or both, the very important philosophical message of its architect: “Inside POLIN, the space is organised in the way that it is not only plays background to the narrative of the perpetually dramatic history of the Polish Jewry and the unspeakable tragedy of the Holocaust; but it also enters the future for our lives despite all the tragedy”, – tells Rainer Mahlamäki.
Over the rubbles of the Brown House: Documentation Centre for the History of National Socialism, Munich
Importantly, Rainer Mahlamäki’s journey into the depth of the Jewish history and related matters did not end with the completion of the POLIN Museum in Warsaw. The next year after the start of his and his team’s work on the POLIN, the Finnish architect and his bureau had completed the project for the Documentation Centre for the History of National-Socialism in Munich, for which they were awarded a prize in Germany.
The peculiarity of that project was laying in the fact that the place for that building was also highly historical. The museum which was opened in 2015, was built on the place of the notorious Brown House in Munich, which was the head-quarter of the Nazis from 1931 until it had been bombed by the Allies in 1945, and where Hitler kept his office during all that time.
The Nazi fuhrer had a strong personal attachment to the place. He had personally participated in the drastic re-decoration of the Brown House in early 1930s, fulfilling his inclination to be ‘an artist’; there in his office he kept the life-size portrait of the one of his rare contemporary heroes, Henry Ford. In one word, the Nazi-in-Chief did love the place.
In mid-2000s, the Bavarian government had made their mind, finally, on what they would like to do with that infamous Nazi spot in the middle of the city, and they called the international competition for quite comprehensive museum . The Finnish Lahdelma & Mahlamäki bureau took a part in the competition, as they did in many other architectural contests in Germany, very often with notable results.
In his approach to that very complicated task, Mahlamäki followed the similar outline in his thinking and philosophy which he did almost at the same time while working on his star POLIN project: while fully recognising all the horror of the place which had been the main headquarters of the Nazis all through the existence of that incarnation of evil on the Earth, the architect had created the decision for the building that would allow a visitor to breath there, not to be suffocated by horror. That building was multifunctional, airy, but not too light. The project did come out as a harsh structure which was reflecting the merciless machinery of the National-Socialism, a giant machinery which was prevailing over a life, which was meant to crush a human being.
There is no surprise that Mahlamäki’s project for the Munich museum had been awarded with the jury’s prize.
When I was telling about that his project to a hundred leaders of the veteran organisations in St Petersburg who had been gathered for the presentation of the finalists’ projects for the new Siege Museum in St Petersburg, they were deeply impressed by the fact. They got it immediately that the man who was so seriously and successfully worked on the project of the museum of the history of National Socialism in Germany, must know a thing or two about the Second World War. Their attitude towards the Finnish project for their city has changed notably on the spot.
“Compassion Has No Nationality”: Requiem, the Siege of Leningrad Museum
I was very glad that I had an opportunity in September 2017 to be a part of the presentation of that extra-ordinary project in St Petersburg. When I saw that new project in the Lahdelma & Mahlamäki office in Helsinki in the summer of 2017, I was stunned.
I was stunned by Rainer and his team’s understanding of the way in which Russian people, and Jewish ones among them, do feel regarding the Siege of Leningrad. As I wrote in my articles on that project, my family had direct and special connection with the WWII and with the Siege of Leningrad in particular.
Two of my great-uncles were outstanding Soviet scientists whose contribution into the principal battle of the Allies against Nazi Germany had been unique and essentially important. Solomon Bujanover was the top military scientist who had invented, among the other things, the precise bombing and its mechanisms. Solomon Elovitch was the member of super-secretive five-strong team of the leading Soviet scientists who were landed to Hiroshima within an hour after the nuclear explosion there in August 1945, to work in the epicentre of the explosion.
The brother of my beloved great-grandfather Meir, Falk Chigrinsky was outstanding Soviet physician, the one of the pioneers of pulmonology. Before and during the WWII, he was the head of the children’s department of the Leningrad Pulmonology Institute and the head of the children’s tuberculosis sanatorium.
Obviously, sick children has become the most vulnerable ‘subjects’ of the Siege of Leningrad. Having the opportunity to leave the city, Falk and his wife Maria opted to stay there with their little patients. They did save them all in an unique human exploit. Falk’s own heart stopped on the evening of May 9th, 1945, under the sounds of the Victory salute in Leningrad. He was 60 years old.
I was thinking on my great-uncle seventy two years later while looking on the Mahlamäki’s Requiem project. There was no surprise that the Finnish Requiem was selected first to the short-list of nine participants among 40 submitted international projects, and then it was selected to the four finalists list of the winners by the jury.
Looking and thinking on the Finnish Requiem, I was astounded by the sensitivity and insight of its authors. I was thinking and later told about it publicly, in Russia at the presentation of the Finnish project to the leaders of the Russian veteran organisations: “The people who are not Russians, do not live that life, and have not being exposed or become subjects of the Russian recent history, were able to feel and to express the very essence of the feeling which comes to Russian people with regard to the Siege of Leningrad, with astonishing authenticity”.
One can see in this project that special, typical Petersburg-like modesty, that crucial laconism of feeling, that contented unlimited tragedy which has been expressed with both dignity and intelligence. And beauty, too.
The form and colours of the opened spiral projects that special Petersburg dimension. The building’s reflection in the Neva river makes the project double-expressive.
“How did he do it?” – I was thinking about Rainer Mahlamäki. But then I have realised that it seemed to be a wrong question. The right question was: “How did they, Rainer and his team, feel that way? How did he sensed those complex emotions, all inter-weaned and melted into the one?”
I was thinking: “Had he dreamed that sorrow spiral which is opened, still, expressing beautifully that characteristic for the Mahlamäki’ the Open End-philosophy?
Where from, under the accompaniment of which music, and after seeing of which photographs, did he find that astounding balance between tragedy and hope? How on earth could he measure the emotional temperature that both Soviet and now Russian people evoked to by the word for Siege, blokada in Russian?”
Rainer Mahlamäki, tough professional and a deep thinker is, at the same time , 101% modest man. He just smiles back to me. He smiles by his quiet, slightly pensive smile of the man who is submerged in many worlds.
In St Petersburg of today, people did accept the Finnish project for the new Museum of the Siege quite openly. During the public exhibition of all projects, on all its stages, the Finnish project was the winner of the public opinion and public vote, with 23 % lead from the second place in the competition.
There were some attempts of attacking the Mahlamäki’s project from certain parties channelised via some of the Russian media. Their only argument against the project was the fact of its Finnish origin.
I was present at the Mahlamäki’s interview to the Russian TV. In general, the Finnish project has caused such interest in St Petersburg that the media were queueing to Rainer for interview, and he was the only one from the four finalists whom Russian journalists were interested to talk with.
In that first interview, the first question to Rainer by aggressive enough young Russian female journalist was: “How can you explain your participation in this competition? Don’t you think that it is a bit strange, to put it mildly, for Finnish architect to participate in the competition for the Museum of the Siege given the side at which Finland was during the WWII? “ The young woman was obviously proud of herself. Mahlamäki very calmly told to her: “But we were invited to participate in this competition by the St Petersburg authorities”. The journalist was shocked: “You were invited? I did not know that. Forgive me please” – she said in a momentary change of her attitude
As it turned out, the fact of inviting the Finnish architects to participate in the competition was largely unknown to the Russian public. In any case, the public, and notably, the veterans of the Siege, did perceive the Requiem cordially and with full understanding.
“I do like it ( the Finnish project) – veterans were chatting in between themselves at the presentation of the four finalists in St Petersburg in September 2017. – It really is very good”.
Despite winning the public vote, the Finnish project has got only prize instead of the victory in St Petersburg. It probably should be expected, given the weight of the political componenta for such project in Russia. In any case, I am very glad that very many people have read the Rainer’s interview to the popular Russian media in which he did said both simply and firmly: “Compassion has no nationality”. Indeed.
The Beauty of Memory: The UK National Holocaust Memorial, London
Practically at the same time while working on the Requiem project, Rainer Mahlamäki and his team of very able architects and thoughtful people were working on yet another project on the same theme of memory of the WWII and Holocaust. The Finnish project for the UK National Holocaust Memorial to be built in London had been selected to the short-list of 10 works from many participants of that important international project.
The short-list for the London Holocaust National memorial reads as an ultimate star-list of the modern architecture, and the Finnish project had clearly was the one of the best ones among those top ten.
Additionally to all trade-marks of classy modern architecture – natural disposal of the environment, modern lines, striking building – it so very clearly bears the main characteristic of Rainer Mahlamäki’s philosophy in architecture for the buildings which are dedicated to memory: light, hope and open endings, not traps, no claustrophobic organising of the space, not despair. Such vision, in my opinion, provides a possibility for visitors to ‘digest’ mentally all the horrors better and deeper , in a way of humanity, not being crushed by the way of oppression.
There is very so often, the specialists in different areas of knowledge who are dealing with the Holocaust and the war conflicts are facing the question for themselves: how those people who has become the victims of Holocaust and survived it were able to live afterwards?
The philosophy applied by Rainer Mahlamäki to his architectural creations on the theme of the Holocaust and the WWII provide at least a part of possible answer: it is natural for a human being to strive for light and hope, even if it is happening mentally, in imagination.
The Talmud teaches that the darkness of the dark is light, however small spark of it is present there. Otherwise, the world would not exist. Renowned Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh in his Lectures emphasises that according to the ancient Jewish Talmudic and Kabbalistic sources, “Light that comes out of darkness is greater than light that did not come ( this way)”. Continuing the parable, the other prominent modern experts on Jewish thought, such as Rabbi Moshe M. Lieber, are pointing out that the Talmud itself did appear as a life-rope for Jewish people at the most daring moment in the history of the nation, “from the darkness of the Babylonian exile”. The one of the pillars of Judaism is the understanding that ‘a central theme in life is the transition from darkness to light’, as it stated in multiplied Jewish sources. The intention to see the light is the desire which is the most natural for a human being. To express it in architecture requires much more than a professional skills. It reflects a certain quality of the architect’s personality.
There were cases throughout the total nightmare of Holocaust when children survived by evoking in their memory a smell of chocolate back in their warm home. There is a film about that based on real facts, created by great Italian cinematographer and dear friend Roberto Olla, called Auschwitz and the Chocolate. The film had been awarded with Oscar, very deservingly. The film’s creative resolution is watercolour of a very gently palette. This approach is similar to the one of Mahlamäki’s in his vision on how to speak on the Holocaust by the means of architecture.
Rainer told me about it in the following way: “By any means, architecture is not a technical thing. As a writer is thinking on many levels while writing a novel, making an effort of stratification of his own memory, experience, knowledge and feelings with a purpose to lead his readers through that memory maze, the same does an architect who is creating spaces for memory, for a journey through memory for the people who would be visiting the spaces honouring memory, telling about history. So, an architect also creates a novel for his visitors. While I was working on all those projects, it was very so often when I thought: how I would live through those events?How I would survive myself? ”.
May be, this intentional, conscious effort of placing himself in the position and in the situation of the people who has become victims of the most terrible crime against humanity, makes the Mahlamäki’s architectural projects so authentic.
My mom was teaching me since I was a little child: before any of your reaction on anything, you shall place yourself in your mind at the place of the other people. It was the one of very few mandatory rules of my upbringing.
So I understand what Rainer is doing and what he is thinking about while he is creating his projects on history and memory, which all are essentially statements of an organic, deep, enlightened humanism. In my view, these characteristics marks him as a person and his works as architectural products with a high distinction.
“To Keep the Memory About the People Who Were Destroyed” : The Lost Shtetl Museum and Memorial in Seduva
The project on which Mahlamäki and his bureau are working currently is a continuation of his quest into the Jewish history.
In April 2016, the Finnish architect was approached by the Seduva Foundation from Lithuania with request to create The Lost Shtetl, the unique project of a restored memory at the place at which the entire Jewish community had been annihilated.
The architectural decision for The Lost Shtetl is a masterpiece, in my perception. The compact beautiful light building looks as a dream – and such was the idea of the author. “We wanted to create a metaphor. The metaphor for the lost shtetl. The metaphor for the life lost – but remembered again, as one does in dreams”.
The Finnish architect who is world-famous for his masterly application of light as an architectural both tool and resolution, has created a milk-coloured building which stays in the open field of Seduva immediately close to the recently restored Jewish cemetery there, as symbol of life coming back to us.
There is one element in that project which has a principal importance for me: the exit from the museum which is called Canyon of Memory is formed by two high white walls which are getting very close each to other creating a vertical space where from you are seeing the Jewish cemetery in front of you on your way while leaving the museum. The narrowness of the place makes your path harrowed, indeed – but the walls are white and, importantly, it is open-ending again. You are not locked in your despair. You are seeing and are coming to the cemetery, but there is white softness and light around you which is accompanying you. You are breathing. And remembering.
There are more very worthy, and unique, things created by the artist architect Rainer Mahlamäki for this particular project. We would be able to discuss it closer to the date of the museum and Memorial complex’ opening, in a couple of years time.
I am truly impressed by the degree of Rainer Mahlamäki’s personal involvement to the projects which are dealing with history, and the Jewish history in particular. To put his heart into the painful, tragic events which were torn humanity away from the human existence is not an easy thing. But it is a sign of a personal compassion, willingness to understand , and a deep thoughtfulness which all are truly ‘ a hard currency’ at any time of life and history.
Humanist of the Year 2017 of The Rogatchi Foundation
From that point of view, the awarding Rainer Mahlamäki with the Humanist of the Year 2017 prize of our The Rogatchi Foundation was only natural. In the Rainer’s Diploma for the Award it is written “Professor of Architecture Rainer Mahlamäki – With deep respect and gratification for powerful humanism in the outstanding international architectural projects”.
We will award the great Finnish architect with this prize at the opening of my Shining Souls. Champions of Humanity exhibition at the Library of the Finnish Parliament on January 2018, commemorating the International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The exhibition is a core of the Outreach to Humanity cultural and educational project. The Helsinki Edition 2018 of this collection has as its title work special art piece dedicated to Rainer, The Way of the Light which has been created after the Mahlamäki’s famous interior design for the POLIN Museum.
Rainer Mahlamäki is the only Finn among 36 champions of humanity in this project , and the only architect there, too.
I am very glad and do feel honoured to know that man and to work with him on some of his projects which are the quest of us, living today, into the depth of the history of my people. And into the human dimension of memory in general.
Inna Rogatchi is the writer, artist, film-maker, historian and scholar. In many of her works, she is focusing on Holocaust and post-Holocaust. Her forthcoming new works are Dream, Memory, Love documentary film ( Finland, 2018), and A View From a Cattle Wagon book, collection of essays on the challenges of post-Holocaust ( 2018). She is the President of The Rogatchi Foundation.