With International Holocaust Remembrance Day approaching fast, we look back at Rome-based SET Architects’ Bologna Shoah Memorial.

One year after the launch of the international competition for the realisation of the Bologna Shoah Memorial, Rome-based office SET Architects, winner according to the jury presided over by Peter Eisenman, delivered their Memorial last year on the 27th of January, the day of international remembrance of the Holocaust.

A beautiful site model by Francisco Muñoz Albarracínugo [Copyright: Ugo Salerno]
A beautiful site model by Francisco Muñoz Albarracínugo [Copyright: Ugo Salerno]

Built in less than two months, the Memorial is a recognisable landmark of great emotional power. It is located at the intersection of Via dé Carracci and Ponte Matteotti, a city square encompassed by the newly installed high-speed train station of Bologna. This area is primed to become the new connective pole of the city. As such, the monument attracts passers-by, inviting them to reflect on the tragedy of the Holocaust.

SET Architects winning competition brought to life [Copyright: Simone Bossi]
SET Architects’ winning competition brought to life [Copyright: Simone Bossi]

The Memorial is made up of two symmetrical cor-ten steel parallelepiped blocks of 10x10m each; the blocks sit adjacent to one another, perpendicular to the existing walls of the square. Their position converges to create a path, which begins with a width of 1.60m, drastically narrowing to just 80cm. The path generates an immediate feeling of oppression.

At the interior of the Memorial, the volumes present a grid of horizontal and vertical metal sheets which intersect at 90°, giving shape to a series of rectangular empty boxes of 1.80 x 1.25m – these boxes represent the cells of the dormitories in the concentration camps. The exterior façade of the Memorial overlooks the city, resembling a blank page – perhaps it is of a history yet to be written? And, along the perimeter of the cells, slight steel protrusions symbolize feelings of contemporary awareness.

Bologna Shoah Memorial [Copyright: Simone Bossi]
Details of Bologna Shoah Memorial by SET Architects [Copyright: Simone Bossi]

The choice of cor-ten steel is deliberate: it is a material that will naturally rust when exposed to open air. As the years pass its corrosion will display the vestiges of time, demonstrating that all things have a rich history behind them. The paving of the path between the two blocks is realised in ballast, basalt stone chippings typical of the roadbeds. This represents the Judenrampe (“ramp of the Jewish”), which was the name given to the trek prisoners made from Auschwitz I (Stammlager concentration camp) and Auschwitz II (Birkenau one).

The empty echoes of footsteps across the stones coupled with the restriction of the passage instills a keen sense of anguish: in this way the Memorial takes on life and evokes the drama of the memory.

[Copyright: Simone Bossi]
Interior view of the structure [Copyright: Simone Bossi]

Further, light plays an essential role in the culmination of the monument. During daytime when the square is lit by the sun’s rays, the passage becomes immersed in a dim, contemplative light, allowing the visitor to calmly reflect. Then at night, strategically placed artificial light illuminates the primary volumes, magnifying the majesty of the Memorial.

In total, the Memorial, distinguished by its historical ambition, abandons rhetorical and didactic conventions in order to emphasize the importance of emotions: in this way SET Architects succeeded in designing a monument that utilizes present sensibility to narrate the past.

SET Architects' striking Holocaust Memorial [Copyright: Simone Bossi]
SET Architects’ striking Holocaust Memorial [Copyright: Simone Bossi]

About the Architects

SET Architects are a team of young architects based in Rome, specialized in designing at different scales, from interiors to urban planning.

The design procedure is always supported by in-depth theoretical research based on an investigation of the essence of architectural elements and a denial of what is redundant for understanding the constructed space.

The office’s objective is to realize an architectural practice that is in direct dialogue with the people. This is achieved through careful attention to context and local culture, through experimental and coherent use of materials, through a critical approach to sustainability, and finally, by regarding the architectural object as cultural factor.

Members of SET Architects include Lorenzo Catena, Onorato di Manno, and Andrea Tanci.

Awards and recognitions:

Awarded the first prize and construction of Bologna Shoah Memorial, Italy (January, 2016).
The work of the office and its partners has been featured in several venues and events (MAXXI – Rome, Wuho Gallery – Los Angeles) as well as in prestigious publications (Domus, Archdaily, Divisare, Cityvision).