World Views
1:08 pm
Fri April 19, 2013

Memorial Designer Reflects on Commemorating Tragedy Through Architecture

President Bill Clinton, Torrey Butzer, and Hans Butzer with their design for the Oklahoma City National Memorial
Credit Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum

Hundreds gathered Friday morning at the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum to mark the 18th anniversary of the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.

Hans and Torrey Butzer, along with their partner Sven Berg, designed the Outdoor Symbolic Portion of the memorial while living in Berlin in 1997. As Americans living in Germany, Hans Butzer says that blended environment guided their artistic vision for the project.

“When we showed our concept to our colleague, Sven and his wife Christina, they shirked a bit and thought, ‘Oh, chairs. That's way too literal. We don't do that here in Germany,’” Butzer told KGOU’s World Views.

The Field of Empty Chairs stands on the Murrah Building’s footprint, commemorating the 168 victims who lost their lives in the attack.

“But the larger point was simply that for them, it was just too literal,” Butzer says. “When we got to the U.S., it was way too abstract. So that was very fascinating for Torrey and I. It was almost an aspect of the project that we realized, ‘You know, maybe this is just the right way to go’.”

The Butzer Design Partnership worked on its Oklahoma City project while architects in Berlin planned Germany’s memorial to the Holocaust. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe opened during the celebration of the 60th anniversary of V-E Day in 2005. The vast field of more than 2,700 grey concrete slabs remains a source of controversy nearly a decade later.

“You're on dangerous ground if you design something so abstract that nowhere in the project is there really a foothold for people to begin engaging,” Butzer says. “So you have to find and establish a common place, but then the architecture does have an obligation to future generations to then move beyond the immediate, and to try and tap into certain things that are perhaps a bit more timeless. A bit more abstract. That could be perhaps embraced by other generations.”

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

On how past experiences influenced the design of the Oklahoma City National Memorial

Being in Berlin at the time, we would take the S Train to our office every day. You'd go past the Museumsinsel, the Museum Island there in Eastern Berlin, which is a fascinating place. It's almost like the island itself is a museum. You look at the old Bode Museum. It still has pockmarks from the shrapnel from bombings and explosions in World War II. The average person there doesn't really notice them anymore. So for us, that's kind of a clue that suggests there are certain tragedies that we may not feel the need to take a step back and deliberately outline somewhere in public space this place of remembrance.

On when abstraction can go wrong when designing a memorial

[The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe] is really this vast field of roughly 2,500 concrete blocks. They almost look like tombstones. Perhaps some would say caskets. Very abstractly, minimally detailed. They're dark grey, and they blend into the ground plane - this cobbled black, dark granite. The tops of these individual markers are varied in height. Shockingly, this memorial is too abstract. So you now have kids hopscotching around all over, skateboarders, bicyclists, and so forth. Suddenly, what was supposed to be hallowed ground is almost becoming a caricature of something that can go wrong on a grand scale.

On how architects figure out ways to make sure the general public embraces their work

You're on dangerous ground if you design something so abstract that nowhere in the project is there really a foothold for people to begin engaging. I always explain to the students that architecture should be viewed...you need to start at a place where everyone can gather on. Architecture needs to reach out its hand, and reach it out and let someone take its hand. You start a walk. And you start from a place familiar, and you then start to wander into a world where it's architecture as function. It's as beauty. It's as a mode of investment. So you have to find and establish a common place, but then the architecture does have an obligation to future generations to then move beyond the immediate, and to try and tap into certain things that are perhaps a bit more timeless.

FULL TRANSCRIPT

SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Hans Butzer, welcome to World Views.

HANS BUTZER: Thank you very much.

GRILLOT: Well, you're an architect. You live here in Oklahoma City, and are famously known for some of the work that you've done, in particular the Oklahoma City National Memorial. But can you start by telling us a little bit about what drew you to be an architect, and how is our interest in architecture international in nature? People travel the world to see different forms of architecture, so what is it about architecture that draws us to view it in different settings around the world?

BUTZER: Well I was very fortunate to grow up split between the Chicago area and Western Germany. My parents are native Germans who moved to the U.S. in '59. So having a strong family relationship, we spent about a third of our summers in Germany. My father would do his research in Africa or Southern Europe, so he'd drop the kids off with the grandparents in Aachen. Then my grandparents and uncle would then take us on trips throughout Northern Europe, so that exposure led me to the conclusion that there are some structures that have been around for a long time. It's quite beautiful how they shape cultures, and give one the sense of anchoring and so forth. So that started to develop in me this sense of love for the legacy of architecture, and an interest in legacy architecture. Then you couple that with having spent a good part of my childhood in the Chicago area, where you have the birth of the skyscraper. You have Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House a couple blocks from my father's office at the University of Chicago. I grew up 25 miles from Route 66, just by Kankakee. So all around me in that environment was again, architecture, and a very American form of architecture. So you start to combine those experiences, and you start to realize that there are similarities, there are differences. For me, there was no difference. Whether it was in Europe, or the U.S., it seemed very fluid.

GRILLOT: How so? Because you just talked about structures shaping culture, and that connection between culture and structure, so how is it that it was all the same to you, and so fluid?

BUTZER: Well, for starters, German is my first language, but I grew up in a house in the Upper Midwest speaking German. It was only as I got older that I realized that the kids around me didn't speak German. In fact, they all thought I was weird because I spoke German. Our moving back and forth between Germany and the U.S. every year just seemed like life. You just did that. The idea that my parents were going to fly off to Africa or Southern Europe and do their research, they'd go buy wood carvings or little alligators and bring them home. In my living room we have these little wooden-carved alligators or wooden masks on walls. For me, that was normal. So whenever my father would test us on world capitals when we were kids, it was just obvious that was where we lived. It's the world in which we live, and everywhere around me was this love of people. Different viewpoints that different peoples have, and how can architecture, in my case, be a manifestation of those different viewpoints. So for me, I never saw the distinction. It was very organic in the world in which I grew up.

REBECCA CRUISE: I wonder, you say that's it's very similar, but I wonder if there is a difference in how different cultures think about space, and how the usage of space - be it for buildings, roads, parks - how that then also contributes to the extension of that culture, and how you can see that in Europe, in the United States, and perhaps elsewhere.

BUTZER: I think when you grow up with the idea that, well of course there are different people with different viewpoints, and of course they have different ways of manifesting them - cultural forms - fixed or fluid. You kind of grow up naturally recognizing that any time you speak with anyone, whether it's your neighbor or someone you encounter at the airport, they're going to be coming at things from their own viewpoint. So for me, the charge in architecture, if we kind of zoom back out and look at it is I practice every day - whether it's teaching or practicing. I feel very naturally predisposed to look into the individual's eyes and try and glean from them what their story is. And it may be something that's very localized, or it may be something that is much broader than that. So in a certain sense, you could argue that every individual, especially more and more in this globalized society, the internet starts to break things down. I keep telling my students if you don't have money to travel, just get on the internet. It's the window to the world. It's the cheapest alternative. You start to recognize that we all have our own cultures on a very micro scale. It's just a question, at some point, of at what point do you ratchet it up? Then you start to shift the subject into, OK, now you have certain common shared values about space, about architecture for example. Do we like an architecture that's more literal, or figurative? For example, Americans get queasy with abstract architecture, architecture that's kind of simplified. At least that's where it's been historically. I think that's starting to evolve a bit. Whereas the Germans, which I know best, in these experiences prefer things that are a bit more abstract. They'd rather not get too emotional. The Memorial design, for example, Torrey and I designed that while we were in Germany. So we were developing it conceptually in a very blended environment. When we showed our concept to our colleague, Sven and his wife Christina, they shirked a bit and thought, "Oh, chairs. That's way too literal. We don't do that here in Germany." In fact, the Frankfurt Allgemeine, which is the one of the largest newspapers in Germany, wrote an editorial after our design was selected. First of all, they erroneously assumed we were Germans, and said, "Oh how appropriate this German team would pick chairs, which is just such a typical way for Germans to see themselves as these bureaucratic people that just sit around in chairs, that they would say that's a great memorial." But the larger point was simply that for them, it was just too literal. When we got to the U.S., it was way too abstract. So that was very fascinating for Torrey and I. It was almost an aspect of the project that we realized, "You know, maybe this is just the right way to go." Because we are talking about it, and are finding ourselves in this gap, or this overlap zone. I was just looking at a magazine yesterday, at a car ad. We're selling cars here in the U.S. now with really abstract, modern-looking architecture in the backdrop. Very futuristic. But something tells me that if we did a design here in Norman, and we put that design in the middle of Downtown Norman, I'm pretty sure there'd be an awful lot of people that would get pretty upset. And yet, at the same time, we're using that same abstract architecture - really sleek, gray tones, minimally detailed - to sell these things that we love, and yet we struggle at the same time to embrace them as part of our day-to-day identify. So you start to see all these conditions that are ripe with contradiction. Ripe with overlap. Ripe with opportunities to realize that more and more there's a blurring. The idea of culture, I think, could even be argued to have a different definition as we go forward.

GRILLOT: Well, related to that, I think it's really interesting what you're talking about in terms of memorializing things, and the different cultural response to the actual physical memorial. In your experience, especially having been in Germany at the time when you designed this very important memorial, and implementing this across the continents, did you look across other countries and how memorials are received in general? That connection between how each culture wants to memorialize things, or how they memorialize things, or that desire to memorialize in very different ways. So for example, when you go to Northern Ireland, and you drive through Belfast, and you find memorials that are very, very different in terms of murals on walls and buildings that are memorializing those that have been lost in their conflict, their Troubles, versus a very physical statue or some other type of memorial somewhere else. Do you see cultural differences in the ways in which we remember our past, and celebrate it?

BUTZER: Very much. Torrey and I have traveled a lot, and also spent a lot of time with books. We're often asked, "do we look at other places for how do they do their memorials?' We didn't really do that, but I do believe that somewhat organically and intuitively the way we viewed the project was informed by these past experiences. Being in Berlin at the time, we would take the S Train to our office every day. You'd go past the Museumsinsel, the Museum Island there in Eastern Berlin, which is a fascinating place. It's almost like the island itself is a museum. You look at the old Bode Museum. It still has pockmarks from the shrapnel from bombings and explosions in World War II. The average person there doesn't really notice them anymore. So for us, that's kind of a clue that suggests there are certain tragedies that we may not feel the need to take a step back and deliberately outline somewhere in public space this place of remembrance. There are other things that are just so ubiquitous that it feels odd to stop and pause. The idea for the Holocaust memorial that was originally designed by Richard Serra, and eventually with Peter Eisenman has gotten a lot of controversial feedback. There were so many people that felt like we didn't need to build it in Germany. There was such a deep, ingrained lesson the Germans had learned that had so overhauled their culture and the way they viewed themselves, the way they viewed their role as a military force, or not, in the world.

GRILLOT: This was the Holocaust memorial in Berlin that you're referring to.

BUTZER: Yes. But it's basically the German national memorial there.

GRILLOT: Try to describe that memorial if you will, because it's such a striking thing. In fact, for many, they don't even get it...

BUTZER: Exactly.

GRILLOT: ...which leads to this issue of how memorials reflect a certain meaning. Which again, may not necessarily transcend borders. The meaning itself is implicit. Will you describe that memorial?

BUTZER: So the German Holocaust memorial is placed immediately south of the Brandenburg Gate, basically right there on the threshold between what was East and West Berlin. A very prominent location. All 13 German state embassies are right there. So you couldn't be more in the heart of German nationalism, if you will. Even Hitler's bunker is a couple hundred yards away. But this memorial is really this vast field of roughly 2,500 concrete blocks. They almost look like tombstones. Perhaps some would say caskets. Very abstractly, minimally detailed. They're dark grey, and they blend into the ground plane - this cobbled black, dark granite. The tops of these individual markers are varied in height. They create this undulating landscape, at an abstract level. I think the thought process there was very much the idea that while yes; we need to pause and carve out a place, literally, to remember this tragedy and recognize, in this case, the Germans' complicity in it. And also try to develop something that then invokes a magnitude that borders on beyond comprehension. But then to treat it as a topography, and suggest that it almost becomes a part of our national identity, our national landscape. But then you balance that out with the interesting reality that Germans, I think, are historically accustomed to something more abstract. Shockingly, this memorial is too abstract. So you now have kids hopscotching around all over...

GRILLOT: That's right. People playing around there, sitting on it.

BUTZER: Skateboarders, bicyclists, and so forth. Suddenly, what was supposed to be hallowed ground is almost becoming a caricature of something that can go wrong on a grand scale. So that kind of starts to invite that question of universality. Is there a universality in the typology of a memorial, for example? You might be able to make the argument at certain times that within cultures there is a typology, or a trend. But across cultures, maybe less so. This case in particular undermines the idea that even within Germany you might agree on something, and it may just be the Holocaust memorial and the murder of 6 million Jews is such an intense moment in German history. You still run into people, especially much older, who are still angry about the fact that the Germans should feel guilty about it. You're floored that still exists. You see that example, and suddenly you have a young generation that starts to feel...it's not that they don't care, but it's almost like they feel like they're now paying for the sins of two generations past. So they almost don't want to hear about it anymore. So it's this very fascinating conversation when you get all these generations together, it will result in, as we see, in some sort of debate.

GRILLOT: Difficulty translating not only across cultures, but across generations for sure.

BUTZER: Yes. Very much so.

GRILLOT: So very quickly then, because we have a little time left. Is there such a thing as "good" or "bad" architecture, and what I mean by that is the intention of the architect, or the intention of the designer, and how it's received by the person viewing the memorial or the structure. Is there a "right way?" I guess not so much good and bad, but right or wrong way to see a structure such as this, and appreciate its form. Kind of like art, I guess. When you create a piece of art, the artist had perhaps some sort of intention, and yet that may not be the message. I guess related to the memorial in Berlin, it was intended to evoke a certain kind of response, and it really didn't, or hasn't for many. So as a last word here, how would you rate that phenomenon of the relationship between the architect, the structure, and the recipient or the viewer?

BUTZER: I think your question is impossible to answer in one word, just to be clear.

GRILLOT: Okay, two.

BUTZER: (Laughs) But ultimately the architect has to represent at least two, if not three, points of view. The architect has to admit or embrace the reality that normal people - non-architects, and architects can be an odd bunch because of the way we view the world - will be the predominant users of our work. So we have an ethical obligation, I believe, to be working at a level that when we design it, that "normal people," and I say that as a compliment, by the way (laughs)...

GRILLOT: (Laughs) "Normal" meaning the untrained eye. Those of us who don't know any better.

BUTZER: Yeah, yeah, right. Those of us that haven't been messed up in “archi-speak.” But truly, everyone has to be able to find a level in which they can embrace the work. You're on dangerous ground if you design something so abstract that nowhere in the project is there really a foothold for people to begin engaging. I always explain to the students that architecture should be viewed...you need to start at a place where everyone can gather on. Architecture needs to reach out its hand, and reach it out and let someone take its hand. You start a walk. And you start from a place familiar, and you then start to wander into a world where it's architecture as function. It's as beauty. It's as a mode of investment. So you have to find and establish a common place, but then the architecture does have an obligation to future generations to then move beyond the immediate, and to try and tap into certain things that are perhaps a bit more timeless. A bit more abstract. That could be perhaps embraced by other generations. Other cultures. Other users. In some ways, it's a very sustainable, you could argue, way of looking at things. Everyone has a way to plug in and experience the architecture for something that has integrity, and good intent.

GRILLOT: Well thank you so much, Hans Butzer, for being with us today on World Views.

BUTZER: Thank you very much. I enjoyed it.

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