Interview with Jacques Prins

book: Architecture and Remembrance

03-05-2021

Jacques Prins, architect and partner at Inbo, designed the National Monument Kamp Amersfoort together with Tinker imagineers and Juurlink [+] Geluk. He is also the author of the publication ‘Architecture and Remembrance. European Memorials of the Post-War Period’.

In his recently published book Architecture and Remembrance, Jacques Prins takes a detailed look at sites of remembrance. In the book, he connects 42 European post-war locations through words, maps and photos. Without reconstructing, he conveys to the readers a sensation of anguish and detachment. Through this approach, Jacques provides a view on the design strategies used by the various designers over the years.

Jacques, what was the root of your fascination with this subject?

Inbo already received the commission for the expansion of Kamp Amersfoort back in 2014, after we had previously created an information and education pavilion. I have been intensely involved with the subject ever since. I say intensely, because this is a subject that gets a hold of you and does not let go. In the past five years, I visited several nearby locations, such as Bergen-Belsen and Camp Westerbork, in order to experience how other architects have dealt with this subject. In 2019, my wife and I were on holiday in Latvia and Lithuania, and we visited a memorial at the location of a former concentration camp near Riga. That left a deep and lasting impression. As she is a translator and editor, I told her: ‘There could be a book in this.’ I contacted the publisher nai010 with the idea. Following their enthusiastic reply, we made a lengthy journey along memorial sites throughout Europe in the summer of 2020 – insofar as possible considering the coronavirus restrictions. 

I also have a personal connection to Bosnia. My sister has been living in Sarajevo for the past 30 years, working for the UN since the war. As such, I visited Srebrenica ten years ago. That truly got me thinking. World War II happened more than 75 years ago, but a genocide took place there in the 1990s as well. The locations I write about are a warning that such events might occur again. In the case of Kamp Amersfoort, this link with current events if found in the exhibition in the shape of current dilemmas, such as the one regarding our refugee policy. 

Did you see similarities between the locations you visited? 

All complexes are generally designed in a very sober fashion, with a quiet atmosphere. It is noticeable that the architects took inspiration from the mood of the place. This leads to a certain amount of restraint and sobriety. Many architects offer the opportunity to let the building and atmosphere soak in on the visitors, thus letting the visitor give meaning to their visit from the point of view of their own experiences. 

I personally experienced this in the Mausoleo delle Fosse Ardeatine in Rome, Italy. The monument was initially designed just after the city was liberated in 1944, but the war was still raging. At that time, young Italian architects already registered for a design competition that would produce a memorial just one year later. It also shows a novel way of observing: this monument honours civilian casualties, whereas it was previously more common to memorialise military casualties. 

In addition, the memorial is located right where the horrors took place. Architect Guiseppe Perugini used sculpting and architecture to create a whole in which the sculpture forms a central element in the composition. The building itself is not monumental, and this was intentional. Perugini designed the complex as an immense stone suspended above the graves of more than 300 executed civilians. Upon entering, visitors take a few steps down – this is truly a moment of transition – and then notice an oversized tomb at the bottom. This immediately sets a heavy and sacral tone. 

I was also disconcerted during my visits to Treblinka in Poland and Bergen-Belsen in Germany. Bergen-Belsen was built with a similar theme to Kamp Amersfoort: there are both a clear routing and atmosphere. People are given the time to let the location touch them without a multitude of impressions. Personally, I am fascinated by projects from the 1960s: an often brutalist architecture of concrete. The concrete gives these buildings a heaviness that suits the subject. 

How does your design for Kamp Amersfoort fit in with these other memorial sites? 

As the design team (architect, interior architect and landscape architect), we started from the premise of a clear route. Until last year, there was nearly nothing at Kamp Amersfoort, save for a pavilion that had little connection to the events in the past and several historical remainders, such as the original wall paintings. We have now restored the original entrance gate and reinstated its use as such. This improves the visitors’ connection with the location, and everything falls into place. 

What are you proudest of? 

At Kamp Amersfoort, the landscape, the architectural design and the exhibition supplement and strengthen each other. It is a whole, not a collection of separate elements. The entire place has a dampened atmosphere: one enters a dark space in which the personalia slowly but surely loom up, fully utilising the transition from light to dark. We chose to use a limited number of exhibition resources in order to increase the impact. One example is an audio fragment that accompanies a farewell letter written by a 23-year-old young man to his beloved on the day prior to his execution. We added actuality and personality to this piece by having the letter read by a 23-year-old man. I think we managed to do this rather nicely. 

In some sense, my book, Architecture and Remembrance, is like any other project: I am happy when the first foundations are place and just as well when the whole is delivered. I am also satisfied, as I was able to create a connection between the various locations, paving the way for further study which this post-war period deserves. If one looks at the timeline included in my book: much was done in the 1940s and 50s, but there was a quiet period in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. It was only from 2000 that we saw many new constructions starting. The underlying reasons are not my field, but the changes in Eastern Europe after 1990 have certainly played a significant role in this. Over the years, attention has only increased. I expect it will not diminish, especially with the many locations creating connections with current affairs and with new insights keeping the narratives everchanging. Similar to how perspectives of victims and perpetrators are in continuous motion. This is something that is noticeable at Kamp Amersfoort: even though the location is static, the interpretation keeps shifting. This makes the memorial relevant to each generation. 

If you wish to order the books: these can be ordered through the following links:
- Architecture and Remembrance. European Memorials of the Post-War Period; published by nai010, 2020.
- The meaning of a place, National Monument Kamp Amersfoort; published by nai010, 2021.