January 2019

An empty space for commemoration

When designing the new building for the National Monument Kamp Amersfoort, architect Jacques Prins wondered: ‘How does one go about commemorating, when nearly nothing remains except for the location itself. What spatial resources could one use?’ 

Jacques search led him along the former concentration camps Mauthausen, Auschwitz, Sacksenhausen, Bergen-Belsen and Westerbork. ‘My wife and I first visited Auschwitz back in 1980. We were very interested in Eastern Europe. She studied Russian; we often visited Central Europe, where history is still found in the streets – like Berlin, Cracow or Prague.’

Jacques also has a high affinity with history and World War II in particular. ‘My grandparents helped out Jewish families and took a Jewish person into hiding. In the 1970s, a tree was planted for them in the Yad Vashem forest in Jerusalem.

'We worked over four years on the design for Kamp Amersfoort. We needed that time to carefully consider this design; I am not an architect that immediately brings a sketch to the table. I travelled to locations where commemoration is an important theme. What has remained of a given period in each of these locations? Bergen-Belsen, for example, is very similar to Kamp Amersfoort in that there is nearly nothing left. No barracks, nothing. Everything was burnt down and demolished shortly after the war. A forest grew, in which an open space was created the size of the former camp. One can really feel the immensity of the area. The oppression and alienation are conveyed using scenic and architectural changes, without the necessity for an exact reconstruction. Landscape architect Cor Geluk of Juurlink & Geluk really sensed that very nicely. He returned the original character of the former timber forest of Kamp Amersfoort, the shooting range and the execution place. He too has an affinity with the War. He restores Jeeps and drives with the veterans'. 

The visitor’s centre of the National Monument Kamp Vught also inspired Jacques, although in a different manner. ‘Two barracks were recreated, bunk beds and all. That was too literal for me. For Kamp Amersfoort, I sought a more abstract representation of what people went through. We designed a void to evoke the feeling of oppression that one gets upon entering the camp, without reconstructing anything.’

You now walk into an open space from the entrance of Kamp Amersfoort; the museum, which will be located mostly underground, is reached by crossing this empty space. The museum offers room for explanations and lessons for visiting school classes. Outside, there is the memory and you stand still at the thought that 35,000 people have been imprisoned.

- A place of injustice

More information: Jacques Prins