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Museum Designed with Subject Matter in Mind

Night rendering of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which takes the shape of a square clad in alternating glass and copper panels
The Museum of the History of Polish Jews takes the shape of a square clad in alternating glass and copper panels. Architects L&M

Finnish architects conceive a simple form with symbolic details to house the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, in Warsaw, Poland.

June 18, 2013—While museum design always requires a thoughtful approach to ensure that the building complements the objects that will be on display, there are perhaps few instances in which that relationship has been more critical than with the Museum of the History of Polish Jews. Located in Warsaw, Poland, the new museum has a simple form with symbolic touches designed to immerse visitors in the lives of Jews in Poland and throughout Europe during the Holocaust and beyond.

Prior to World War II, Warsaw was home to a thriving Jewish community. Accounting for more than 30 percent of the city’s population, the nearly 400,000 Jews who resided there constituted the largest Jewish community in Europe and, with the exception of the community in New York City, the largest in the world. But the German invasion of Poland in September 1939 marked the beginning of a campaign of genocide that would reduce the city’s Jewish population catastrophically.

In the fall of 1940, German authorities forced all Jewish residents into a 1.3 sq mi area of the city that became known as the Warsaw Ghetto. There Jews were trapped within 10 ft tall brick walls topped with barbed wire and kept under surveillance by German guards. The situation took a deadly turn in July 1942, when German authorities began moving Jews to the Treblinka extermination camp, located approximately 50 mi northeast of Warsaw. By September of that year, approximately 265,000 Jews had been sent to the camp and another 35,000 had been slaughtered within the Warsaw Ghetto. Thousands more died during resistance efforts, including an ill-fated uprising in early 1943, and as a result of starvation, disease, and other causes. Many of the remaining Jews were sent to labor camps, and despite a second uprising in 1944, only about 11,500 survived to see Soviet troops liberate Warsaw in January 1945. 

Exterior rendering of the museum which is adjacent to the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes

The museum is located in the core of the former Warsaw Ghetto
and adjacent to the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, which
commemorates the Warsaw Ghetto uprising of 1943.
Juha Salminen

The idea to develop a museum in the former Warsaw Ghetto that would be adjacent to the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes and be dedicated to Jewish history and culture was conceived in 1996. As support for transforming a site made infamous by man’s inhumanity to man into a place of education and remembrance grew, museum organizers launched an international design competition in the spring of 2005 for the new building. On the basis of expressions of interest, 11 design firms were selected to participate in the competition, and in the summer of that year Lahdelma & Mahlamäki Architects, a firm based in Helsinki, Finland, was named the winner for its proposal Yum Sof (Sea of Reeds). The design’s signature element is the lobby, which features massive undulating walls that evoke the account in the book of Exodus of the parting of the Red Sea waters. “I don’t prefer symbolism in architecture a lot,” says Rainer Mahlamäki, a principal of Lahdelma & Mahlamäki Architects. “But in a building like this, it’s important that there is a story behind our design.”

Following eight years of design and construction, the museum partially opened on April 19 to mark the 70th anniversary of the 1943 uprising. While not all of the exhibits have been installed, visitors have been invited to examine the design of the 18,300 m2 concrete-framed building, which takes the shape of a square, each side 65 m long and 21 m tall. The building has five levels, including a basement, where the museum’s core exhibits will be arranged over more than 4,500 m2. Eight galleries will take a multimedia approach in presenting a chronological narrative of the 1,000-year history of Jewish life in Poland and Europe from the Middle Ages to the postwar period. The building’s other areas will accommodate offices, temporary exhibits, workshops, a restaurant, a multipurpose hall, a gift shop, and other amenities. Event, a design firm based in London, conceived the design for the museum’s exhibits, and Nizio Design International, a design firm based in Warsaw, is overseeing the exhibition installation.

Interior rendering for Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which features a multipurpose hall

In addition to its main exhibit hall, the museum will feature a
multipurpose hall, temporary exhibits, a restaurant, a gift shop,
and other amenities.
Architects L&M

One of the museum’s featured exhibits has already been installed: a replica of an 18th-century synagogue ceiling and roof from the town of Gwozdziec, which was formerly in Poland but is now in Ukraine. Museum officials worked with Handshouse Studio, a nonprofit organization based in Norwell, Massachusetts, that is dedicated to education and the arts, to carry out research and to design and construct the replicas using methods similar to those used to construct the original. The result is a colorful wooden structure that conveys a lost piece of Jewish culture. “These beautiful eighteenth-century wooden synagogues no longer exist; the Germans burned to the ground those still standing in 1939,” said Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, the program director for the museum’s core exhibition and a professor of performance studies at New York University, in a written statement that she prepared for Civil Engineering online. She continued by saying that while the original synagogues are gone, a great deal of knowledge can be gained by building such replicas using traditional techniques. “What is [significant] about the artifact resides therefore not in the original eighteenth-century wood, not in the original painted interior, but in the knowledge that we recovered [of] how to build it,” Kirshenblatt-Gimblett said.

Museum organizers knew from the outset that they wanted to include the ceiling and roof structure in the museum, so in essence the museum had to be designed around it. “This [structure] was part of the original concept of the exhibition, so we had a responsibility to locate [it] in the building,” Mahlamäki explains. “Its architecture is totally different; it was based on wooden structures . . . but I think it works well” with the building. The structure rises from the basement and bisects the ground floor, making it visible from both levels.

Diagram of the museum, featuring its five levels, including the basement

The Museum of the History of Polish Jews will have five levels,
including the basement, which will house the core exhibition.
Architects L&M

While the museum’s form is basic, its lobby walls are impressive. Inspired by the biblical narrative of the parting of the Red Sea waters, the walls curve in three dimensions, forming a canyonlike space that reaches a height of 27 m. The walls are formed by a steel tube framing system covered on each side by two layers of concrete. The concrete contains sandstone particles, giving the walls a natural color. Nearly all of the concrete work was hand formed in situ by skilled craftsmen, Mahlamäki says. The walls have more than an architectural purpose in that they are load-bearing elements that integrate into the museum’s structural frame. “This wall doesn’t hang from some slabs or some other bearing structures; it supports slabs and also the roof of the building,” Mahlamäki says. “So this is the reason why this has been so demanding to erect and why the process to build [the walls] took a little more than two years.” The first of their kind to be constructed in Europe, the walls were realized using extensive computer modeling from the initial architectural design through to engineering and construction, Mahlamäki says.  

The walls are visible through the building’s glass and copper facade, which was inspired by silk screen painting techniques. To that end, the facade features long glass panels separated by strips of patinated copper, an arrangement that suggests the facade is changing when it is viewed from different perspectives. “From one direction you can see copper and from one direction only glass panels,” Mahlamäki says. What’s more, he says, the facade’s appearance changes with the weather and seasons.

The museum’s exhibits are expected to be completed by the end of the year, and a grand opening is anticipated in early 2014. Mahlamäki hopes that when the museum officially opens, the building design will help to advance its mission. “My biggest hope is that people understand that they have been in [a special] Museum of the History of Polish Jews,” he says. “This is such a special building.”



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