Rachel Whiteread

1_Empathy / 6D – Spaces, Systems, Objects, Products, Graphics, and Experiences

Rachel Whiteread’s Holocaust Memorial in Vienna, Austria is an empathetic space meant to disrupt the urban fabric to evoke powerful themes of cultural memory. The form of the memorial is a solid concrete structure resembling a WWII bunker. A set of sealed doors creates the front façade of the memorial, symbolizing the sealed passage of time. Upon closer inspection, viewers begin to realize that the outside of the form is comprised of cast concrete book shelves, with the books also sealed closed, never to be opened. As the audience circles about the structure, the closed books begin to parallel the victims of the Holocaust: full of life, experiences, joys, sorrows, etc. but never being able to access them. It’s as if the books remind the spectator that the narrative held within the binding is inaccessible, yet the unified shelves of books is a message in itself: much like the individual lives of the Jewish people and minorities who were brutalized in the Holocaust are mostly lost, but the collective experiences through this atrocity can be understood. That thematic atmosphere is further echoed by the graphics on the ground around the structure, which name the major concentration camps where the atrocities of the Holocaust were committed. The figure-ground reversal, found in many of Whiteread’s works, explores the preservation of a space, what she has called “mummification” or “fossilization.” By preserving the interior of a space and making that the exterior, while making the actual interior inaccessible, Whiteread evokes the memory of a space, metaphysically exploring the innerworkings of the space and its implications to history, culture, social nature, etc. Without showing any imagery from the Holocaust, Whiteread subtly reminds Austrians to remember these events and imagine the experiences of the victims of the Holocaust. Many Austrians choose to forget the atrocities, leading to a generation of ignorance surrounding the event. This memorial gets people questioning, asking what does this memorial mean, what is the significance of the site, and begin to stimulate a conversation of cultural memory surrounding the Holocaust.


One of the most significant elements of this memorial is its siting. While many memorials inhabit the central sphere of the urban fabric, attracting tourism and the public eye, Whiteread tucked the memorial slightly away from the major core of the city. Visitors may have trouble finding the site at first, as there has to be more intention to find it. Situated in the middle of a plaza, surrounded by tall buildings, the nature of the memorial is disruption. The proportions and design of the form fill the empty space with the heavy mass of concrete. By disrupting the public square, the audience can begin to question the siting and so reflection begins. Some have described the way the memorial sits as “claustrophobic” amongst the other buildings, with the way it contrasts the surrounding architecture and demands the attention of the square. The form is more to human scale than the large urban fabric, allowing the audience to engage with it on a more human-level, unlike other monuments to the complex and hard-to-grasp event. The memorial sits in the Judenplatz area, a neighborhood at the center of Jewish life in the middle ages. Furthermore, the structure is built over a medieval synagogue (which was destroyed around 1420), where Jewish people “chose suicide over forced baptism.” This critical siting begins to explore the palimpsest of the histories of Jewish people at this direct site. Viewers can begin to meditate on the historical narratives of the Jews throughout their history in the site of Austria, creating an empathetic connection. As Pages expresses in Architectures of Memory:

Whiteread’s project inserts a theatricality of repetition into the built environment of the Judenplatz, doubly marking the site, first as a location in which we are reminded not to forget, and second as a situation and situatedness in which we are remanded to a non-historical space of memory, to a more thoughtful culture of commemoration that recognizes the textual nature of the site as a place for critical reflection on the past.

In a sense, the memorial not only recognizes the atrocities of the Holocaust, but begins to orient the cultural memory of Jews within the context of the Austrian nation. Instead of creating an object monument of expression, Whitehall has used the memorial as a spatial device within the urban fabric.


The Holocaust Memorial in Vienna is a space for Austrian people to reflect on the recent history of WWII and the Holocaust. Austria’s history with its involvement can be complex as the actions of the nation is both victim and contributor. While the memorial doesn’t shout at the center of civic space, it respectfully sits in heaviness. The Holocaust is such a difficult, atrocious, and gargantuan subject. By creating a space that sits silently yet heavily on the ground of historical and cultural significance, Whiteread response is dramatic. The memorial faces the atrocities and the fading cultural memory of the public, and states, I will remember. The preservation (or fossilization) of space through concrete books in a bunker-like form reminds viewers that while the passage of time is closed, the lives of the victims of the Holocaust will be preserved and remembered. Whiteread may be a British artist designing an Austrian memorial, but the space goes far beyond historical social politics: she as the ability to ‘feel-into’ the history, bringing the audience with her. Ultimately, the space is a place to reflect and remember.

4_Why is Whiteread’s “mummification” of space important?

Whiteread loves to explore the figure-ground reversal of space through solid-void subversion. In both Ghost and House, Whiteread casts the interior space of a living room and a whole house. These mummifications of space have the ability to stop time, marking it through the preservation of a moment in space. By working with materials that fill and solidify, Whiteread can explore human perspectives through a different lens. The solid monoliths of her work begin to abstract how we view the places we inhabit, allowing us to make more observations about the temporality of the spaces we occupy. The fossilization of space allows audiences to understand a single moment, which Whiteread can utilize as an empathic technique so that people can begin feeling-into a space. The world is full of complexities, referential behavior, and an overarching temporal march. At times, it’s nice to freeze time and reverse the nature of how one views space in order to understand complex themes. Whiteread’s mummifications are site-specific and are scaled for the human perspective in order to interface with audiences, allowing them to question, consider, and reflect on the places they inhabit.