The Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMH) is the oldest Holocaust institution in the United States. It was founded in 1961 by a group of survivors with the express mission of spreading awareness about the unthinkable horrors perpetrated upon them and millions of other Jews, Gypsies, and other assorted “undesirables” by the Third Reich. Until very recently, the museum—which does not charge for admission—exhibited its artifacts and interpretive displays in rented spaces while it gathered the funding to build a permanent home. The stars aligned for LAMH seven years ago when the city of Los Angeles granted it a lease in Hollywood's Pan Pacific Park on a plot of land adjacent to an existing Holocaust memorial. With the money and real estate in hand, the museum hired Hagy Belzberg of Belzberg Architects to design it a fitting space. (The museum officially opened in October 2010.)

Belzberg took a metaphorical as well as urbanistic approach to finding an appropriate architectural language to tell this blackest tale of modern history. “The client wanted a monumental building,” Belzberg explains, “but our concept was to go underground, to design a semisubmerged nonbuilding. That allowed us to not only maintain the beautiful open space of the park by having a green roof atop the museum, but also to control natural light and create a layered experience in which visitors literally delve into darkness as they travel through the exhibition.”

The design concept and its realization makes a powerful impression upon visitors who arrive at the street level main entrance where they are able to see over LAMH to Pan Pacific Park, an idyllic scene where families lounge and children play. From the entrance, visitors walk down a steadily graded ramp, flanked by clerestory windows that leak small amounts of daylight to the exhibition spaces below. As museum guests descend, the recreational sounds of the park slowly dissipate until they arrive in the hushed and submerged lobby and begin to learn about the horrific acts that humans have committed against one another. This dichotomy—between the peaceful pursuit of leisure and the ghastly apparition of Nazi brutality—is the first lesson in the history of the Holocaust. “The whole idea of formal contradiction was our metaphorical compass,” Belzberg says.

Architecturally, the connection to the park is not lost once visitors enter the museum. The concrete arches and columns that support the subterranean building's spaces echo the plan of the park's pavers. Here again, Belzberg imbued the structure with the same dualism established by the juxtaposition of the park and the museum. While the concrete materiality expresses robustness and structural safety, the columns themselves are twisted in form, introducing an element of unease. This offsetting of expectations is continued by the lit display cases, which are painted black. Refined, geometrical, and constructed from medium-density fiberboard, they contrast the organic, curving forms of the superstructure.

Perhaps the most powerful architectural metaphor, however, is delivered by a combination of the sequencing of the exhibition spaces along with the slope of the ceiling and the gradation of the lighting. The museum's plan is roughly U-shaped. Visitors travel this U on a chronological voyage through history. It begins with a telling of Jewish life in Europe before World War II, continues with the rise of Nazism, then goes into the ghettoization and deportation of Jews before arriving at the concentration, labor, and death camps. Throughout this passage the ceiling drops steadily from 20 feet tall to 8 feet tall. The feeling of compression and claustrophobia is reinforced by the lighting, which grows dimmer as the clerestory windows and skylights taper off, until at the bend of the U there is no daylight at all.

The electric lighting scheme echoes the daylight effect. Belzberg, whose office oversaw the lighting design for the project in consultation with area lighting agency representatives Light Group L.A., positioned custom LED grazers outfitted with 3W LEDs at the daylight apertures to deliver a consistent and non-varying level of light throughout the course of the day. “Photometrically we didn't want two sources,” he says. “We wanted the lighting to behave the same whether artificial or natural so that they work together and as day turns to night the subtleties are not experienced.” In addition to the grazers, 8W LED monopoint spotlights on the ceiling highlight the displays. The beam spread on these fixtures varies throughout the chronology, going from wide and diffuse to narrowly focused so that when you arrive at the bend of the U the light is zeroed in on the display cases. The displays themselves add to the lighting mix throughout the museum. The graphics are all backlit with custom LED grazers that use angled plastic snoots to provide an even wash of light and prevent hot spots. The mechanically ventilated cases are lit with tiny 1W LED spots.

This journey into darkness, of course, ends with a passage back into light. After rounding the bend of the U, visitors travel through exhibitions detailing the international response to the Holocaust, the resistance, rescue, and life of Holocaust survivors after liberation. Along this path the ceiling rises again and the light level increases. The museum's final note is a survivor presentation room, where visitors have the chance to meet a survivor and hear their story—a living testament to human perseverance—before returning to the sights and sounds of the park above and everyday life.

Details Project: Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, Los Angeles
Client: Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, Los Angeles
Architect: Belzberg Architects, Los Angeles
Structural Consultant: William Koh & Associates, Tarzana, Calif.
Mechanical Consultant: John Dorius & Associates, Calabasas, Calif.
Plumbing Consultant: Tom Nasrollahi & Associates, West Hills, Calif.
Soils Engineer: Irvine Geotechnical, Pasadena, Calif.
Methane Engineer: Carlin Environmental, Tustin, Calif.
General Contractor: Winters-Schram, Los Angeles
Technology Consultant: Potion Design, New York
Millwork Specialists: Spectrum Oak Products, Orange, Calif., and Swiss Woodworking, Gardena, Calif.
Project Cost: $450 per square foot (including displays)
Lighting Cost: Not available
Project Size: 27,000 square feet
Code Compliance: Meets California Title 24 requirements and has received LEED Gold certification from the USGBC

Manufacturers/Applications Antares (linear T5 cove lighting with integral ballast for museum interiors); Hunza Lighting (inground 35W metal halide fixtures at building exterior, 20W adjustable inground metal halide fixtures at the exterior perimeter, and 5W LED wall-recessed step lights at the exterior); Janmar (8W LED monopoints, custom 20W metal halide pendants, and recessed compact fluorescent fixtures with a patented PAR30 optic for museum interiors); Light Integration (custom LED grazers at ramp, displays, and shelves)