Finalist 2023

Melbourne Holocaust Museum

Kerstin Thompson Architects / Melbourne Holocaust Museum

Light serves as a central driver for the Melbourne Holocaust Museum, symbolising illumination and knowledge.

The design purposefully utilises light as a motif to create welcoming and reflective spaces, particularly for education, research, and events. Unlike the bunker-like appearance often associated with Holocaust Museums, the MHM establishes visual and physical connections to activities, daylight, and the community. By incorporating glass bricks, the façade achieves transparency while maintaining the necessary security. Furthermore, the integration of the original heritage building reinforces the MHM's role as a cultural repository, treating it as a significant artifact within the museum.

Design Brief:

The design brief for the MHM aimed to create a museum that respectfully communicates the histories and memories of The Holocaust, fostering understanding, empathy, and education. The intended outcome was to develop a space that goes beyond traditional architectural representations, avoiding figurative or associative approaches that may trivialize the historical trauma. Instead, the MHM adopted a decidedly abstract architecture, acknowledging the difficulty of representing The Holocaust for many individuals.

The design sought to be a cultural repository, prioritising the content and experiences of the museum's visitors, particularly survivors and their families, to speak of the unspeakable. It also focused on creating visually and physically connected spaces, integrating the heritage building and utilising light as a motif to provide a welcoming and functional environment for education, research, and events.

This project was developed by:

Design Process

The design process for the Melbourne Holocaust Museum (MHM) involved a careful consideration of the role of architecture in conveying the history and memory of The Holocaust. Unlike some overseas examples that used figurative or associative architectural approaches, the design team opted for an abstract architecture that respects the magnitude of the subject matter. This approach aimed to avoid trivialising the horrors of The Holocaust and instead focused on the museum's content, including artifacts, programs, and the stories of survivors and their families.

One aspect of the design that showcases MHM's role as a cultural repository is the integration of the heritage building within the façade. By treating it as an important artifact holding the museum's origin, the design establishes a strong connection between the past and the present. Furthermore, rather than isolating the museum like a bunker, the design emphasises visual and physical connections to the community and the street.

MHM's program is spread across five levels, encompassing auditoriums, research and learning spaces, administration areas, archives, galleries, and various memorial spaces for individual and collective reflection. The internal spaces are warm, reserved, and luminous, fostering education and understanding. The design aims to create a community facility that can be shared and experienced by all, bridging perceptions and building connections.

The façade, a combination of clay and solid glass bricks, was carefully calibrated to control light sensitivity and accommodate the different internal activities and spaces. Views into and out of the building were strategically enabled and withheld based on the sensitivity of the areas, with more open parts adjacent to the elevated memorial garden and public circulation spine. This design provided relief for visitors who might be emotionally affected by the museum's content, allowing them to glimpse the local context and contemporary Melbourne through reflective surfaces.

Design Excellence

The MHM sets a standard for how museums can engage with their visitors and contribute to broader social and educational goals. Going beyond meeting the fundamental criteria, its approach to representing sensitive historical narratives and its user-centered design elevate the importance of thoughtful and meaningful design solutions.

The clay and glass brick façade demonstrate the careful consideration of both form and function, the design achieves a harmonious balance between openness and sensitivity. Safety considerations are integrated, the ballistic rating brick facade serves as a robust protective layer, ensuring well-being and security.The MHM prioritises safety and comfort of its users, it is secure and also an inviting space for reflection and understanding.

Earlier in the year the MHM received an Australian Institute of Architects award for Public Architecture, the jury cited, “The museum is successful in its balance of the pragmatic, poetic and sustainable. The intricate clay- and glass-brick facade celebrates notions of resilience, identity and connection to community while responding to complex security and programmatic requirements. The building achieves an efficient thermal envelope and is 100% electric. The facade reclaims the heritage building as an artefact, grounding the museum to its unique history and public memory.

The museum heart thoughtfully envelops visitors in tactile timbers and soft light. Moments of vertical connection evoke reverence and the clever manipulation of natural light through openings and reflective surfaces provide relief from the museum’s exhibits, as well as facilitating opportunities for contemplation and contextualisation.

The subdued reimaging of the Melbourne Holocaust Museum elevates its contents and sensitively mediates connection between visitors, exhibits and programs, and the immediate context. It renews its civic role in educating the public and influencing the milieu of contemporary Melbourne.”

Design Innovation

The design of the MHM breaks away from conventional architectural approaches observed in other Holocaust museums. In doing so, it addresses the challenge of crafting a museum that tactfully and powerfully conveys the histories and memories; emphasises community, inclusivity and education; and an approach that seeks to create a meaningful and respectful experience for all visitors.

Light played a central role in shaping the architecture. Linked to illumination and knowledge, light was used as a motif to create welcoming and functional spaces, especially for education, research, and events, aligning with the museum's purpose. By using windows, skylights, and mirrors, the design ingeniously reflects the sky, clouds, rooftops, and the local context into the building. This creates a seamless connection between the contemporary Melbourne environment and the difficult worlds and histories visitors engage with, gently guiding them back to the present. The incorporation of breakout areas, light filled stairs, and elevated memorial gardens also provides spaces for respite and reflection.

Why glass bricks? The November Pogram of 1938 known as Kristallnacht is synonymous with fragility. MHM's glazed facade indexes the relative freedom to express cultural identity in Melbourne 2023 while ensuring a secure and resilient building envelope.

The integration of the heritage building into the façade and treating it as a significant artifact that holds the origin of the museum, creating a harmonious blend of past and present. This approach not only preserves the historical value of the existing structure but also enhances MHM's role - connecting the museum to the community and the street, fostering a sense of openness and accessibility, making the museum inviting to the public and encouraging engagement with its exhibits and programs. Additionally, the reinstallation of the existing sculptures and stained-glass windows preserves the artistic and historical value of these elements, contributing to the museum's unique character.

Design Impact

The MHM has the potential to create a significant and long-lasting positive impact on multiple levels, encompassing social, environmental, and educational perspectives. The museum not only fulfills its purpose as a cultural repository but also serves as a place for learning, understanding, and remembrance. The civic facility and its multi-functional spaces, MHM contributes to societal healing and promotes empathy, tolerance, and human rights. It becomes a place of collective reflection, bringing people together to learn from the past and envision a more inclusive future.

Environmentally sustainable design strategies for MHM included minimising the need for extensive maintenance, thereby reducing associated costs and waste. This approach not only enhances the longevity of the project but also contributes to a more sustainable and resource-efficient lifecycle, reduced energy consumption and lower environmental impact, supporting a more sustainable future. Materials selection was also important - by carefully choosing eco-friendly and responsibly sourced materials, the environmental footprint is reduced.

MHM is a hub of educational activities, offering a wide range of opportunities for learning and engagement. Through seminars, classes, and school excursions, the museum provides students and visitors with unique and immersive experiences. One of the museum's key strengths lies in its diverse learning programs, catering to various age groups and interests. MHM comprises flexible and adaptable spaces tailored to accommodate forums and workshops, providing a conducive environment for discussions and in-depth explorations. These programs enrich participants' knowledge, foster critical thinking and meaningful dialogue. Through the imparting of knowledge, promotion of dialogue, and preservation of memories, the museum assumes a pivotal role in shaping a more enlightened and empathetic society.

To support the redevelopment, the community played a crucial role by contributing funds, this involvement reflects the importance of the museum to the public and the collective commitment to preserving and promoting its mission.

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