Two weeks ago, David Layman and his team from Layman Design met with executives from KFHEC in Ami’s offices to discuss their mutual vision for Brooklyn’s first Holocaust education center. I instantly knew not only that I wanted to interview him but also where: at the 9/11 Museum at Ground Zero in New York.
Based in Skokie, Layman Design helped plan the Illinois Holocaust Museum, and masterfully designed the renowned, 25,000-square-foot Permanent Historical Exhibition at the 9/11 Museum, which opened its doors last year. Though Layman Design entered into the 9/11 Museum’s planning late in the process – after another design firm’s plan failed – their reconfiguration of one of the most iconic museums in the United States is widely considered a huge success.
Self-effacing, philosophical and sensitive, Mr. Layman seems tailor-made for the task of showcasing horror in a thoughtful and insightful manner. I had the great privilege of meeting with David Layman, together with Shlome Chaimovits and his wife, at the 9/11 Museum last Tuesday.
The 9/11 Museum
When you were tasked with designing the permanent exhibition at the 9/11 Museum, what went through your mind? What were you ultimately trying to accomplish?
That’s a very complicated question – it’s a three-hour response. But I will say I wanted to be faithful to the facts. I wanted to make sure we documented it as accurately as possible. I wanted to be very conscious of all the people who would be visiting and envision myself walking through it with them, befriending each individual visitor and taking him through that experience.
It’s educational, but it’s also about a memory we all share. My approach is to stand with the visitors, going with it through them. You’re looking at the face of evil on one end, and on the other end into the nobility of the human spirit.
The basic architectural design was here before you got involved?
They gave us the whole footprint of the north tower. We essentially had an open box.
So you were able to design it from scratch?
We inherited some things that were already here and had to change some of it; we had to work with the curatorial team to refine the narrative. There were two design firms involved in the museum. Ours took on the 9/11 story, the actual narrative of that day.
How many feet were you given for your exhibition space?
25,000 square feet. We could’ve used another 5,000 feet, but we work with what we get. Every project has functional constraints and you have to work within those constraints.
Your exhibition seems to be aiming at both the mind and heart, to both educate and evoke emotion. How do you combine the two?
People never have a purely emotional or intellectual response—always the two combined. Over time, we pull them apart and we write a textbook devoid of the human dimension. In designing, we wanted to make sure we combined both aspects of it, because that’s really the truth of that day. There’s an artificial understanding in our society that when history occurs, it’s not history; it’s current events. But these types of historical events have to be appreciated both intellectually and emotionally.
You want to evoke emotions, tears, mourning?
Yeah. That’s the frame of mind. Mood is important—we are very careful how we use light and all the things we do.
Is the bottom line to educate people?
I’d say that’s a big part of it.
Sort of like luring people into educational material without them realizing?
It’s actually about good storytelling. You don’t want to be didactic; you don’t want just words on a wall. That does a disservice to history, because history isn’t boring—it’s fascinating. We can learn many things about humankind if we do it the proper way. My job is to try to find those things so that people can experience the history as close as possible to how it happened. It’s designed through a lot of study, working with curators and content specialists. A lot of work goes into understanding what happened and putting together critical things that convey the larger picture accurately.
It begins the morning 9/11 happened, and takes you through it. It’s designed in a way that the rectangularity begins to pull apart at weird angles, like the whole day was falling apart. People were just completely bewildered.
The exhibit is divided into three parts. The first part deals with all the events, morning till evening. The next part deals with the building of the towers and how people learned to love them—how they then became the targets of terrorists, leading to the ’93 bombing and the rise of al-Qaeda, all the way through to the morning of 9/11. The third section deals with the aftermath.
In the first part, there’s a main narrative path winding through. On the left is a moment-by-moment timeline of what was happening in the air and on the ground. There are some moments that are particularly emotional for many people and we didn’t want to put that right in the middle, so there are alcoves to step into and hear what people were experiencing.
Is there an age restriction?
I think they’re asking to be careful with kids under eleven. There are sensitivity issues; it’s difficult for people not mature enough to understand. Also, some of the ideas are a little too complex for them. Some of the content is really hard-hitting and it can be quite upsetting for a kid to see his mom crying uncontrollably.
There is a lot of audiovisual technology here.
It’s all fairly new and it’s rapidly advancing. It’s been a joy as a designer to see technology finally catch up to our imagination.
Do you think that future technology will take the place of exhibitions?
No. I think the critical thing is for us to be creative and proactive with how we use these things so it doesn’t become obsolete.
When you deal with experts and historians and there are debates over facts, how do you resolve those?
There are a number of ways. If one opinion is deemed overridingly accepted by most historians, you go with it. If a particular view is more pertinent to the way you’re telling a story, you can opt for that one. Sometimes you present a variety of views and let the visitor understand there’s a debate about this, and that gets people thinking about how history isn’t always cut and dry.
Do you consult with psychologists about how to deal with the emotional issues?
Yeah. For this one, we consulted with psychologists from early on in the process. Many New Yorkers still can’t face coming here; we have to be very sensitive to how people take this.
It’s fascinating how you utilize design elements for these types of issues.
We are very careful and sensitive in the design of the space. Considerations such as the light level and materials, or how you edit the material can make a huge difference. There are benches for comfort, tissue boxes handy, and the size of the room can be small and cozy. There’s a lot we do to allow people to take in this information without being overly traumatized.
Certainly there are a lot more artifacts from the Twin Towers that are not exhibited.
There are several off-site storage spaces for those. We have like 10,000 artifacts and more coming in. A lot of the steel has been dispersed to memorials all over. Our team selected what would be exhibited. Often, on a daily basis, we’d go see what was found that day and decide whether it should be included.
Your educational background is in design?
I started with philosophy, history and art, and then got into design, and did my graduate work in design. I’ve been in design ever since, but brought all those other things with me. Design is not about decorating; we try to do much deeper design. It’s a hundred times more complex than an art museum.
What’s your team like?
We have 3-D designers, graphic designers and administration and coordination people. The project team includes curators, content specialists and other specialists they bring in when needed, like psychologists or people with experience in theology. So there’s a chore team, and we bring other people in as necessary.
Ground Zero had a very particular smell, which no one who experienced it can ever forget. You can’t capture that in a museum.
You can, though, because imagination is an amazing thing. It’s amazing how being in that moment can trigger the memory of the smell.
Holocaust survivors say that anyone who wasn’t in the concentration camps will never understand the experience. Having lived through 9/11, I think I can understand that certain experiences defy narrative. No exhibition can evoke them.
That’s very true. We can only try to trigger those memories in those people who already have them. We can’t create them.
Is there a “never again” type of message in the museum?
No. That wasn’t part of the message. The main message was to take this information in and think about it, and take it with you as a part of who you are. There will be times when they’ll strike at us again; we just need to be vigilant.
I’m hoping people can keep their heads up a little.
Did you focus on the people who committed the crimes, or mostly on the victims?
Clearly, the perpetrators have to have a place in the story. The story is meaningless without that. But the focus is on the victims.
You also want to confront the deniers with the evidence. There always will be people who try to contradict the facts, sometimes unreasonably. The important thing is to provoke thought and discussion. You pull the facts together, and you make sure all the research is very solid. If people are going to go off to crazy places, there’s nothing you can do about that. But reasonable people will take the information and be able to have a debate with those people who are seeking to alter history. Places such as this and the Holocaust museums help put things in perspective.
Part of my job is to stand with visitors and say, “Let’s take a look at what happened here. In both 9/11 and the Holocaust, you’re looking at supreme evil, what mankind is capable of doing. It’s unconscionable. We have to look at that so we can process and understand where we need to go from here.”
You also have to make sure we bear witness to these stories. It’s relevant for a much broader audience. It impacts everybody’s life.
Terrorism is on the rise, so exhibitions such as this one aren’t really accomplishing much as far as confronting evil. Does that affect you?
Absolutely. We keep seeing the same problem and we keep giving the same response to the problem; then the problem continues. Maybe we’re asking the wrong questions. Maybe we’re going about this the wrong way and it’s time to stop and reevaluate that.
Some people won’t ever change, but others have the opportunity to have their minds opened. There’s something inside all humans that recognizes humanity. They can get blinded based on the information they’re fed, but I’m hopeful they can be reached to open their viewpoint. I just think what’s really lacking in our society is a place to sit down and have that debate.
We can’t recreate the memories, but we can invoke them for people who remember and document them for people who don’t. I feel honored to have even been asked to be a part of this.
Are you involved in art museums?
I’ve done one or two, but my heart’s in history. I’ve worked at the Field Museum for nine years. I did a lot of natural history stuff. Primarily, we focus on things that we think are important to people in terms of who they are and how it helps them relate to people around them and their responsibility to the rest of society.
You have influenced over a million people who have visited here. And yet your hand is hidden.
As it should be.
How does it feel to influence so many people and yet be anonymous?
It’s not about me at all. I have a duty and responsibility, and I think it’s a G-d-given responsibility. As a result of that, I stand in the shadows and do the best I can.
You have no urge to tell people: I designed this?
Never. It belongs to the world.
I had mixed feelings about the 9/11 Museum. My first thought was: Why create a place of mourning when the same terrorists who brought down the Twin Towers are still determined to destroy us? Why not rebuild the buildings they destroyed and put a nice museum on top of the tower so people get a feel of what it was like to be on the 100th floor when the buildings were hit? I actually voiced my criticism a few weeks ago to Governor Pataki. He said we built the Freedom Tower, and was arguing with me about the wisdom of leaving Ground Zero as a hallowed place.
My second thought, walking through the museum, is that unlike an art museum where the paintings lure you, it takes time and patience to walk through the exhibitions here. It’s an educational experience. Few have the wherewithal to walk through an exhibition in order to be educated, especially when anyone interested in 9/11 can access the information on their laptops.
Yet you created a wonderful exhibition here and the fact that people take time off to be educated is impressive. I would never think people would be willing to do that.
I won’t go into the politics. As you know, it was a very complex process to get this done. Everyone had different ideas how to redesign and redevelop this area. I do know it’s important to have a place to come mourn and remember. It affected everyone. 9/11 isn’t just New York’s story; everyone needs to be able to come to a place like this and relive that day in some way.
You say that the terrorists are still around. They’re always going to be around. I don’t think we should be making decisions that affect the hearts of so many people based on fear of provoking another attack. You’ve gotta keep moving on with your life and do what’s right.
As far as the museum is concerned, I can speak more about that. On my trip in, my taxi driver found out I’m involved in the museum and launched off on how it was an inside job and probably the Mossad or the government and on and on. That’s why it’s important to have the museum, so people can come here and look at the evidence. You can go anywhere you want on the Internet and get false ideas, but the evidence is here.
The other thing we have to consider is that, unfortunately, you have to make the effort to confront these kinds of issues. These are deep issues that affect mankind; they affect all our lives.
What types of issues are you referring to?
The conflict of cultures. The different ideas of how we ought to live. The danger associated with some of these ideas. Trying to figure out how to appropriately respond to the ideas. All those things don’t come easily. The museum attempts to confront some of it to provoke thought and discussion. We’re so distracted with the minutiae of our lives that we forget to stop and consider things. So I think it’s great people will spend two hours thinking about them.
The other thing is the emotional truth involved. History isn’t just a series of facts—it’s how we all conduct our lives, how we deal with and respond to the things around us. And that’s an important part that has to be documented for posterity.
You had mostly very positive reviews. Were you surprised how well received this was?
We were pleased, but not that surprised. We’ve been doing this long enough to know, going through the process, that there were indicators this would happen. But you never know. You hope for the best and it goes where it goes.
How is what you’re trying to do for KFHEC different?
Conceptually, it’s very similar to the 9/11 Museum—the similarities are apparent just about everywhere you look. The design approach is going to be the same: the way we dive into the concept and study. One of the things that has me thrilled about the KFHEC project is looking at this history through a religious lens, which to me is critical. I don’t know any project that has done that before.
Can you describe what people can expect to see in the KFHEC exhibition?
We’re working on a completely new style of presenting information. When people walk in, they will have never seen an exhibition like this before in their lives. In a way, we’re sort of reinventing the museum narrative.
I think people are going to be in for a very surprising and rewarding experience. We’re going to be introducing a lot of the history through media, in very interesting, integrated ways. And we’re allowing the story to flow through the space, so people will be able to go through at their own pace and pick up parts of the story, making those connections in a way I don’t think anyone has ever done before.
Also, many people are interested in specific things. We’re hoping to be able to give them the opportunity to study and access information that’s just now being pulled together from sources we weren’t aware of even two years ago. A lot of this information is going to be very new and fresh. Those people who are interested are going to have access to all of this information for the first time.
I think this is going to be a very groundbreaking museum. There’ll be nothing like it internationally.
Mostly video or audio?
A combination. And the visuals will be integrated into the architecture.
Will there be an intimate component to the museum?
Given that much of the story is very intimate and very personal – yes, absolutely. There’ll be moments where it stops and you take a slice out of the history, examine it very closely, and have it interpreted for you – just those few minutes of time.
There were many moments when people were trying to deal with something they just couldn’t understand. Society was coming apart around them, and a tyrannical government was imposing dictates on the people that compromised the tenets of their religion, how they related to each other. They had to continue living their lives anyway, particularly if you were a religious Jew. People were struggling to find ways to live religious lives and respond spiritually to the things that were happening. And I think, for the first time, some of those things will be looked at closely, so people can understand that aspect of trying to live under Nazi domination – how a person tries to continue with life under those severe constrictions.
You’re being commissioned to do this work for an Orthodox Jewish group. Is there a universal message to the project or a parochial one?
It’s actually both. One thing that’s so exciting to me about this is that, to my knowledge, there is no museum that has presented the Orthodox story of the Holocaust to the public. This is an incredibly unique opportunity. I think there are messages in a unique perspective from the Orthodox community. The story has resonance not only for the community but also for many people outside the community to come in, to be able to take a look at this. There are so many poignant historic echoes.
Can you describe what you think the Orthodox message would be? How does that differ from the overall Holocaust narrative?
Without going into particulars – because there are specific stories that I don’t want to give away right now – it gives a deeply religious, Jewish perspective. One of the charges that Hitler and the Nazis so vehemently hurled against the Jews was that they keep themselves apart from Western and Eastern European culture. As a result, that made them easy targets for Hitler to assign the tag of the “other,” the enemy. A huge amount of fury was directed at the Orthodox communities as a result.
There’s also a spiritual struggle when you’re encountering that kind of devastation and brutality and annihilation – how people relate to their faith and to G-d; there’s a plurality of different responses. I don’t know if these parts of the story have gone out to the rest of the world, and I think it’s very important for people to hear.
Does that story also affect the design element? Is it more of a religious type of design?
That’s a very good question. Normally, we try to get into the very heart of the story and to reflect that in the design in some way. Right now, we’re working on how that voice, the essence of the story, is communicated. There will be a general narrative of what happened in the Holocaust, because a lot of people aren’t even familiar with the broader historical sequence of events. But through all of this, there will emerge a religious Orthodox perspective, woven through the history narrative. We’re exploring a number of different ways of doing that.
We don’t know if we have that result yet, but that’s something we’re working on. We want to make sure there’s a clear design indication of that voice. A lot of the design influences actually come from the references that were generated right before and during that period, and that will automatically have a religious feel to it, so the visitors can follow that thread through the exhibit. We always try to marry the design techniques and the story. Quite often we have to invent design techniques to support the content. So we’re trying to invent that technique right now.
You’re building on top of a synagogue. Are you making any design changes to the synagogue itself?
A: Yes. Much of the synagogue is not yet built out. We aren’t going to really change the layout of the sanctuary itself – we’re going to improve seating upstairs so they have a better view, and we’re putting in a newly-designed mechitzah to help them see more clearly into the sanctuary while blocking the view from down below. We’re looking at designing and installing a mikvah downstairs. There will also be a social hall downstairs, a library and a number of other additions.
The exhibition space at KFHEC will be 4,000 square feet. Here your exhibition space is 25,000. Will that restrict you?
We work with what we get, and it’s always a challenge. We’re working with an architectural firm that’s done synagogues before: Headlon Associates in Chicago. They’re contributing a great deal to the design of the architecture and the spaces. Given our background, I think this is a really nice partnership, along with the Kleinmans and the synagogue.
Are you coordinating everything with architects?
We’re working hand-in-hand. We have contracted them through Layman Design and have been involved with them through all phases. Design is a collaborative effort. We try to implement it so it looks fresh. It’s a new experience, and innovation goes into it—new technology. We try very hard to make sure that one project doesn’t look like the last one.
You’re dealing with lots of people who think they understand design. How frustrating is that?
It happens on every project, but it’s something I welcome. People are excited by design. If I wasn’t designing well, it wouldn’t generate excitement and people wouldn’t want to get their hand in the pie. We all have a design gene in us, so it’s only natural that it comes out when there’s a place for it.
Do you try to articulate other people’s visions?
Of course. That’s my job. They come to me to partner together and tell the story. I’m here to help implement what they want to say.
You’ve worked on other Holocaust projects.
I’ve been working with the US Holocaust Memorial Museum for a number of years. I freelanced with them before I started the business. My first project was with them – I’ve designed five or six exhibits there. And so I’m very blessed to be able to work with some of the finest minds in that part of history. I got to know them quite well and I feel like, for the last twelve years, this has been my life. Of course, getting to know some of the most excellent scholars in the world right now who are dealing with these stories in depth – like Michael Berenbaum – is a great privilege.
In the 9/11 exhibit, I found the voices of the victims before they died very moving. I was wondering if you’re going to incorporate an audio exhibit for survivors to speak.
We’ve been going to many survivor oral testimony archives. Many have been recorded, and the museum will continue to have the oral testimony of survivors and the next generation, so those stories could be collected. You’d have access either through the library or media center there, so those stories are kept alive. You’re right, those are the most powerful of all—to be able to hear the voices of the people who experienced those things, or who were closely related and heard the stories firsthand. It’s one of the most
powerful ways to have those stories told.
Is optimism and rebuilding after the Holocaust part of the message you’ll be conveying at KFHEC?
I think it’s about the whole thing. You can’t cast a light without there also being a shadow; so you have both of those. I think it’s important for people to not leave depressed. There has to be an uplifting consequence to the story, and there is one. We want to show the juxtaposition – to have people think more deeply about all the events and try to evaluate the story.
Has your work in trying to convey tragedy changed your life on a personal level?
It really shapes who you are, how you look at life and other people. In the earlier years, it was extremely difficult – nightmares every night, not being able to sleep, having to deal with the fact that what happened was very terrible. I think any emotional human being can’t help but respond. But the deeper you go into it, the deeper you understand what happened and why these issues are important. I think it has served to really help me be a more decent person. You look at human beings quite differently as a result of the exposure to this kind of history.
How are you balancing the message with your attempts to keep it from being too depressing?
A lot of the content is obviously very emotionally difficult. It can leave you quite bewildered—why did people do the things they did, how could they perform the acts they did? Those are hard things for us to come to grips with, but they’re important. Those who suffered feel it’s very important that the message gets out—that people hear those stories and that it doesn’t fade from our memories. It’s important to tell the stories and it’s also important for us to grapple with them, so that we can recognize when we see this again and respond in appropriate ways. We hope we can prevent things like that from happening in the future.
The end of the story is not necessarily the deaths. Quite often, the numbers are articulated and they’re just so staggering. That’s just the deaths, but the suffering goes way beyond numbers, beyond statistics.
Life goes on. The story doesn’t end with the tragedies. There are successes and the stories of the indomitability of the human spirit that carries on out of such evil. That’s a message that I think is very important for people to understand, to ponder a little and to pursue. It gives us all some light in life, and hopefully, our lives are improved as a result.