Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center

Skokie, Illinois

The Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie, Illinois draws heavily on symbolism and cultural references. As it turned out, these are traits for which Pittsburgh Corning glass block is perfectly suited.

The project opened in November 2008 and consists of two buildings clad in aluminum panels, hinged at the centre and oriented towards the east and Jerusalem. The first building is finished in somber colors, representing a descent into darkness. The second building, finished in white, represents the visitor’s ascent back into light.

“There are a number of Holocaust museums around the world,” said principal architect Stanley Tigerman of Chicago-based Tigerman McCurry Architects. “This is a unique one.” With most buildings, one enters and exits the same way. With this one, visitors enter one way and exit another, symbolizing an inability to turn back, as was the case for those who experienced the Holocaust.

At the very end of the museum is a cylindrical reflection area overlooking the exhibition space in the second, lighter building. It is in this space that glass block forms the culminating feature, a western-oriented circumferential wall.

Tigerman chose Essex® AA pattern glass block for this wall for several reasons, including its relationship with light. As natural light floods the room from the east to rest on the glass block wall, the effect symbolizes the promise of the Messiah’s arrival to believers, as well as the hope that emerged after the Holocaust. In turn, the glass block diffuses this natural light over the exhibition space below in a dramatic counterpoint to the first, dark half of the facility.

There was also another, less expected advantage. The building is deeply rooted in symbolism, Jewish tradition and references to the ancient Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. For instance, glass block comes in sizes very close to the cubit, a biblical measurement used to build the Temple. Since the entire museum is based on these measurements, glass block proved an ideal fit. And if you count the number of glass blocks used (4,200), you get multiples of both the cubit and numbers significant to the Holocaust, including the six million Jews murdered.

The glass block wall, with its curved form, also references the curtain delineating the holiest place in the ancient Temple. It was the Essex block’s ability to fulfill the architect’s vision and stand for more than aesthetics that made it such an evocative choice.

“I thought about using lexan, fiberglass, a whole list of materials,” said Tigerman. “But there is no size to them. With glass block, you know it has a size. It has a certain inevitability.”

“What’s nice about this product is that it’s measurable,” Tigerman continued, lending itself to the symbolism of the building. “It was the only material that I could imagine for this.”