About the Architecture of the New Normandy Visitor's Center

ARCHITECT: SmithGroup, Washington, DC

The client's objectives were to enhance the experience of the visitor to this revered site by creating a facility that was complementary to the cemetery in style and dignity while maintaining the memorial cemetery as the primary focus, and which related the magnitude and significance of the Normandy operations, the courage and sacrifices involved.

During planning, three sites located outside the sacred district of the cemetery were studied. A flat wide field on the eastern boundary of the site, beyond a boscage east of the hemicycle of the Memorial, was selected because it offered a prospect to the landing beaches to orient visitors to the disembarkment before they are confronted with its aftermath. Building and landscape were designed to refer to the setting, act in concert with the exhibits themes of Courage, Competence and Sacrifice, and finally draw visitors back to the cemetery to recognize those that gave their lives throughout the course of the Normandy campaign.

Instead of piggybacking on the cemetery's monumental east-west axis that runs parallel to the shore of the English Channel, the center - comprised of a 27,000-SF building, auxiliary structures for orientation and toilets, and parking for 480 vehicles - is oriented along the north-south compass ordinates of the surrounding Norman fields.

Entering through the main cemetery gate, and proceeding in a northeasterly direction along a road that encircles the parking lot, visitors glimpse the Channel in the distance through breaks intermittently cut into the existing hedgerow along the east boundary. An environmentally sensitive barrier, the hedgerow also subtly secures and reinforces the perimeter. Hedges on green grass islands in the asphalt break down the scale of the parking lot into smaller areas, in an echo of the surrounding pattern of fields.

A walk bifurcates the parking area, undulating through the site, collecting visitors and propelling them northward, towards the Channel in the distance. This walk is paved in concrete that is seeded with pebbles found on the Norman beaches, in reference to the beginning points of the liberation of Europe and the memorial pavement in the cemetery. Where this walk crosses the road, the pavement changes to Belgian block, signaling the arrival plaza created by the intersection of the pedestrian and vehicular paths that is encircled by stainless steel bollards. Across the plaza, the walk, paved in pebble-seeded concrete again, straightens to hug the west edge of the rectangular plinth of the building extending north beyond it to terminate in a grassy field at the crest of the massive dune of Omaha Beach.

The plinth abuts the north edge of the plaza with which it is aligned, and rises out of the earth that slopes towards the Channel. Its walls are clad in form-molded concrete and stone, inspired by the irregular stone and mortar walls found throughout Normandy. Instead of the typical limestone of the region, these walls are constructed of gray granite that is similar to the low walls of the cemetery's periphery. Its surface is warm white granite that is liberally sprinkled with garnet occlusions that appear as rusty drops, subtly evoking the blood spilled upon ground.

On this plinth, visitors first encounter a small pavilion, comprised of gray granite walls engraved with quotations that rise out of the plinth, to orient the visitor to the cemetery and its solemn themes. North of the pavilion, the plinth holds a sunken garden of beach grasses that acts as a foreground to beach views, impressing the initial beachhead struggle of June 6th.

Just after the garden, in the center area of the plinth, a monumentally scaled gray granite wall rises up - the blocks of its coursing jutting in and out rhythmically to evoke the earth shaken by guns and the dislodgement of war. This is the major component of the west elevation of the building, which, with its massing, piers and openings, acts as the counterpoint to the wall that encloses the Garden of the Missing and the Memorial to the west, beyond the grove of trees. Glimpses through the openings in the massive walls give way to the expansive beach views of the east exposed by the glazed curtains and experienced on the broad terraces. This view is horizontally compressed by the extended overhang of the roof - and the similarly hued ceiling and floor - to evoke the views of the landing forces by the occupiers.

Inside, floors and walls are clad as a continuation of the exterior. In the lobby, a large skylight, on axis with the main west opening and its direct view to the Memorial, is curved to recall the participation of the parachute troops. Other features express the struggle of Operation Overlord. The patterns of the graining of the Makore wood paneling on the south wall behind the information desk, echoes the waves on the surface of the Channel directly across from it to the north. The Channel is made even more palpable by the reflecting pool just beyond the lobby at the north end of the plinth, with its infinity edge that blurs the distinction between the facility and the Channel.

The majority of the mass of the structure was deliberately located below grade so as not to overpower the existing context. Descending by generously proportioned stairs or elevator to a partially below-grade level, visitors will proceed northward through a long rectilinear gallery, with concrete walls and ceiling beams, specifically devoted to telling the story of the competence and courage that characterized the military campaign that freed world from tyranny. At the terminus of the Courage gallery, a granite wall that is clad in a rational running bond pattern to symbolize restoration of freedom from tyranny and chaos, guides visitors into the gallery devoted to interpreting the sacrifice of all those involved in the campaign.

The gray wall intersects a room that is in stark contrast to all other spaces in the facility. The oval shape, evokes the curvilinearity of the hemicycle of the Memorial and Chapel, and provides a sense of calm. The quietude is reinforced by the acoustical deadening created by the white plaster that coats walls and ceilings. White floors are limestone, to reference the white marble headstones in the Cemetery, respecting their sacred singularity by avoiding using the marble as a walking surface. Exhibits address the myriad sacrifices made, as images remembered, through photographs on tablet shaped glass stele.

At the center of the space is a double-cube shaped meditation chamber, its walls rising the full height of the space through the ceiling to a transparent skylight. One cube has the limestone floor of the gallery, its translucent whitish glazed walls rendering persons ghostly when viewed through the glass. The other, made of corten steel, has a black pebble floor. Unlike the light filled translucent chamber which can be entered, this solid rust-red colored cube is sealed by a clear glass panel. This is a void whose walls collect the reddish drops found on the warm white granite floors. This double cube represents the chasm confronted by the grieving as their lives continue while separated from their loved ones by death, under an endless sky.

Exit from this gallery is to the north. There, nestled between limestone walls which symbolize that sacrifice has led to restoration of peace; visitors ascend a red asphalt path up a gentle slope to face the Channel once again and begin their visit to the cemetery.