ART OF REMEMBRANCE: making memorials

20 December 2017

Designing a memorial might be the toughest task an architect faces. From traditional monuments celebrating national triumph and personal heroism, to today’s conceptual installations, such projects can be rife with controversy. Patrick Kingsland asks practitioners whether it is ever truly possible to create something that will please all parties.

Joe Weishaar cannot count the number of clients his current project involves. There’s the original patron who issued the competition brief, the review agency that comments on each small step he makes, and the dozens of families of First World War veterans who send him letters and emails that offer fascinating snippets into one of history’s darkest moments.

“With projects like this, the people you are memorialising become the clients as well,” says Weishaar, who was recently selected to design a national First World War memorial in Washington DC. “It’s like having 200 people all sitting around a table, talking to you about how they feel.”

From candlelit vigils to formal monuments, the late-20th century witnessed the onset of a mass case of what the writer Erika Doss has dubbed “memorial mania”, an affliction that has carried through to the present day. Almost as soon as disaster strikes, governments, civil society and victims’ families scramble to remember the dead.

For architects, designers and sculptors, memorial mania creates enormous responsibility, as well as an architectural typology that is radically different to what many have experienced before.

“The personal and emotional dimensions are unlike anything else I have done,” says Paul Murdoch, architect of the national memorial to the victims of Flight 93, the passenger jet hijacked by al-Qaeda on 11 September 2001. “You are working out how to commemorate the lives of 40 people on the plane, as well as designing a memorial built for national and international visitors. The range of considerations is just so much wider and deeper.”

Compared with more traditional commissions, where Weishaar says clients want “low cost and the fastest method of construction”, with memorials, clients tend to ask, “What do we need, how much money do we need and how much time do we need to make it perfect?”

This creative freedom can be a double-edged sword, however, with many of today’s high-profile memorial projects bogged down in controversy of one kind or another. The original design for Frank Gehry’s Eisenhower memorial in DC, for example, was described by one of Eisenhower’s own grandchildren as resembling the “Iron Curtain”.

Plans for a memorial on Utøya island in Norway, where 77 people were massacred by right-wing extremist Anders Breivik in 2011, were recently shelved after residents issued a lawsuit and described the design as a “rape of nature”.

Even Maya Lin’s 1982 Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in Washington DC, now widely regarded as one the finest in the modern US, was lambasted at the time as a ‘black gash of shame’, and a ‘monument to defeat’.

Where does this controversy stem from? Part of the issue, says McCall Wood, associate architect at Perkins Eastman, is trying to reify a complex subject, event or individual into a single piece of design.

“Every human has their own memory of an event or a person,” says Wood, who is designing a memorial to commentate the life of US LGBTQ icon, Harvey Milk. “How do you possibly take architecture, which is historically a stagnant item, a built object located in one physical place, and try and reincarnate and recreate this complexity?”

For Alison Hirsch, assistant professor at the University of California’s school of architecture, this has become even more challenging as society, particularly in the US, becomes more polarised.

“Memorials try to encompass a collective memory that is becoming increasingly charged,” she says. “Memorials trigger conflicts and contestation over political ideologies and cultural memory, and struggles over national identity. People are now asking more questions about whose memory and past is being represented.”

Changing narrative

In the past, architects sidestepped this complexity by designing memorials that presented one particular narrative. They were usually heroic, triumphant and celebrated national ideals. But in the late 1960s, that began to change.

“There was an effort to try and include more voices in the form of memorials, so that there wasn’t a singularity of narrative,” says Hirsch. “There was also more of an emphasis on recognising the tragic and traumatic component of the past.”

This shift gave rise to what the scholar James Young later called the “counter-monument” movement. Young wrote that these were “the antiheroic, often ironic and self-effacing conceptual installations that mark the national ambivalence and uncertainty of late 20th-century postmodernism.”

Lin – who was just 21 when she won the competition to design the Vietnam memorial – produced one of the first and finest examples of this. Her long, low black wall carved into the ground at Washington’s National Mall is considered an antidote to the traditional notion of monumentality, and groundbreaking in its refusal to explicitly condone or condemn the war.

That last point is something Weishaar is particularly keen to replicate, as his design begins to take shape. “The motto that the sculptor and I adopted from the very beginning was that this memorial should glorify humanity rather than glorify war,” he says. “We don’t want a kid to visit the memorial and think war was a cool thing. We want to show people as people, with all of their flaws, anger, fear, sorrow and joy.”

Many modern monuments also focus on experience, interaction and emotion, something traditional memorials were unable to do. Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, which invites visitors to drift through 2,711 concrete slabs laid out in one large grid, remains one of the most famous examples. Its meaning is open to interpretation, something not everybody appreciates.

More recently, Murdoch designed a paved walkway that traces the path of Flight 93 alongside what he calls the “Sacred Ground” – a plaza and contemplative space on the edge of the crash site. Many visitors have commented on its emotional impact.

“We feel like there should be an emotional aspect to experiencing a memorial, especially for an event like this,” Murdoch explains. “One of the things we chose to do with this was have very little in the way of narrative, so that the memorial could operate on a more emotional level. We have a specific visitor centre integrated into the overall experience, which is where the information and narrative can occur.”

Active memorials

While the designers of San Francisco’s new Harvey Milk memorial will continue the tradition of interactive, experience-focused spaces, they hope to move away from the quiet, meditative atmosphere that has come to define so many. Using a Speaker’s Corner-style soapbox platform for public discourse, as well as rallies and meetings, they hope to create a ‘living memorial’ to honour Milk’s memory and serve the area’s current LGBTQ community.

“Harvey was anything but a passive individual,” Wood explains. “He was a community energiser, a vocal activist for human rights and a true icon in the LGBTQ community. We thought about the traditional approach to a memorial – passive, contemplative and serene spaces – and realised that Harvey would need something a little bit different.”

While celebrating important civil rights victories, the memorial designers also hope to make clear that the struggle for LGBTQ equality is not yet over. “We will have a glass amphitheatre with a path where you can experience various aspects of Harvey’s life,” says Erich Burkhart, managing principal of Perkins Eastman’s San Francisco office. “We will memorialise events in the San Francisco and US LGBTQrights movement that Harvey set in motion, but the final section will be left empty. The idea is to make sure people understand that Harvey’s journey is your journey, and that it is unfinished.”

Whatever design strategy architects take, most agree that public engagement in the design stage of a memorial is key. For Murdoch, that meant consulting the families of victims of Flight 93; for Weishaar, the families of veterans; and for Perkins Eastman, the LGBTQ community of San Francisco.

“One of the features of our proposal was to engage the community in the design,” says Burkhart. “When we described who our team was, we also put down the Castro community [the hub of San Francisco’s gay scene], because we want that community to share authorship of the design and become advocates for the project.”

But even with proper public engagement, humans will always experience and remember things differently, and collective memory will always be contested. When Weishaar sits down to work on his design in Washington DC, he will have the experience of 4.7 million Americans involved in the war and 116,000 victims to consider. “They all have unique stories and backgrounds, and contributed in a different way,” he says. “You just can’t include them all.”

The Tower of Voices memorial to the passengers of Flight 93.
The visitor centre at the site of the national memorial to Flight 93 in Pennsylvania.
Part of Joe Weishaar’s planned First World War memorial in Washington DC.
The site of the Harvey Milk memorial.

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