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New memorials offer radical ideas of reconciliation and renewal

Recent memorial concepts, one for a tragic shooting and the other for lynching, make powerful statements about remembrance and moving forward

Time, the trite phrase goes, heals all wounds. But often it’s memorials that help make sense and meaning of tragedies, battles, and loss, at least on a larger, collective level. Two recent concepts for memorials—one that’s been fully realized and one for which renderings have been released to the public—play with the concept of time in ways that promise to make poignant statements, not just riffs on a hoary cliche.

The two events being memorialized—the deaths of dozens at the hand of a crazed gunman, and a widespread, decades-long campaign of state-condoned terror—seem like very different kinds of moments to try and lend context. But in both cases, designers offer sober reflections on events that can be difficult, if not impossible, to explain.

On Utøya, an island in southern Norway, where a mass shooter killed 69 people in 2011, Erlend Blakstad Haffner, architect and partner at Blakstad Haffner Arkitekter, was commissioned to create a space that provides closure without closing itself off. The July 22nd attacks, where Anders Behring Breivik assaulted and killed children at a summer camp on the island, was a tragedy in a country unaccustomed to gun violence that, for many Norwegians, still defies explanation.

Haffner’s concept preserves some of the walls and structures into which bullets were fired, maintaining a direct link to the only physical remains of the event on the island. Commissioned by the Worker’s Youth League, which ran the summer camp, Haffner was asked, in part, to give the place a new life.

His concept surrounds the site of the shooting itself with a new skin, a sort of chrysalis that preserves the event in amber. The remains of the old structure become the inner sanctum, with 69 wood pillars, representing those who were killed, supporting the roof. A new, outer wall creates a cloister between the remains and the new exterior, composed of 495 pillars, representing the survivors of the massacre.

The gap between these walls, says Haffner, recalls the space between the living and the dead, offering both a memorial space, a physical symbol of the randomness and slight distance that makes one a victim and another a survivor, and a marker of time; as the pine on the exterior grays and ages with time, the interior will retain its golden glow, freezing the inner pillars (and the memories of those they represent) in time. The dual nature of the building, that life can go on amid contemplation, is itself strong statement for those seeking immediate answers.

"I didn’t want this to be a very complex building," he says. "The experience and the feelings involved are so strong and dark. It’s important that the building is simple, not too polished."

There are already state memorials to the shooting, but Haffner’s offers both another space to commemorate and grieve, as well as a working structure that allows the memories of those who have died to become a physical part of the living, breathing future of the island. To develop the memorial, Haffner consulted with American scholars, who stressed the importance of keeping these places intact. Instead of erasing it, make it part of the future. The past is protected and honored, but not passive or placed off to the side.

"There’s respect here for loved ones, and those who survived, and they can carry that feeling every day," he says. "It’s important to give them this place."

In Montgomery, Alabama, an American organization called the Equal Justice Initiative proposes a monument that recalls a different type of tragedy. Dubbed the Memorial to Peace and Justice, it would commemorate victims of lynching and racial terror throughout the Southern United States.

The architects, Boston- and Kigali, Rwanda-based MASS Design Group, have designed a site with a visual language that conveys the gravity, displacement, and emotion of these events. A pavilion that looks straight out of a Mies van der Rohe sketch contains a series of columns that, under close examination, are actually suspended forms, representing lynching victims.

The memorial continues to play with spatial relationship and symbols in powerful ways. Visitors who walk towards the center of the site begin moving upwards, reaching a rise above the suspended forms inside. This inverts the power dynamic of lynching. Victims are hung from a tree, or perhaps in a town square, looking down at the perpetrators; in this monument, those surveying the site are being "judged" by the crowd of silent shapes.

MASS designed the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Rwanda, and helped that country reflect on the atrocities of its past. As MASS director Michael Murphy observes, "We have yet to do this in the United States."

While the experience that can be derived from the proposed design seems powerful enough, the larger extent of the project only becomes clear over time. Next to the pavilion, a large field containing markers, each one destined for a county in the country where lynchings took place, bears witness in an even more public and poignant manner. Only when those pillars have been placed across the country, spreading the message of the monument to distant corners of the country, will the statement be "complete."

Those still standing in this field will, apparently, stand in silent judgement of those places and people who haven’t come to terms with the past. But when, over time, the field clears, that itself becomes a potent symbol of healing

Unfolding during a period in Southern history where the meaning and ultimate fate of monuments to the Confederacy and Confederate soldiers is being hotly debated, the EJI project steps squarely into the public debate, not afraid to name names. Truth, in the context of this monument, both honors the dead and implicates the living.

In a period in which we seem beset by tragic events and intractable crises, these two monuments offers unique visions of the role public spaces can play in reconciliation and understanding. Time can be a vessel for change, they say, and by providing time and space to both act and reflect (Utøya) or publicly accept and proclaim (Montgomery), these designs make sure people can be, too.