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Three tiny houses made from glass bricks inside of a neo-classical building with a tiled floor and coffered ceiling
An installation at the 2019 Chicago Architecture Biennial, The Gun Violence Memorial project addresses the hundreds of thousands of gun deaths in America.
MASS Design Group

How new memorials reckon with gun violence in America

They’re spaces to heal, mourn, and commemorate the lives of those lost—but can they also change how we deal with the crisis?

Pamela Bosley never thought her son Terrell would die from gun violence. But on April 4, 2006, when he was 18 years old, he was shot in front of Saint Sabina, the South Side Chicago church that was like a second home to him. An accomplished bass guitarist who performed with gospel groups across the city, Terrell had stepped outside to help a friend carry drum equipment when he was killed. The murder remains unsolved.

“We did everything right,” Bosley tells Curbed. “We drove Terrell to school. We had a close bond and relationship. He stayed busy with college and working a job. He was at church all the time. We never expected any of this to happen. But Terrell came out of the church and somebody took his life.”

Bosley’s grief felt so inescapable that she tried to take her own life twice. Then, in 2007, she, along with her husband and other parents who had lost children to gun violence, co-founded the nonprofit Purpose Over Pain to support other survivors.

“It’s so hard, you know, to go through this, and we’re still in it even though it was in 2006 for me,” she says. “We said, God must have a purpose, so we came up with ‘Purpose Over Pain’ because we’ve got a purpose for our lives over our pain.”

Pamela has dedicated her work at Purpose Over Pain and at the Terrell Bosley Anti-Violence Association, which she founded in memory of her son, to supporting gun violence survivors, mentoring children and teens who are impacted by gun violence, and advocating for common-sense gun control laws. This year, her work—which usually involves speaking at rallies, lobbying elected officials, hosting basketball games, coordinating coat drives, and leading support groups—took a new form: four small houses.

A detail shot of the memorial, showing the glass bricks filled with photographs and personal mementos
The memorial is both deeply personal and universal. Each house is composed of 700 glass bricks, symbolizing the number of people killed by guns every week, and is filled with memory objects collected from families whose loved ones were killed by guns.
MASS Design Group

The Gun Violence Memorial Project, an installation at the Chicago Architecture Biennial, is poetic, somber, and reflective. The four houses are white and roughly 10 feet by 10 feet, with gabled roofs made from glass. Each one is composed of 700 hollow bricks symbolizing the number of people in America killed by guns every week. Tucked inside many of the bricks are objects of remembrance for victims of gun violence in Chicago, all donated by their loved ones. Bosley contributed a small diorama of Terrell’s life that includes portraits of him, a tiny bass guitar and drum kit to represent his love of performing and dreams of earning a music degree, and a church—the space he loved to be in and the place where he lost his life. “We needed something on display so people can know these are people’s lives, they had lives and their lives matter,” Bosley says.

A collaboration between the architecture firm MASS Design Group, the conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas, Everytown for Gun Safety, Purpose Over Pain, the filmmaker Haroula Rose, documentary producer Caryn Capotosto, and StoryCorps, the Gun Violence Memorial Project—along with in-progress memorials in Orlando, Florida; El Paso, Texas; Newtown, Connecticut; New Haven, Connecticut; and Thousand Oaks, California—is an example of a new wave of high-profile memorials addressing gun violence in America.

Over the past few years—as gun violence gains more national attention and mass shooting after mass shooting dominates the news cycle—gun violence memorials have evolved from temporary, local, ad hoc responses to permanent fixtures and strategic installations. These memorials to individual and communal loss respond to a crisis that is still ongoing, and they’re also coming at a time of a broader reckoning with the place of history and culture in public space.

“Every time someone is killed by a gun in this country, there is a ripple effect of quiet collective trauma that billows through our society,” says Hank Willis Thomas, who named his artistic practice, Songha & Company, after his cousin, who was killed in 2000. “We carry this loss in our hearts into every situation for the rest of our lives. We see this installation as a call to action and reflection. Our hope is to create a space for public healing, atonement, and acknowledgement that we as a society can and will do more to honor the lives of those lost to this epidemic and change the future.”

When someone loses their life to gun violence, flowers, candles, letters, photographs, stuffed animals, and other mementos often flood the site. These temporary shrines and public outpourings of grief sometimes last days or weeks or months and reappear on anniversaries, but they are often taken away as communities heal.

“It’s an immediate way of reckoning, a softly spoken yet persistent form of mourning,” says Paul Farber, co-founder of Monument Lab, a public art and history studio based in Philadelphia that studies collective memory in public space.

Sometimes, these spontaneous memorials become more permanent, particularly in communities that have access to funds to build something and with shootings that are national news.

After a 1984 shooting in a San Ysidro, California, McDonald’s, a memorial composed of 21 hexagonal marble pillars was erected in memory of the 21 victims. In 2007, a “Ring of Remembrance” and “Wall of Healing” opened to honor the 12 students and one teacher killed at Columbine High School in 1999. Immediately following the April 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech, mourners took Hokie Stones—a type of decorative limestone used in many of the campus’s buildings—from construction sites and created an arc to memorialize the dead. When the university decided to build a permanent memorial, which opened in August 2007, it essentially recreated the impromptu design.

After the 2017 mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Festival, Greg Zanis placed 58 white crosses underneath the “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign to honor the victims. He did that twice before the city deemed the installation a pedestrian safety concern, and moved it to a downtown government building.

As these memorials have become more permanent, they’ve also become more monumental in scale and ambition. Walmart plans to build a “great candela” at the El Paso store where 22 people were killed in an August 2019 mass shooting.

A rendering of a circular staircase covered by an awning and planted with grass overlooking a fountain lined with rainbow pavers
The Pulse memorial, in Orlando, will feature a healing garden and reflection pool.
Coldefy & Associés with RDAI/onePULSE Foundation
A rendering of museum featuring a slatted white roof and winding promenade that spirals toward a rooftoop garden
The project to memorialize the lives lost from the 2016 Pulse shooting also includes a museum with a spiraling vertical garden in the center.
Coldefy & Associés with RDAI/onePULSE Foundation

After the 2016 mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, the venue’s owner established the OnePULSE Foundation with the mission of building a memorial and museum with a national audience in mind. The design competition attracted 68 submissions from 19 countries, by some of the most high-profile firms working in architecture today: MASS Design Group, which designed the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Alabama; Studio Libeskind, the office behind the World Trade Center master plan and the Jewish Museum in Berlin; Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the studio that designed the High Line, the Broad Museum, and MoMA’s recent renovation; and MVRDV, the Dutch firm that created the Instagram-viral Tianjin Library.

The winning design, announced last week, comes from a team led by the French firms Coldefy & Associés and RDAI. At the site of Pulse, the plan calls for “an opulent garden” planted with 49 trees to symbolize the 49 victims and a shallow reflecting pool whose basin is lined with 49 rainbow stripes encircling the nightclub. It also proposes a towering open-air museum, with a spiraling garden promenade that leads to a rooftop terrace, that anchors what the architects describe as a Pulse District, a new neighborhood with promenades and bike paths, and a shaded esplanade connecting the memorial and the museum to downtown Orlando.

An aerial rendering of the Pulse Memorial and Museum
The Pulse museum and memorial anchor a new district featuring greenways. The patrons, the onePulse Foundation, view the project as a place to pay tribute to the 49 people killed and to “educate and bring hope into the world.”
Coldefy & Associés with RDAI/onePULSE Foundation

These memorials aren’t without controversy.

Norway canceled a memorial to the 2011 shooting at a summer camp on the island of Utøya, which killed 69 people and injured over 100. The project, named “Memory Wound” and designed by the artist Jonas Dahlberg, would have consisted of cutting a channel through a peninsula near Utøya. Peter Schjeldahl, the New Yorker’s art critic, called it more lacerating than consoling, and locals protested what they saw as a daily reminder of the tragedy.

A survivor of the Pulse shooting questioned spending millions on a museum and memorial—the estimated cost is $45 million—when survivors and their families are struggling to pay for health care. Another group of survivors and victims’ families oppose the Pulse project on the grounds that it capitalizes on “death tourism.”

In discussing a permanent memorial for the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting of 2012, some residents of Newtown were concerned about tourists treating it as a “Universal Studios” attraction. Ultimately, the Sandy Hook Permanent Memorial Commission selected a design meant for locals, not visitors: a healing garden designed by landscape architects Ben Waldo and Daniel Affleck of SWA Group.

“We wanted to honor everyone’s unique grief and provide a space for the community to gather, to support one another, and to feel together in that grief,” Waldo says.

The garden’s walking paths are concentric circles meant to represent the process of mourning, and visitors can travel multiple paths to reach the center, which features a reflecting pool with a tree planted in soil made from incinerated letters and mementos sent to Newtown from around the world after the shooting. The names of all 26 children killed will be inscribed in stone at the reflecting pool’s edge.

“For this project, it didn’t feel appropriate to address the gun violence epidemic or the mental health issues on the side of mass shooters,” Waldo says. “It felt much more appropriate to address the mental health of those who are wrought by that tragedy.”

An aerial rendering of the Sandy Hook Memorial, which features a reflecting pool with a tree planted in the center and circular walking paths leading toward the pool
The residents of Newtown, Connecticut, commissioned a healing garden as a memorial to the 20 children and 6 teachers who were killed at Sandy Hook School in 2012.
SWA Group
A rendering of the Sandy Hook Memorial’s reflecting pool at dusk with dozens of floating candles in the water
The design aims to help the community heal and honor the lives lost.
SWA Group

The call for submissions for the Newtown memorial asked that designs not be political. Other cities and organizations designing monuments in response to gun violence have taken the opposite approach, seeking to use the power of collective pain and mourning as a spur to political action.

“The question is not how to solve the gun crisis and then memorialize; it’s how have artists and engaged residents of this country used mourning as a way to call action for this issue,” Farber says.

He points out that this is something other groups of people have struggled with, drawing a comparison to the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, which bears some similarities to the gun crisis today. “The AIDS crisis is one where urgent memory and mourning is at the center of how people can deal with the enormity of loss and the specific mourning you do,” he says. “How do you mourn an individual in the midst of an epidemic?”

Both the AIDS crisis and the gun violence epidemic suffer from a lack of information and misinformation about their root causes, insufficient legislation to address the issues, and presidential administrations that aren’t acknowledging the problems. Activism mostly comes from the families and loved ones of those who have died, and both protest movements have used death as a call to action.

“What AIDS activists, queer activists, and their allies did was bring their mourning into public space, and they did so with the AIDS Memorial Quilt, which we now think of a national treasure, but was a defiant act to bring private mourning public,” Farber says. “They’ve used memory and mourning in public, largely because they have no choice. We’re in the midst of crisis.”

Over the past few years, Noelle Howey, senior director of cultural engagement at Everytown, has noticed a shift in how gun violence is addressed culturally. Artists, who by their nature respond to and create culture, are listening to survivors and sharing stories and lived experiences in their work. In 2015, Stephen Tarzia launched the National Gun Violence Memorial website, a digital memorial with names, photographs, and news coverage of people killed with guns. The aim is to humanize the staggering statistics about gun deaths. For two nights this October, the artist and activist Jenny Holzer projected quotes from gun violence survivors on Rockefeller Center in a piece called “Vigil.”

Anti-gun-violence artwork used to focus on the guns themselves, Howey says. “Now you’re seeing this uptick in art that’s about listening to survivors, their stories, and their experiences because so many people are impacted, unfortunately. It’s been an incredible shift, not only because we want people to hear from survivors, but it’s more persuasive to hear from them and relate in a human way than it is to relate to disturbing or triggering imagery, which can be polarizing.”

Everytown’s mission is to end gun violence, and the organization takes multiple approaches to achieving that goal. Everytown publishes reports, organizes, and lobbies for common-sense gun control legislation at the local, state, and federal levels, like universal background checks, an assault weapon ban, keeping guns away from domestic abusers, and licensing guns as we do cars to promote responsible ownership. They also engage in film, television, fashion, music, and architecture projects to move the needle.

“The gun violence crisis that kills 100 people every day didn’t happen overnight; it happened because of how our culture views gun violence,” Howey says. “To end the crisis and save lives, we’re going to have to have a different cultural paradigm that we view gun safety and gun violence through. That’s in the culture and that’s a long-term project. It’s the whole ‘marathon not a sprint’ analogy.”

Projects like the Chicago Biennial’s Gun Violence Memorial Project, the healing gardens, and walls of remembrance are more immediately accessible.

“It takes it into a physical space, and out of a policy conversation,” Howey says. “It’s a different experience and you have a different relationship to the issue.”

Our physical spaces are already surreptitiously responding to the threat of gun violence, but in a reactionary way: choke points that make it easier for law enforcement to surveil individuals they perceive to be threatening, CCTV and facial recognition, and incorporating barriers—a number of interventions known as “crime prevention through environmental design.” When Newtown reconstructed the Sandy Hook School, it incorporated a number of subtle “hardening” interventions that are now being seriously considered at other schools.

“Architects are already making unintentional monuments to our gun crisis,” Paul Farber, of Monument Lab, says. “Our public spaces are being built on one hand to invite people to thrive in this renaissance moment of public space, but at the same time built with an infrastructure to bend around the failures of gun prevention.”

While mass shootings—which are difficult to track because there is no single definition of a mass shooting—like those that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Pulse nightclub, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, and the Las Vegas Harvest Festival dominate news cycles with greater frequency, they represent a small fraction of the number of people who die from gunshots. Everyday instances of gun violence—especially violence that impacts black Americans—have been occurring for decades without the same national media attention.

Each day, 100 people in America are killed with guns and over 270 are injured, according to Everytown. About 60 percent of deaths caused by guns are suicides, and white men represent 74 percent of firearm suicide victims in America. About 35 percent of gun deaths are homicides, with black Americans representing the majority of gun homicide victims. Firearms are the second leading cause of death in children and teens, and the leading cause of death in black children and teens. About 52 women are killed every month by an intimate partner using a gun, 1 million women alive today have reported being shot or shot at by intimate partners, and 4.5 million women have reported being threatened with a gun. In more than half of mass shootings over the past decade, the perpetrator shot a current or former intimate partner or family member as part of the rampage, according to Everytown’s research. (In its analytics, Everytown defines mass shootings as those involving four or more people, not including the shooter.)

We have national memorials honoring those who died in wars, monuments to leaders, but nothing for the millions of deaths from everyday gun violence, and it’s these victims that the Gun Violence Memorial Project represents.

Before working with MASS Design Group on the Gun Violence Memorial Project, Pamela Bosley created a public memorial wall on the lawn in front of Saint Sabina. It’s entirely covered in photographs of children in the community who were killed by guns. Last year, Bosley was invited to the opening of the National Memorial of Peace and Justice, the first national memorial to victims of lynching, where she and Annette Nance-Holt, one of Purpose Over Pain’s cofounders, met Michael Murphy, the founding principal of MASS Design. They were moved by the memorial, and asked if he would create something for their city.

“I said, ‘Can you create something for the parents in Chicago? Because we’ve got so many people being killed and it’s silent,’” Bosley recalls. “Nobody is coming to help us. No one is putting stuff up on behalf of Chicago.”

Murphy agreed.

When conceiving of memorials, MASS thinks about what would enable truth-telling and listening. “What type of space would allow for us to be ready to listen to the hard truths of our pasts, in order to prepare the visitor for how to think about their own capability to resist and fight against future injustices?” Murphy tells Curbed.

The architects at MASS designed the Chicago project as a memorial that could evolve and apply to other communities, or even to the entire country. In the future, a “city” composed of these glass houses could function as a national memorial.

“Because family members are asked to contribute objects, they are building the memorial themselves, brick by brick, house by house,” Murphy explains. “By building the movement, and telling personal narratives of those that are affected, we hope to share the full truths of who is affected by gun violence: It is all of us. And its success will be determined if we can build a coalition, a movement that ultimately leads to policy or culture change.”

A woman stands inside a small white house made from hollow glass bricks filled with memory objects
The houses measure about 10 feet by 10 feet. Over time, the glass bricks are filled with more memory objects.
MASS Design Group

Purpose Over Pain and MASS Design hosted collection events at Chicago churches to gather the objects of memory that are tucked inside the memorial’s bricks. MASS also held collection events in Washington, D.C., and Boston, and will periodically add items to the installation so that the houses gradually fill by the time it concludes at the Chicago Cultural Center in January 2020. Then it will move to the National Building Museum, in D.C., with the aim of reaching an audience of legislators and tourists from across the country.

The collection events were filled with an overwhelming array of emotions, as family members parted with meaningful objects and recounted stories about their loved ones, which were recorded for a video included in the memorial and archived on Everytown’s website. In some instances, family members entered the rooms of their lost loved ones for the first time in order to find the right object.

The items are as unique as the people who died. One mother chose to give a pair of electrical clippers in remembrance of her son who was a barber. Another chose to contribute the high school graduation tassel her son would have worn if he wasn’t killed before the end of his senior year.

MASS Design’s Maggie Stern recalls receiving a small blue stone from a mother whose 17-year-old son, Marc, had died five years before. When he was in kindergarten, Marc gave his mother the stone, calling it a magic pebble.

“She had been carrying this stone with her every day since Marc’s death—for the last five years, wherever she went, the pebble was with her, in her pocket,” Stern says. “It was something that meant so much to her that I was hesitant to receive it on behalf of the project. The burden felt too great. But when I asked her if she was sure she wanted to donate this token of Marc’s love, she nodded emphatically, asking only that it be displayed on top of his box.”

A close-up shot of a woman holding a photo of an infant and another holding a pebble and a small white box that is inscribed with “To: Mom From: Marc” in black marker
The memory objects donated to the Gun Violence Memorial Project included items like photographs, compasses, bibles, and more. One mother, whose 17-year-old son was killed five years ago, included a “magic pebble” given to her by him when he was in kindergarten.
Courtesy MASS Design Group

When Bosley and the Chicago families attended the opening, they experienced a flood of emotions.

“I had no idea what to expect. I didn’t know how I was going to feel or how I was going to act—I was nervous,” Bosley recalls. “Then we got there and I was going, ‘Did you see my house?!’ Every parent felt like the house [that had their memory objects inside] was theirs. The Chicago Cultural Center had to put us out because we didn’t want to leave. So it was a good feeling, a sad feeling. You had some crying, you had some smiling, you had some hugging. We all were just walking through the houses and looking at everything.”

These memorials are reflections on the past, statements about the present, and profound acts of futurism—and for people like Bosley and organizations like Everytown, they are one piece of a larger strategy geared toward changing U.S. gun control policy.

“Most memorials are for things in the past that aren’t still happening, not ongoing crises,” Noelle Howey says. “I think [these memorials] are an act of optimism, with the idea that [gun violence] becomes obsolete or minimized to a point where you would need the memorials as an explanation of what America was. I would love that they have some lifespan of their own where we can look back and say it’s not like this anymore.”