Blending landscapes with memories
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good memorial evokes an important event in the collective
experience of a community or a nation, but as important
are the details of construction. To effectively carry
their message to visitors, memorial designers must keep
their message and construction simple and must work with
the surrounding landscape so that distractions don't eliminate
the effect of the monument.
"The simpler the message is, the better the memorial
will be, " said Thomas S. Johnson, a member of the
Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, the organization
created by the City of New York to help guide the re-development
of Lower Manhattan and the World Trade Center site after
the September 11 attacks.
In an article in the New York Times, Johnson stated that
although memorials can carry many messages, "the
memorial is better kept to a minimum of thoughts and emotions."
The Times article had numerous examples of memorials that
worked to varying degrees of success.
The message is simple at the Oklahoma City Memorial to
the victims of the bomb at the Murrah Federal Building.
Its centerpiece is 168 empty chairs, one for each of the
dead from the bombing. These chairs include 19 that are
heartbreakingly small, for the children killed in the
blast. This message of absence is also found at the Holocaust
Museum in Washington DC. One exhibit is shoes - 4,000
empty shoes - found at the Majdanek death camp.
Strength is the message of the Iwo Jima monument in Arlington,
Virginia, where the raising of the flag is commemorated
in a statue. Another kind of strength entirely is commemorated
in the Rosa Parks statue in Montgomery, Alabama. That
statue invites others to sit alongside Ms. Parks on her
bus seat and share in her quiet strength that allowed
her to refuse to move to the back of that bus in more
racially divisive times.
City settings can present problem in designing memorials,
but the Vietnam War memorial takes advantage of its location
in the midst of the National Mall. One end of the Vietnam
Memorial points to the monument of George Washington -
the man who built the nation out of the blood of patriots.
The other end points to the statue of Abraham Lincoln,
who held us together through strife and whose death was
mourned by many, bringing the nation together again.
Memorials often carry somber messages from tragic events,
and everyday noises of city life can distract from these
messages. The Oklahoma City Memorial drops visitors below
street level, giving them a quiet place to receive the
messages it sends. Likewise, the Vietnam Memorial uses
the landscape to separate visitors from distractions.
Starting at the level of the National Mall, visitors to
the Wall walk into the earth along a chronological list
of the war dead to the depths of the war. As the war ends
and hope arises, so too does the visitor.
The design of the memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt
ignored these factors. It has complex messages - probably
too many of them. The memorial, on the National Mall in
Washington, DC, requires that visitors stroll through
the many rooms in a certain order and uses waterfalls
to build to a dramatic crescendo. This effect is all but
lost, however, because the memorial sits in the flight
path to Reagan National Airport. Both the Vietnam and
the Oklahoma City memorials drop visitor below the noisy
street level, carving out a place of quiet for reflection
at the memorials.
Materials of construction are also important for memorials.
The Vietnam memorial is made of reflective black granite.
Symbolically, visitors see themselves in the wall in addition
to the names there, but equally important is the durability
of the granite that will make the wall a lasting, low
maintenance tribute. The memorial to law enforcement officers
in Washington, DC was made of a soft porous material that
is already beginning to wear away in places.
The best designs for permanent memorials consider all
these factors, but the best measure of a memorial's effectiveness
is its ability to make a visitor pause and reflect. The
most powerful images remain those of the personal beside
the elegant: the rose at the base of the Vietnam wall,
the teddy bear on the tiny chair in Oklahoma City - these
all touch the heart and mind with remembrance of things