What kinds of memorials are fitting for disasters that are almost too horrible to contemplate? As school massacres, airliners flown into buildings, and similar horrors proliferate, should their memorialized expressions move us to tears—or should they strive to be bright and cheery?
A recent memorial installed in Canberra, Australia, demands that we ask this question. It commemorates the deaths at sea of 353 people, mostly women and children, all of them refugees from Indonesia seeking illegal entry into Australia. They were crowded on a small, leaky vessel that sank when a violent storm struck them on the high seas. The final anguish of the passengers, especially mothers who saw their children being swept under the raging waves, must have been horrible beyond words.
As chronicled in this month’s Critic at Large, the event spurred a small group of activists to create a memorial to publicize the plight of refugees who, like the drowning victims, are denied entry by Australia’s tough immigration policies. The effort pulled in thousands of Australians, including schoolchildren, who competed to create the best design. The winning entry by a 14-year-old schoolboy consists of 353 white poles, each bearing the name of a drowning victim, and decorated by school and church groups across Australia. Some of this decoration reminds me of candy canes or the cheery designs on a baby’s crib. Were the volunteers struggling to put a benign face on the dark and terrible event?
Maya Lin had a different idea in her design for the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in Washington, D.C. “I really did mean for people to cry,” Lin said. “As you read a name or touch a name, the pain will come out. Then you can, on your own power, turn around and walk back up into the light…. You have to accept that this pain has occurred in order for it to be healed.”
Memorial designers like those in Australia seem to make the opposite assumption—that when the pain and grief are too great, the designers must cover them over with a sweetened (or at least neutral) expression. Sometimes grieving families mandate this, as in the case of the Pentagon 9/11 Memorial, where families insisted on “no flames and no planes” in the design. And who can blame the bereaved for wanting a place of solace?
It’s sometimes said that the process of design is cathartic for families who increasingly drive the design of memorials such as the one to the Columbine High School massacre. The resulting Columbine memorial (see “Private Grief, Public Place,” Landscape Architecture, October 2008) is, to my eye, the blandest thing anyone could imagine, but if taking part in its design comforted any of the bereaved, who cares what it looks like? Put another way, is the visual form of a memorial as important as the process that brought it into being?
J. William “Bill” Thompson, FASLA
Editor, Landscape Architecture Magazine
Photo credit: Gweneth Newman Leigh, International ASLA