America’s Memorials Can Be Designed to Evolve

Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia / Wikipedia

Confederate monuments and other long-tolerated symbols of racism are beginning to be expelled from America’s civic landscapes. As we engage in these acts of reconciliation and removal, it is worth a significant pause to consider why we seem to habitually design memorial landscapes for indelible permanence in the first place?

A memorial – whether a monument or otherwise — is simply a tangible container for memory through time. We benefit from having designated places to recall memory and emotion – whether grief, pain, fear, anger, love, respect, reverence, gratitude, awe, pride, or joy.

Part of the complexity of being human means that it is possible to feel multiple emotions simultaneously, and also that our feelings and memories are dynamic and can change over time. New knowledge and experience, and a genuine willingness to face difficult truths can significantly alter and expand our perception.

As such, might there be virtue in designing certain memorial landscapes to allow for a degree of fluidity and change?

Moving forward, American monuments and memorial landscapes in the 21st century may better be able to embody shared cultural values; reflect an inclusive and emotionally-intelligent view of history; mirror and support dynamic emotional processes; aid healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation; honor diversity, accept death, and truly affirm life if they are designed to consider the virtues and qualities of transience, adaptability, and vitality.

Transience

Despite the air of permanence many of these historic icons convey, it is laudable that several local governments and institutions have acted boldly to remove Confederate statues. A monument that marks an important time in history, but that simultaneously is widely perceived to be symbolic of racism, may best be retired or kept in a museum, rather than in the heart of a public square or civic space.

A 2017 study by the Southern Poverty Law Center found that 1,500 Confederate symbols can be found in public spaces across the country – they are monuments as well as named roads, municipalities, parks, institutions, and public works. The “undoing” of this landscape legacy is more easily wrought for a small statue than it is for an immense earthwork like Stone Mountain in Georgia, but no memorial is immune to the laws of impermanence.

As the voices of the oppressed are increasingly heard, and intolerance of hatred leads to action, our public and private landscapes should be able to adapt as we literally rewrite history with greater honesty, compassion, inclusion, integrity, maturity, apology, and courage.

It is time that we finally own the stories of extreme colonial and racist violence that undeniably define the conquest and development of the United States as a country. Realizing the long overdue expiration date of a monument whose presence detracts from equality should cause us to consider that not everything we erect in stone, bronze, and steel should last forever.

In 2015, three statues representing the Spanish missionary Junipero Serra were vandalized in my home community of Monterey County, California. Like Robert E. Lee, Serra practiced and promoted slavery. He and his missionaries displaced thousands of Esselen, Ohlone, Costanoan and other native people from what had been their homeland for millennia. Colonial violence and oppression included rape, slavery, abuse, isolation, exposure to disease, and deliberate suppression of language and culture.

The beheading of a statue at the Lower Presidio in Monterey occurred in the same year Serra was canonized as a Saint by the Catholic Church. While some lamented the defamation of the city’s co-founder, and the damage to this 1891 relic of post-contact California history, it is clear that these statues, similar to those of Lee, symbolize racism. Even more insultingly, they morally validate an individual who contributed to the near extinction of the Esselen people and many other tribes that were severely oppressed under missionization.

Headless Junipero Serra statue / US Franciscans

Even if one or more of our local Serra statues were removed or relocated, the Spanish names prevalent here and throughout California convey a daunting dominance, rendering the first names given to our local geography largely forgotten, and the living community of the Ohlone-Costanoan-Esselen Nation, who have yet to gain federal recognition, nearly invisible.

Landscape is not always a mirror of the diversity of cultures that inhabit it. As we look closely at what our own cities and neighborhoods fail to reflect, it is worth considering what kind of reconciliation can be achieved simply through acts of deconstruction and renaming.

Adaptability

While grief may leave a permanent scar, and render permanent change within an individual or a community, grief is also a dynamic and ongoing process. How can a memorial wholly acknowledge the severity of trauma and loss, while inspiring hope for the recovery of the broken-hearted? How can we remarry simple civic ritual to our most important public spaces?

In the case of the National September 11 Memorial, for example, beautifully and sensitively designed by architect Michael Arad and landscape architect Peter Walker, FASLA, what would it mean to the people of New York City (and to the country and even the world as a whole) if one of the two “voids” that symbolize loss in the footprints of the towers were to someday be partially filled? What might it mean to extend the swamp white oak grove to a lower level – to fill the voids with life, once the cascading water has washed away the rawness of grief? What if there were an opportunity for individuals to ritually contribute to this physical transformation – one shovel-full of soil at a time? What kind of deeper healing and forgiveness might be able to occur if there were a collective gesture made to physically mirror a transformation beyond the initial, radical enormity of grief?

National September 11 Memorial / PWP Landscape Architecture

What do we want this memorial to reflect about our culture 100, 500 or 1,000 years into the future, whether it is still intact, or an archaeological relic. Relentless and permanent grief? Resilience? Forgiveness?

Vitality

Should memorials be hard or soft? Inanimate or living? The concept of a memorial garden or grove honors life with vitality itself. Cemeteries that encourage tree planting instead of headstones are becoming increasingly common, as are natural burials in which the body is allowed to decompose underground, feeding the biotic community in the soil, versus being chemically embalmed and preserved in an impenetrable coffin.

The 9-11 Memorial hosts a Survivor Tree Seedling program, in which seedlings from a Callery pear tree that survived the attack are gifted to communities that have endured tragedy. This achieves the highest good that a memorial possibility can – breeding compassion in the present moment, and in the form of a living and life-giving tree.

September 11 survivor tree / Smithsonian

A memorial need not be bound to one particular place – and therefore may be more widely accessible.

As my mother was a lover of birds, I have chosen to remember her through them. Hawks, owls, wrens, robins, cranes, indigo buntings, cormorants, warblers, finches, sparrows, crows. Each bird reminds me of something different about her, each inspires a unique affection, and each encounter uplifts.

Californian condor / Jessica Neafsey

In choosing to remember her this way, the mountain valley that descends from my east-facing deck, over which countless birds soar, has become an arena for reflection and remembrance of her. The sky itself has become a bridge to the unconditional love I still feel with her. A memorial need not be made of or bound to the Earth.

In the words of Celtic poet and author John O’Donohue, “not all woundedness succeeds in finding its way through to beauty of form. Where woundedness can be refined into beauty, a wonderful transfiguration takes place.”

I hope the unrest we are living through leads to nothing less than a renaissance of American memory, which will see our landscapes adapt to reflect unprecedented American wisdom, compassion, inclusion, and grace – until it’s time to revisit our storytelling, once again.

This guest post is by Jessica Neafsey, ASLA, founder of Jay Blue Design in Carmel, California.

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