“The persecution of women perceived to be witches took place throughout Europe and America for several hundred years. Women who were classed as witches because of their non-Christian practices were tortured and killed from as early as the mid-1400s in Europe, and roughly 80,000 witches were put to death between 1500 and 1660.”
Buildner, which bill itself as the world’s largest organizer of architecture competitions and has awarded more than $1 million in prizes, has launched a new global ideas competition for a memorial to people unjustly persecuted as witches throughout history. Entrants are welcome to select any location and design any structure, with any material, but with sustainable practices in mind.
Entrants are also not limited to a particular event or injustice. Landscape architects and other designers can mine the past or examine the present. Concepts can educate about past persecution or provide a “method of whistle blowing and raising awareness of ongoing injustices.”
According to the organizers, witch trials have been staged for hundreds of years and in some communities continue to this day.
The most famous is perhaps the Salem Witch Trials, which took place in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692-93. More than 200 were accused of witchcraft and nineteen were executed, including fourteen women and five men. All were hanged except one who was pressed to death with heavy stones. Buildner notes that this is a “relatively small number compared to the Basque Witch Trials of the 17th century in Spain, in which around some 7,000 cases of witchcraft were heard.”
While the popular image is of witches burned at the stake, most in England and the American colonies were hanged. “30,000–60,000 women, men, and children” were executed this way during the height of witch mania in the western world.
The Memorial for Witches competition is the first in a series of competitions that seeks to “remind the public” of the ways in which society deals with “irrational fears.” They note that “those who were feared and misunderstood were suppressed and victimized, a trend of social injustice that still takes place to this day.”
Indeed, National Geographic states that 21 percent of Americans currently believe in witchcraft and attacks on socially marginalized groups have risen. And the United Nations and other human rights groups have found the number of witch trials and hunts around the world has increased, particularly in India and some Sub-Saharan African countries. In recent years, witch hunts in Sub-Saharan African countries, India, Indonesia, Brazil, and Saudi Arabia have resulted in many innocent women, men, and children kidnapped, imprisoned, tortured, or killed.
While the jury hasn’t been announced yet, past juries of Buildner competitions have included Carlo Ratti, director of the MIT Senseable City Lab, and leading landscape architects and architects from firms such as MVRDV, Zaha Hadid Architects, Snøhetta, and UN Studio.
First prize winners will receive €3,000 ($3,044); the second prize, €1,500 ($1,522); and third prize, €1,000 ($1,014); while one student winner will also receive €1,000.
Tragedy, protest, insurrection, and political turmoil have led to a renewed awareness of racial injustice and democratic instability. These issues create new challenges for users and designers of public spaces in America. Cultural spasms have resulted in contested public spaces — sites of killings, protests in streets and parks, and forgotten burial grounds. These spaces need a new form of environmental justice.
While environmental justice is most often viewed from the perspective of the impacts of pollution on people, land, water, and air, the spaces stained by the killing of Black Americans and soiled by a history of slavery and white supremacy require environmental justice too. Because they also disproportionately affect Black and brown communities.
As a result, landscape architects, architects, urban designers, and planners are now at the center of a shifting racial, political, and spatial dialogue. Designers are called to examine their place in a country built on systemic racism. There are new opportunities to defeat bias and work toward spatial equity as “designer citizens.”
The murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota changed the American and global discourse on race and justice. The protests that followed this tragic event set in motion the removal of Confederate monuments and marches at the White House. There were multicultural marches against police brutality and extensive grassroots and academic discussions about racism in America. There are far more Black victims of racism at the hands of police, but the brutal imagery of George Floyd’s murder sparked a collective humanity within the American and global public.
Due to the unnecessary death of yet another Black man, the veil of white supremacy and entitlement has been again uncovered. The outpouring of support was swift and protest marches included people of all colors for the first time in decades. However, the ferocity of the government’s response in the form of more police brutality, protester arrests, and the labeling of the Black Lives Matters (BLM) organization as a negative, socialist, left-wing group were just as swift.
During protests in Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser fought this false narrative about BLM by designating the Black Lives Matter Plaza as a multi-block-long street mural directly in the face of the White House. The plaza, in a sense, has become one of the first physical protest responses in the form of public art and place. Mayor Bowser reflected on her reason for taking this action. “We had the opportunity to send that message loud and clear on a very important street in our city. That message is to the American people that Black lives matter, Black humanity matters, and we as a city raise that up.”
The dialogue that arose from George Floyd’s murder has included public protest rights, public space creation and appropriation, and, most importantly, the disposition of Confederate monuments. Black Lives Matter Plaza and Confederate monuments led to a robust discussion within the landscape architecture, architecture, and planning professions concerning race and place. How does one memorialize places of protest and also de-memorialize places of incomplete historical interpretation?
Environmental justice typically involves reducing the inequitable distribution of pollutants and hazards in communities of color. But we need to recognize that police killings and other homicides also disproportionately impact communities of color. A broader definition of environmental justice can then also include efforts to memorialize tragic events in public spaces and secure and honor these spaces. While designs for these issues will continue to evolve, the need to use public space to advance environmental justice will never change. There will always be a need to better represent a true reading of history.
In a Smithsonian article, Peter Schwartzstein speaks of the connections between urban space and successful public protest. He suggest that “what’s notable, perhaps, about the ongoing protests in the U.S. and many [countries] abroad is the extent to which differing urban designs can determine a movement’s success and sometimes even propel different outcomes for the same grievances.” He further speaks of the role of designers and the history of public space. He indicates that “after decades of tightening constraints, in which public space has shrunk, shifted, or vanished, scholars suggest that urban design itself will only become even more of a protest influence in the coming years.”
On the other hand, the honest recording of history cannot be subjected to changing facts. Historians such as Carl Becker suggest “that history is what the present chooses to remember about the past. Historical monuments are, among other things, an expression of power — an indication of who has the power to choose how history is remembered in public places.” In this sense, landscape architects can be advocates of a more complete history in the design and redesign of public spaces. In the case of Confederate monuments, the authentic history is clear and not fluid.
Karen L. Fox clarifies this authenticity argument in The New York Times, when she states that “the heyday of monument building, between 1890 and 1920, was also a time of extreme racial violence, as Southern whites pushed back against what little progress had been made by African-Americans in the decades after the Civil War. As monuments went up, so did the bodies of black men, women, and children during a long rash of lynching.”
These contemporary projects highlight the challenges ahead for designers as America deals with police violence, protest, a history of systemic racism, and other social issues. The U.S. Capitol Grounds is the next test facing landscape architects, because of the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the Capitol and the need for increased security.
A Memorial of Protest and Pain
Changing understandings of social, cultural, and political injustice provide new opportunities for landscape architects to participate as citizens. The increased awareness of racial injustice creates opportunity for landscape architects to acknowledge this systemic problem that disproportionately affects Black and brown communities. The deaths that occur from these police incidents leave not only broken families and communities, but also places and spaces of pain and conflict. The challenge for designers is how to create spaces that acknowledge the life of those killed, respect the context of the place, speak to racial injustice, and create a sense of resolution.
The November 22, 2014 death of Tamir Rice by police officers in Cleveland is a questionable incident that did not result in charges against the police officers involved. An article in The New York Times by reporters Shaila Dewan and Richard A. Oppel, Jr. poignantly describe Tamir’s playful visit to the park with a friend, including the toy airsoft-style gun he carried.
After a neighbor called police to report a child in the park with a gun, which the caller described as perhaps a toy gun, Dewan and Oppel indicate that “with the gun tucked away, he walked to the edge of the gazebo. He might have been wandering aimlessly, or he might have been attracted by the sight of a squad car barreling across the lawn. Seconds later, the boy lay dying from a police officer’s bullet…But the boy, Tamir Rice, was only 12.” The death of this Black child validates the protest that followed and justifies the memorial that his mother worked so hard to realize.
Tamir’s mother, Samaria Rice, has since created the Tamir Rice Foundation to advance social justice and remember her son through a memorial within the Frank E. Cudell Recreation Center and park area. The memorial will be located at the site of the gazebo where Tamir was killed. These memorials are becoming far too common, but they can create a place or remembrance within a new type of landscape.
In 2020, the Tamir Rice Memorial project began moving quickly with the solicitation for designers and the hiring of the Black landscape architecture firm, Design Jones, LLC, to design the memorial. The Cleveland-based firm Deru Landscape Architecture is the team landscape architect of record. Samaria Rice and her daughter, Tajai, as well as community members, were fully engaged in the development of all memorial design concepts.
As outlined by the design team, “the Tamir Rice Memorial makes sacred a space of devastating injustice in the remembrance of a vibrant young Black child full of possibilities. It uses the forms of the butterfly and the box to signify what Tamir was, the flight of freedom, and what society assigned for him, the darkness of confinement.” The heart of the memorial is an engraved granite stone with Tamir’s image and text that memorializes his life. The butterfly garden was originally built with the help of Tamir’s sister, Tajai, and her friends as a 2016 memorial to her brother. Funding for the garden was provided by the Cleveland City Council.
The pathway leading to this memorial stone embodies the evolution of Tamir’s life and incorporates and revitalizes the existing butterfly garden, which also becomes a creative beginning to the memorial space. The curved pathway and dry creek establish a sustainable mitigation area for stormwater runoff. As the years pass, there will be time to understand if and how this memorial heals a community and, in particular, a family that remains in pain.
The original gazebo where Tamir was killed was dismantled and moved to Chicago with the assistance of the Rebuild Foundation. Artist and activist Theaster Gates, the CEO and founder of the foundation, was instrumental in assisting Samaria Rice with this pivotal relocation and memorial.
“The reconstructed gazebo with the original concrete picnic table now sits on the north lawn of 6760 S. Stony Island Ave., rededicated as a platform, a stage, a prospect from which to reckon with, argue over, and jointly heal,” said Adam Green, associate professor at the University of Chicago Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture in The Chicago Tribune. A spokesman for the Rice family has indicated that the Chicago gazebo site will not be its final location: “the gazebo [is] going back to Cleveland and finding a permanent home.”
Diane Jones Allen, FASLA, principal at Design Jones LLC and professor and director of landscape architecture at University of Texas at Arlington, states that “I was inspired and moved by Samaria Rice’s speaking to me of the beauty of her son and the horrific tragedy of this event. Her words clearly shaped my hand while designing the memorial.”
A Memorial of Acknowledgement
The murder of George Floyd not only created a global racial justice protest movement, but also reignited the decades long debate over how to address the removal of Confederate monuments and symbols around the country. However, history is clear relating to why Confederate monuments exist and why monument removals are necessary. Southern pride is most often used as the rationale for not removing Confederate monuments.
However, Keisha Blain, associate professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh, suggest that these defenders “fail to acknowledge that Confederate monuments and symbols emerged in an effort to intimidate Black Americans and uphold a revisionist-and racist-version of history. In effect, these monuments and symbols already do the work of erasing history — the very thing their defenders now accuse protesters of doing by demanding their removal.”
Against the backdrop of a Unite the Right rally on August 11-12, 2017 organized by white supremacist protesting the removal of the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Virginia, a team of designers and community members were busy at work designing the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers at UVA.
The juxtaposition of these two activities — a revisionist protest to preserve remnants of the Confederacy and a historical acknowledgement of slavery’s damages to Black Americans — is striking. During the Unite the Right rally, there were clashes between the protesters, which resulted in the tragic death of 32-year old woman, Heather D. Heyer, a Charlottesville resident, by an irate white supremacist driving through a crowd of protesters. Conversely, the enslaved laborers memorial team efforts resulted in the April 11, 2020 dedication of a memorial that acknowledges the lives of enslaved laborers who were owned and rented by UVA.
The Memorial to Enslaved Laborers stands in honor and recognition of a buried history that has been honestly brought to the surface and stands in stark contrast to the General Robert E. Lee statue in Emancipation Park. The memorial was designed by Höweler + Yoon Architecture, including Eric Höweler, professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and Meejin Yoon, Dean at Cornell University College of Architecture, Art, and Planning. They collaborated with historian and designer Dr. Mabel O. Wilson, professor at Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation and founder of Studio&. They also collaborated with Gregg Bleam, FASLA, a landscape architect, community facilitator Dr. Frank Dukes, and artist Eto Otitigbe.
The memorial responds to the fraught history of UVA with an open form, a sweeping gesture in stone that is welcoming and inclusive as if waiting for the visitor to complete the memorial. It is a form that is open in terms of meaning, alluding to the African ”ring shout” and is space of shelter and gathering.
“The Memorial is also open ended in that it is unfinished, with the list of names remaining conspicuously incomplete. The unfinished nature of the memorial also alludes to the historic legacy of slavery and the ongoing work in the present that needs to be done to address questions of bias and anti-Black racism today,” said Eric Höweler. This memorial reminds us that history may be reinterpreted based on biases. But the true reading of history guards against revisionist rhetoric and personal bias.
The discussion of acknowledging systemic racism and the ownership and sale of slaves to sustain personal or institutional wealth was started within the academy. Brown University, Georgetown University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, UVA, and other universities have led this reconciliation with historical reviews and action plans, which is the beginning of a model for corporations, cities, and other seats of power.
In 2013, Dr. Marcus Martin, Vice President and Chief Officer for Diversity at UVA, proposed the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University to further study the history of slave ownership by the university. The Commission’s core goal was to “explore and report on UVA’s historical relationship with slavery, highlighting opportunities for recognition and commemoration.”
The design team described this history in this powerful statement:
“An estimated 4,000 enslaved persons worked on the Grounds of UVA between 1817 and 1865, when the Union Army liberated the enslaved of Albermarle County. Owned and rented by the University, they created and maintained its famous grounds, pavilions, and Rotunda. The memorial’s commemorative forms and historical inscriptions acknowledge the dualities of enslavement — the pain of bondage and hope for the future. It celebrates the bonds of community that nurtured resistance and resilience to the dehumanizing violence that shaped the everyday experience of enslaved life at UVA. In doing so, the memorial creates a vital public place to understand, learn, and remember their contribution to the University.”
This particular memorial in the front yard of Thomas Jefferson’s vision is indeed environmental justice on a grand scale. The project is bold, and its form grounds the memorial in a way that creates a sense the circular form rises from the Earth as the voice of the forgotten slave laborers.
As Dr. Mabel Wilson at Columbia University states in the team design statement, “this memorial confronts a campus whose very architecture was conceived to express the highest aspirations of our democratic society yet, at the same time, was literally designed to obscure the oppression of the enslaved individuals who realized Jefferson’s vision and sustained life on campus for nearly 50 years. [The Memorial] provides a much-needed space for active engagement with the grim reality of slavery and systemic racism, the repercussions of which the nation is still wrestling with today.”
Only eight months after George Floyd’s murder on May 25, the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C. became another shocking bookend to the May 25 incident, creating a cultural tsunami. Americans and the world have awakened to the reality that the authenticity of democracy in the country is, in fact, a conceit. There is an inauthenticity of citizenship that again forces America to acknowledge its past and the present history of racial injustices.
David Brooks, a columnist with The New York Times, reflected on January 6 in terms of morality when he writes “human beings exist at moral dimensions both too lofty and more savage than the contemporary American mind normally considers. The mob that invaded that building [the Capitol] Wednesday exposed the abyss. This week wasn’t just an atrocity, it was a glimpse into an atavistic nativism that always threatens to grip the American soul. The rampage reminded us that if Black people had done this, the hallways would be red with blood.” Brooks provides a nuanced argument that even when there is democratic protest by a mostly Black group, as opposed to undemocratic insurrection by a mostly white group, there is inequality and obvious bias.
The insurrection at the U.S. Capitol presents yet another spatial challenge — how to protect the Capitol and also provide a space of democratic movement for Americans. For many months, the U.S. Capitol Police took the position that the seven-foot-high fencing should stay in place. Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and many Congressional Representatives, along with ASLA, successfully argued that the fences were undemocratic. There is no doubt that landscape architects will be called into creative action to craft a long-term spatial mediation.
The Tamir Rice Memorial and the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers at UVA are linked. They seek to resolve issues of race and place, specifically addressing the lives of Black Americans. These places continue to bring attention and a degree of reconciliation to police violence and the buried history of slavery in America. As these projects show, there is a great need to design more solutions to racial injustice. Similar sites will only increase in number, requiring the need to sensitively provide creative solutions that uplift and educate the public.
January 6 shows us that environmental justice related to race and space will be dominant for some time to come. This new environmental justice offers landscape architects opportunities to demonstrate their citizenship through a honest acknowledgment of the continuing racial and spatial disparities and ugly racial history of the United States. If we want to design more democratic public spaces across America, we must pledge to achieve authenticity rooted in history and facts.
Glenn LaRue Smith, FASLA, is cofounder and principal of PUSH studio in Washington, D.C., and founder and former president of the Black Landscape Architects Network (BlackLAN). His landscape architecture projects include garden designs, urban waterfronts, community redevelopment, playgrounds and memorial monument design. He has directed graduate landscape architecture programs at two Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) — Florida A&M University and Morgan State University.
This article is adapted and reprinted by permission of Avenues, a publication of the Urban Design Committee of the Washington Chapter of the American Institute of Architects.
High-Profile China Communist Memorial Gets a Boost from American Landscape Architect — 06/30/21, Forbes
“Finished in 2001, a park across from the party congress site known as Taipingqiao Park has taken on new importance as home to the new memorial. Taipingqiao Park and the accompanying Taipingqiao Lake with have received a big facelift in the past year led by Dwight Law, an American landscape architect and principal of Design Land Collaborative in Shanghai.”
Step Inside a Los Angeles Home That’s All About Natural Tones and Clean Lines — 06/29/21, Architectural Digest
“Working with landscape architect Chris Sosa, Woods and Dangaran plotted the house in relation to trees and plantings that soften the emphatically rectilinear lines of the structure. Outside the plaster privacy wall, the front yard is lined with a swath of oak trees and boulders.”
The U.S. Neighborhoods with the Greatest Tree Inequity, Mapped — 06/25/21, Bloomberg CityLab
“Neighborhoods with a majority of people of color have, on average, 33% less tree canopy than majority-white communities, according to data from the Tree Equity Score map, a project of the conservation nonprofit American Forests.”
A Black Vision for Development, in the Birthplace of Urban Renewal — 06/24/21, Bloomberg CityLab
“A new $230 million project approved this month by local government authorities to redevelop the neighborhood puts Black people in the driver’s seat of the Hill District’s remaking. It’s a test of the nagging question: Can racist urban redevelopment practices of the past ever be corrected with more urban redevelopment?”
A Piet Oudolf-designed Garden at the Vitra Campus Makes Its Full-bloom Debut — 06/21/21, The Architect’s Newspaper
“Typical of Oudolf-designed landscapes, the garden at the Vitra campus embraces a naturalistic, almost wild appearance achieved through a rigorous, highly precise planning process and the use of self-regenerating species usually ignored in popular garden design in favor of more decorative plants.”
When Monuments Go Bad — 06/08/21, Bloomberg CityLab
“The Chicago Monuments Project is leading a city-wide dialogue in search of ways to resolve its landscape of problematic statues, and make room for a new, different kind of public memorial.”
Explore the Modernist Landscapes of Washington, D.C., with This New Illustrated Guide— 06/08/21, The Architect’s Newspaper
“Now, D.C.’s modernist landscapes are taking center stage with a new illustrated guide produced by The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) in partnership with the National Park Service. Titled D.C. Modernism, the handheld device-optimized, GPS-enabled city guide is the 18th of its kind to be produced by TCLF as part of the What’s Out There series.”
Modi’s Sprawling Delhi Makeover Fuels Anger in Virus-hit India — 04/26/21, Bloomberg CityLab
“Current plans suggest that many open spaces around India Gate that are visited by thousands daily may no longer be accessible to the public. ‘We common mortals will have no reason to go there, as government offices replace the quiet spaces of art, history, performance, leisure,’ Narayani Gupta, a Delhi-based historian said.”
Midtown’s Highway-capping Park Boosters Release New Video, Continue Outreach — 04/21/21, Urbanize Atlanta
“The goal of the park’s green elements is to recapture the character of the land, as it was in the late 1800s, when Georgia Tech was a single building, Midtown just a series of stately homes along Peachtree Street, and the rolling landscape still bucolic, with Tanyard Creek slicing through.”
Black Landscapes Matter: Q&A with Landscape Designer Walter Hood — 11/02/20, Metropolis Magazine
“The forthcoming collection, co-edited by landscape designer Walter Hood, examines a past, present, and future of the Black American experience as spatially archived in cities such as New Orleans, Detroit, Oakland, California, and Charleston, South Carolina.”
Contemporary memorials can be powerful tools for resetting historical narratives around racism in our country. Embracing our true past — the horrors and the triumphs — will give us the space to accurately frame the American story, so that we might accept a more accurate accounting of where we really are on the path to equality.
Americans must create new memorials that are deep and resonate and omit the hyper-simplified token gestures of the past. Let us show the world, through new places of honor and memory, the maturity of a nation that has taken ownership of its past and is resolved in stamping out inequality. Only then can our nation’s core value — that all men are created equal — be held in truth in the hearts of all of its citizens.
Denying the truth enslaves us. Accepting it sets us free.
It might be said that the problem of addressing issues of racial equality in America in 2020 is as much a matter of refusing to take responsibility for one’s actions and changing them as it is racism itself. We struggle to move past our own legacy of hatred and discrimination because we have never fully accepted the truth of it.
Instead, we have rewritten the most vile, the most evil chapters of our past, carefully molding them into neat packages that one could argue resemble scary bedtime stories rather than the graphic and horrible truth. We know the narrative: slavery to freedom, oppression and inequality to the civil rights movement. Civil liberty and voting rights to President Barack Obama and the myth of a free and just America that we live in today; and along the way, Abraham Lincoln, Harriet Tubman, Fredrick Douglass, maybe John Brown, then Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Kennedy brothers. This may be an oversimplification, but it is far less than our chosen selective collection of right-sized stories portrays.
Most everyone will know the names above. They have been memorialized countless times across our nation, revered (and in some cases reviled) for their contributions in the fight for equality. But how many of us know Daniel Hale Williams, Garret Morgan, or Anne Lowe? How many of us know the horror beset upon the slaves known only as Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsy?
Some of us might know the name of Emmett Till. But how many know Jesse Washington or the unimaginable horror visited upon the thousands of blacks that were lynched from the late 19th century to the 1960s? I’d wager that comparatively, very few of us do. And that is by design.
This is because the stories of these people and places were never meant to be examined. The events were never meant to be revealed. The names, like so many other notable Black figures who gave of their lives and talents either willingly or by violent force snuffed out, remain all but omitted from our nation’s history. Their stories are erased, so the favored narrative might prevail.
This narrative states that our forefathers committed regrettable acts, but acts from which we have, through a long and drawn out, reluctant, and only partial admission finally “moved on” from. In minimizing our past, we have all but absolved ourselves of any responsibility we might shoulder today for the inequality that exists from the lowest gutters of our main streets to the highest reaches of our government. As a result, we remain mired in a past that will never truly be past unless it is reckoned with in our collective attitudes and actions.
This denial of the truth threatens to tear the moral fabric of our nation. Today, I see a benign indifference to inequality and the fallout of our continued legacy of racism as much as I do the proliferation of neo-racist ideas or beliefs. In so many cases, that indifference to inequality can be attributed to the lack of will or ability to find the hard reality of our past so that we might understand who we truly are as a nation. Our history has been so carefully cleansed of the truth — so tangled in webs of deceit and distraction, misdirection, and mis-characterization — that a person seeking to understand why Black wealth, incarceration, or education levels are what they are would require a degree of investigative rigor reserved for scientific research.
Some might say to not put in the effort to understand is simply lazy. I don’t disagree, but it also shouldn’t be as hard as it is. Amid the blaring voices and opinions of the multitudes, who share their own takes on social media, and the doubling-down on old racist tropes by some of those in power, it is no surprise that some 155 years after the abolition of slavery, we are as divided as we have ever been. At times it seems a hopeless fight, but it’s one we must have.
Our footprints mark our past, but also point in the direction of our future.
The land upon which we walk marks the footprints of our history just as surely as our history books. And like those books and the stories within them, the tales we read upon that land contain only the degree of truth we choose to till into it.
When we scrape the land to create a hollow within which to build a fire, the action is recorded, unless we meticulously erase all traces of the action and allow the passing of time to heal the wound. The ground is pitted, the coals remain after the fire is spent, the ashes scattered across the ground.
But the how, the who, and for what of the fire: those are facts left for the author (or victor) to record. Such as it is for the roads we’ve built: Highways and their legacies of connection but also division. So it is with the buildings and railroads that sprang from the virgin beauty of native American lands. Land scraped of one history so that another could be written. Structures erected and hailed as symbols of American might. White houses built by Black hands — hands which belong to a people for which the ideology of a nation carried not hope and freedom, but pain and despair. The darkness was often deliberately forgotten, leaving only triumphant stories of struggle, regret, and perseverance over the land, our enemies, and ourselves.
We have achieved remarkable feats as a nation but also created fairy tales from horror stories. What we have done to the land and built upon it is in a way a memorial to who and what we are as a society. The land records only part of the story. The rest, we script to our needs.
Who we are is evident in what we build.
We erect markers to commemorate the actors and moments of our history. There are monuments and memorials that record battles won and lost that honor lives and hallowed grounds. And as with the land we’ve marked in America, the stories we choose to tell in these places speaks to who we are and what we believe in as a people.
Those stories that speak to us from bronze and granite become solidified in our individual and collective conscious. They become symbols of our belief system. But when truth and fact are not the priority of the memorial designer, what becomes made concrete in our conscious is little more than myth. Myth informs a set of beliefs that inform attitudes and dictate actions. These actions result in policies that chart the path for our future. Recalling the past is necessary to accurately feel our present and chart our future.
The ongoing controversy over what should become of the nation’s many confederate monuments highlights that struggle. We must now design a new foundation upon which we might write a new narrative about who we are, where we have been, and with a proper accounting of those things, the path we might walk in the future. But this task is not as easy as it may seem.
Following the tragedy in Charlottesville in 2017, Baltimore mayor Catherine Pugh acted quickly to remove the Confederate monuments in the city. It was a decision that was largely applauded for preventing violence and unrest. In the months following the removal, design charrettes and community-based discussions were held to discuss what stories should replace the old racist confederate narratives.
In March 2018, there was a re-dedication of the most significant of the four locations. The space that was once the home to a Confederate memorial to Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee would now be designated Harriet Tubman Grove. If the goal is to take down a symbol of an evil and replace it with one of good, Harriet Tubman is a universal symbol of all that that word describes.
However, taken in context, in a country that counts sincerity and simplicity as two of its of its greatest virtues, one might also argue that despite the seeming sincerity of actions like the dedication of another Tubman memorial, or the 1,000-plus streets and boulevards named after Martin Luther King Jr, we are oversimplifying the story of our past — a story of overcoming prejudice and succeeding in spite of it.
In fact, as a society, we are in a way complicit in upholding the illusion that there were but a few Blacks of note throughout American history. Or worse, we may be minimizing the atrocities and oppressive policies pushed onto Blacks from the inception of the slave trade through slavery, failed reconstruction and the Antebelum South, segregationist policies of the early 20th century, and race-based housing and lending practices through modern day poll taxes.
To acknowledge a select few individuals while ignoring the complete picture of the marred historical record relegates the suffering and contributions of so many Blacks who fought for the advancement of our nation to the most remote corners of our history — the place they were designated by the flawed beliefs of previous generation to remain.
Today, in the midst of a worldwide movement to bring awareness to the validity of black lives, when all the eyes of the world and the nation are watching, we must assure that what they see and what we show ourselves — the stories and the images of our past — are more reflective of our truth. Like the pages upon which we have documented our American history, our American landscape can serve as a place to document story.
Our public spaces are a means to tell our true story.
Landscape architects, planners, artists, and policy makers must take part in and, when we can, lead dialogue around the way in which we tell our nation’s story.
We can view our landscapes, plazas, monuments, and memorials as opportunities to re-educate current and future generations about the truth of who we are and how we came to be. We can do this in a way that is reflective, honest, and accurate, so the tragedy of our past is not repeated. On our own, we can’t retool the civics and history curricula in schools across our country, but we can assure that the narratives that people take away from the experiences they have in the landscapes we build are informative, enlightening, and ultimately encourage others to think more deeply about our place in the world and the inequities they might see in it.
Pedestal and statuary will always have a place in the act of memorialization, but if what we seek is a gesture that ultimately brings about togetherness, we should try to embody that aspiration in the fabric of the spaces we create.
If the historical intent of Confederate memorials and the empty spaces they have left behind was in large part to remind Blacks of their low position in American society, should not the opposite action be to create spaces that remind us that we SHOULD all be equal but have not been treated so, extinguish the myth that we are not, and shine a light on the realities that in our past and present contribute to ongoing inequality?
Would not a better use of the spaces that once held figures in granite and bronze be to not simply replace one figure with another or one name for another but to create spaces that evoke powerful emotion, teach lessons of “never again,” enhance the public realm, and encourage us to question contemporary life experiences?
Shouldn’t they assure that heroes and victims are appropriately cast and engage the public in a broader ongoing dialogue about racism and inequality?
And shouldn’t they also serve as a vehicle to tell stories that to date have been omitted from the pages of our history? It is not difficult to make the case that the answer to all of those questions should be yes.
We cannot veil the horror of the atrocities we have committed in our past. To understand the suffering of others, we must ourselves get as close as we can to the pain they have endured. It must be there for us to see, touch, hear, and feel. Truth. Clarity. Awareness. Change.
Contemporary memorials abroad and here in the U.S. are striking new chords. They offer a new way of shaping not only how and what we remember, but also assure that the emotions we draw from them and the awareness they create deeply resonates.
Too little has been documented of the facts and scope of the lynchings of Blacks in our history. For 88 years between 1880 and 1968, there were more than 4,700 documented cases of lynchings, which equates to approximately one Black life taken per week. One murder per week for 88 years. And those are only the murders that were recorded.
Yet, until the completion of the National Memorial to Peace and Justice, there were no sites that provided a means to interpret these atrocities so they might be appropriately set in the context of our history and serve as a sobering warning for future generations to stamp out the embers of hatred and violence. Located on six acres within the city of Montgomery, the scale of the memorial is impressive, and the experience is varied, employing a range of powerful interpretive methods.
Inspired by the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, the focus of the memorial is a large, central court with 805 suspended boxes, roughly the size of coffins, suspended from steel rods. Each box represents a county in the U.S. in which a lynching was recorded. Visitors slowly descend to the courtyard floor, the boxes suspended above them. The simple descent is a powerful design move, meant to evoke the unsettling feeling of walking among the dead. The boxes list the names of those souls whose lives were taken and whose stories, until now, have been all but lost.
It is an experience that is powerful; one that is free from any veiled attempt to mute the reality of what it memorializes. The horror one might feel is intentional, and one might argue, necessary in order to make one more aware of contemporary acts of social injustice and crime. The pain is one that should touch all of our souls, for there is a clarity in our tears that is unaffected by the color of the cheek upon which they fall. A clarity that can create unity and awareness, without blame or fault.
We should all remember those who have gone before us. To let the memory of the names and places of suffering fade into darkness is to allow the evil that brought it about to be reborn.
There are times when a story is meant to be told in a designated place, one that either has an inherent significance, or one that is assigned. With experiences like the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, there is a power in the symbolism bestowed upon the place that is rooted in the act of honoring and remembrance. As a result, they become the destinations for school and family trips. They are the holiest of destinations in our religious pilgrimages. However, when the stories are few and locations fewer, the challenge of maintaining awareness derived from the physical connection to the experience can be difficult to overcome.
Stolpersteine (Stumbling stones) designed by German artist Gunter Demming provides a decentralized, daily reminder of the ever looming threat of racism. Commissioned in 2001, the memorial consists of more than 75,000 bronze blocks set within the sidewalks of towns and cities across Europe. The blocks, placed in front of the homes of murdered or exiled Jews, read simply “Here lived…” followed by the name of the individual or family.
This form of expression creates a moment of recognition that endures the passage of time, for as long as the streets and homes remain. In this way, Demming’s stumbling stones have brought awareness and the space to remember to anyone who sees its markers. The experience is impactful and is observed both in its intimate, direct connection to the individual honored, and the enormous scale of the atrocities committed against so many Jewish citizens. One cannot discount the power of connection through time and place such a memorial creates.
Such a memorial, if it were to be installed in the U.S., might provide a means to bring awareness to many of the crimes committed against Blacks that are seldom brought to light. Acts like the bombing of homes belonging to Black citizens in the first half of the 20th century. These attacks, meant to terrorize Black families, so that they were discouraged from moving into more affluent, White neighborhoods, were an unsanctioned partner to the practices of redlining and racial covenants. The records of these acts are few or often discounted, but the marks they have left on the land and in our society are evident. Evident, but without a true accounting of how they came to be.
One might argue that the invisible boundaries that have resulted from these actions in America have been every bit as effective in restricting the freedom and mobility of those behind them as the Berlin Wall in Germany and other literal barriers we have chosen to memorialize. Imagine for a moment how less coherent the fabric of the city of Berlin might be if the story of the Berlin Wall was treated as though it had never existed? To what would a lay-person attribute the differences and disparities that existed from East to West if they were not provided the truth? How will future generations in America attribute racial disparities that are often starkly evident in our cities if they not offered new markers that provide insight into their root cause? New methods of recalling this past can embed the opportunity to reframe attitudes around racial injustice into the fabric of our daily experiences.
History is not the past; it is the present.
One of the obvious challenges in telling the story of racism in America is that even when we are successful in accurately capturing the truth of our past, the belief among many persists that the past is just that. The reality that the legacy of systemic racism lives on in this country is often lost.
The challenge then becomes one of telling a story that enlightens through a lens that is contemporary, nimble, and tethered to the zeitgeist; a story that seeks less to explain what “has occurred,” than what is occurring every day, or that sets historical fact in a contemporary context. Spaces that can tell these stories have the potential to bridge the divide between the wrongs of the past and the effects of those wrongs on contemporary society. They are also important in bridging the generational gap so that the stories are presented in a way that resonates with current generations.
One example of such a memorial space is the recently unveiled Society’s Cage, which was initially installed in August, 2020 at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. and is intended to travel to multiple locations across the country. The memorial, which was designed by a team of mostly Black architects at SmithGroup, asks the question: “What is the value of a Black Life in America?”
The memorial’s perfect cube form symbolizes the aspiration of our American values. However, the internal volume of the cube is constructed of uneven conduit pipes that protrude from the ceiling and floor, symbolizing the uncomfortable and fractured reality that many Blacks in society are greeted with on a daily basis.
Visitors are invited to move through the cube’s aesthetically violent interior. Through symbolism, text, and audio, they are offered a glimpse into an all-to-real and all-too-common Black experience in America via four statistical datasets representing different forms of racism and state violence: mass incarceration, capital punishment, police brutality, and lynching.
Society’s Cage uses unique and artful execution and its temporary nature to deliver a lesson on racial injustice within a must see experience. In doing so, it pulls at the levers of our viral social media culture to shine a powerful light on the often brutal realities of racism today. Hopefully, Society’s Cage and memorial experiences like it also push our society forward — better informed, more aware, more united.
Let us now create the spaces to remember the names, places, and events we might have forgotten, and tell those stories we have yet to hear.
Richard Jones, ASLA, is CEO and founder of iO Studio, Inc. and former president of Mahan Rykiel Associates.
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