June 14, 2016
The Memorials for the Future competition sponsored by the National Park Service, the National Capital Planning Commission, and the Van Alen Institute is a breath of fresh air. The idea behind it is simple: designers were asked to imagine alternatives to the great-men-in-marble paradigm that has shaped official Washington. They were encouraged to be inclusive and flexible, and to experiment with “temporary, mobile, interactive or adaptive displays” that would be more cost-efficient and gobble up less land than traditional memorials.
Competitors answered the call with imagination. Among the semifinalists were MonYOUment, a set of handheld micro-memorials that would log personal stories; an inverted pyramid for the taking of selfies (the “Memorial to Otherness”); and a local favorite, the Cultur-Altar, a shrine shaped like the symbol that Prince once used as his name, where people could bring items to be ritually burned. So far, so weird (and good).
The four concepts chosen as finalists last week are smart and all seem feasible, more or less. VOICEOVER would add a layer of commentary from multiple perspectives to existing memorials, expanding their interpretive possibilities. American Wild makes clever use of everyday spaces—the interiors of underground Metro stations—by projecting panoramic images of national parks onto the coffered vaults, awakening us both to the majesty of the wild landscapes and the nobility of Harry Weese’s station architecture, which we have come to take for granted. THE (IM)MIGRANT would unfurl a narrative of migration across a D.C. neighborhood. The most ambitious proposal, Climate Chronograph, envisions a river’s-edge grove of cherry trees that would slowly be engulfed by rising waters, with the dead trees reading as a register of climate change.
The first three proposals would graft new stories onto old spaces, enriching our encounters with them. Considered as variations of the same basic approach, it’s hard to fault them: memorials could be made quickly and cheaply this way, adapting to events as they unfold, and allowing for a chorus of voices rather than privileging a singular one. Only the fourth concept suggests an clear object of memorialization—the slow-motion tragedy of climate change—as well as a novel means of expressing it. In this case, the device (a grove of trees) has a permanence and spatial scope that entail the usual price tag, so I have to wonder if it stands a chance in the final selection.
As much as I like the ideas, I can’t help but feel that they’re skirting the main issue, which is the what of memorial-making more than the how. What do we, as a society, choose to memorialize? What do we mark, setting it apart from the mass of daily cares and concerns? Deciding that is tough in a pluralistic society, and Finalists One, Two and Three basically dodge the question.
But the how plays a part, too, because the instinct to memorialize is in large part an urge for fixity—an agreement, a social contract, to value something not just today or this year but for decades into the future. Building a physical memorial, in real space, both reflects this contract and holds us to it. The monument anchors today’s collective emotions in tomorrow’s physical landscape, where its value is partly derived from finitude (ground area is a limited resource).
It would be logical for us to change the prevailing attitude to commemoration. An immersive multimedia display grabs attention, whereas a stone marker is usually ignored even by the people who walk past it every day. An audio “layer” draped over part of the city helps us rediscover old landmarks through new (to us) history and interpretations. At such low cost, and requiring no new real estate, digital methods raise the prospect of limitless memorialization. And surely that’s a good thing?
It ought to be—yet “limitless memorialization” is an oxymoron. Establishing a memorial is by definition an act of privileging one event or people or viewpoint above others. The more contingent and reversible the means, the more inoffensively feel-good the content, the less powerful the “memorial” that results. Don’t get me wrong: vivid panoramas of national parks in Metro stations would be fabulous! But they would be public-service announcements, not memorials. A selfie-taking pyramid would be a fun interactive addition to the city—but again, not a memorial.
It’s true that the monumental core of D.C. is running out of space, and adding more memorials to the Mall would only make it look like Grandma’s attic. The prohibition on new memorials in the Commemorative Works Act is necessary. The only option soon for groups that want a memorial will be to look outside of downtown Washington for a site—or consider one of these alternative approaches. Inconveniently for the National Park Service, however, people are not going to see them as being on par with a solid, tangible memorial for a while yet.
As our country finally gets around to recognizing the contributions of African Americans, Latino/as, and other historically marginalized groups, you can see why not. What if Congress had told advocates for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, sorry, no room at the inn—you’ll have to make do with a virtual museum? The ground of the Mall is invested with heavy symbolism, representing the heart of American democracy. It would be naive to think that groups wanting a place there will be content with a glorified app. By conflating new, flexible, alternative forms with diversity, the contest invites the conclusion that minority groups are being relegated to second-tier options. I am sure that is not the intention, but it can be viewed that way.
These are good ideas, and it’s great that the Park Service will implement one of them. But we shouldn’t expect it to solve the problem of too many would-be memorial builders and too little space. Groups will still clamor for the physical representation they perceive as their due. And activists and politicians will still wrangle over the memorials’ content.
Out of the four finalist designs, the one I’d like to see win is Climate Chronograph. But good luck getting a single federal dollar allocated to it. One way that temporary/digital memorials ought to function is as tactical urbanism. They can win buy-in for politically difficult designs, opening the door to commemoration with a larger or more lasting scope. Because if we can only tackle topics like climate change and immigration and gun violence via videos and podcasts? As a certain presidential candidate might say: Sad!