The Making Of A Memorial

Memorials are opportunities to include in one location the memories and emotions of events and sacrifices that span generations.

Memorials are also the most daunting work a designer will take on. Still, it is the work that we as landscape architects often find the most rewarding.

The Client

Sometimes the client is a government entity, but more often the client is a “not-for-profit” organization that may or may not have Internal Revenue Service 501(c)3 status. The client generally has an emotionally charged vision, but no idea how to realize that vision. This poses many challenges.

Generally, the client or group--if not-for-profit--lacks funding and knowledge of fundraising. Thus, the designer/landscape architect is often charged--with little or no money--with creating a graphic that portrays that vision for fundraising purposes.

Often an early design concept may or may not be suitable for actual construction. For example, when working on the Anchorage Fireman’s Memorial, a pro-bono graphic was created and used to raise funds for the memorial. This 6-hour endeavor tried to quickly capture the emotions portraying the sacrifices of the first responders to fire and other emergencies.

The image was useful in the fundraising, but when it was time to actually design the memorial, the concept proved much too complex for the “job-training” labor force, and a new design had to be sold to the client.

Clients are often naïve with respect to working with design professionals, and are unfamiliar with the design process, and more specifically with the cost of design services. This can lead to scheduling and budgeting problems.

Often, clients are very free in committing to work that exceeds the contract, and the designer must be careful to ensure that the committee/committee chair understands the cost that each element of the work entails.

Also, be aware the actual authority for the work may rest in a public agency--not the client--and the authority needs to be defined so there is no confusion among the designer, the client, and the agency.

The Vision

Often, the vision is closely held by one or more individuals in the group. In a proposed veterans’ memorial project, tremendous differences of opinion surfaced regarding what was appropriate for the memorial.

Would the design encompass all service members, providing niches and locations for honoring individual service arms, and military divisions within those arms?

Would the memorial recognize women separately or perhaps members of the “Alaska Territorial Guard,” a division of primarily native members?

Or, should it provide a simple statement, allowing a broad and personal interpretation?

Responsibility for resolving the vision finally was given to a carefully composed Blue Ribbon Task Force, including Purple Heart veterans, a retired General-rank officer, community leaders, and neighborhood activists.

With the unquestioned contributions of this honorable group, the community process allowed a vision to surface that provided a memorial that was simple, but allowed for personal interpretation.

The Design

Interpreting the vision and conveying it as a design can create a strong and powerful message.

A design should be a simple statement, plain enough for a clear message of honor, contribution, and remembrance to take place, but abstract enough that the connection between the viewer and the memorial becomes personal.

A design should be interactive and involve the visiting public in the work itself.

The veterans’ memorial used black polished granite as well as a semi-transparent screen to allow reflections of viewers and visitors moving through the memorial as an element of the site architecture itself.

An additional element is the ability to leave a personal memento. As viewers of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., know, there is no stronger emotional statement than that of a flower, teddy bear, or dog tag carefully placed by a loved one or a “brother in arms.”

The veterans’ memorial has incorporated art elements, designed by local artists Shala Dobson and Jim Dault, that feature an open screen to allow and encourage personal mementos. Doing so, however, entails the need to catalog and even store artifacts as they accumulate. This, too, makes the memorial a “living” one.

Incorporating elements that speak directly to those who know and understand sacrifice can have a strong, emotional pull.

For example, in designing a firemen’s memorial, railings were constructed of ladders, adding a graphic element that immediately got the attention of firemen. In the same memorial, five pegs were provided on the wall for “turnout gear”--coats and head gear were hung on the peg with boots placed below. During ceremonies that honored a fallen comrade, the middle peg featured black turnout gear, a marked contrast with the brown gear on the other pegs.

The Construction

Often, memorials are constructed with volunteer labor, a workforce in training, or donated labor. It is important that the memorial be designed to recognize the abilities of the labor force.

For a Martin Luther King, Jr., memorial, an artist developed an “artistic vision” for the memorial. While as an art piece it was admirable, the complexity of walls required a tremendously difficult framing system for the forms and greatly increased costs.

Also, with respect to that project, the artist had developed interpretive material that required modification when re-development took place. Because art is legally protected from alteration without consent of the artist, the acquisition of replacement pieces for the re-development was very expensive, and required legal negotiations with the artist.

When artwork is incorporated into memorials, a clear contract needs to be entered into, both with the landscape architect/designer and the artist, clearly spelling out ownership, proprietary rights, and maintenance/repair issues.

The Dedication

The “ribbon-cutting” for a memorial is a gratifying and emotional experience. For many members of the community, this may be the first time they feel that life-long sacrifices are truly recognized. The sight of the ranks of firemen in full dress, led by a color guard into a new memorial, is a striking experience not easily forgotten.

A memorial becomes a new home to many people, a place where the spirit may rest, whether in honoring the decades-old struggle for rights, the remembrance of firefighters who preserve life, or the recognition of the sacrifice of the uniformed services for our nation. And the design of that home is as challenging and rewarding as any project a landscape architect can ever conceive.

Wm. Dwayne Adams, Jr., FASLA, is a Fellow with the American Society of Landscape Architects and Manager of Planning and Landscape Architecture at USKH Inc., a multi-disciplined design firm with offices in Alaska and Washington. He has been the facilitator and project manager for multiple memorial projects in Anchorage, including the Anchorage Veterans’ Memorial, the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, and the Anchorage Fireman’s Memorial.

Bryan BuchkoComment