RMIT’s Quentin Stevens has undertaken significant research into memorial design, looking at the way the public engages with memorials, the planning controls and policies that regulate memorials and the decision-making process used in procuring memorials.
Stevens looks at memorials as spaces of engagement. As works of architecture memorials are unique in that as a building type they don’t have a function, yet they are experienced by people on a daily basis.
Memorials are incredibly expensive but enduring, said Stevens, and have been subject to changing trends in design and approachability. He drew on the differences between traditional and modern memorials. Traditional memorials tended to be quite vertical pieces, built on high plinths that didn’t invite participation. People would stand at a distance and observe the piece. In contrast, modern memorials tend to be wide, horizontal pieces that are often set in parks and open spaces. They draw people into them and often people can engage in a more physical way by walking around, in and even on them.
The idea for Stevens’ body of research came when he encountered two memorials in Europe – Britain’s Diana Memorial Fountain and Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and saw how people engaged with them.
The Diana Memorial Fountain is made up of granite channels of different widths and depths that make the water swirl, bubble and pool in different ways around the fountain. Bridges give people access to the grassy area inside the fountains circular form and people are invited to “refresh their feet” in the fountains water. Stevens observed kids and adults alike splashing, paddling and lounging in and on the fountain, explaining how the designers created a sensory experience that reflected the playful personality associated with the historical figure the fountain is memorialising.
In Berlin, the Field of Stelae designed by New York architect Peter Eisenmen as the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe consists of 2,700 concrete slabs or stelae covering a staggering 19,000 square metre block. The stelae differ in height but not width or depth and are situated on a grid in close proximity to each other so as to only allow single passage through the memorial. At times the height of the stelae and the confined passages create a sense of isolation in what Eisenman explains is “…intended to be an unsettling, personal experience.”
People can enter from four sides, each entry point offering a different experience. The staggered heights of the stelae seem to invite people to engage with them. Adults and children climb them and jump from one stelae to another. In many cases people don’t even realise the significance of the structure until they come upon a sign explaining it. Stevens concludes that part of the public nature of memorials is accepting that people will react and experience them differently.
Stevens’ research also looked at the planning controls and policies associated with memorials and the process of building a new memorial. Focusing on the master-planned cities of Canberra, Washington and Ottawa he found that newer cities tend to have detailed plans for the control and planning of memorials and that they are typically concentrated in small areas. In older cities such as London and New York memorial sites have a connection to the place or person being memorialised and are therefore more spread out. New York’s Battery Park, the largest public open space in the Downtown section of Manhattan is currently undergoing a rejuvenation with many memorials spread across the park being relocated into a special walk in an attempt to create better cohesion and enhance usability of the space.
The timeframe involved in building a memorial, typically 10 to 25 years after an event, creates opportunity not only for planning but also experimentation. Often temporary memorials are set up following a tragedy, providing a space to grieve and mark anniversaries before a more permanent tribute can be constructed. The Tribute in Light, a light installation at the site of the former World Trade Center which was created as a temporary memorial now shines on each anniversary, even though the bricks and mortar memorial is now complete. Threatened with closure several times, the installation still continues each year due to donations from the public who have embraced it as a beacon of healing and hope.
Quentin Stevens has co-authored a book with Karen Franck, Spaces of Engagement: Memorial Design, Use and Meaning, to be released by Routledge in 2014.