“I’m sure there were good intentions involved in building the memorial,” he says. “But I don’t think that it was the most effective form of memorial-making. It’s not that I’m uncomfortable with my image being used. It was more that I prefer to argue for abstract memorials. Because they allow multiple interpretations and the visitor to respond in their own way.”
Experiencing this “cast in bronze reality of my life”, the former editor-in-chief of design magazine Surface felt ideally placed to write about memorials. In Memory Of examines 63 abstract memorials from around the world, created over the past 40 years.
They range from recent history, such as the 9-11 World Trade Center memorial (Reflecting Absence by Michael Arad and Peter Walker), to belated reckonings on slavery, and even Norwegian witch burnings (a collaboration between Pritzker prize-winning architect Peter Zumthor and artist Louise Bourgeois).
If Bailey’s own sculpture sparked his interest, Maya Lin’s 1982 Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC is the book’s ground zero.
“If this book were to have a family tree, most of its branches would stem from Lin’s memorial,” Bailey writes.
Lin’s simple V-shaped slash in the landscape, lined in black polished granite and etched with the names of some 58,000 US dead, was both the culmination and starting point of a sophisticated formal language in memorial design, Bailey says.
The sheer variety and scale of memorials in the book illustrate the ability of abstract forms to be both compelling and complex. They range from the blunt force of 816 Corten Steel hanging ‘‘coffins’’ in the ‘‘lynching memorial’’ (the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama by MASS Design Group), to Micha Ullman’s modest underground Empty Library in Berlin, a memorial to Nazi-era book burning, where viewers look down onto empty shelves.
“It’s not about bigger is better,” says Bailey. “It’s about intent and message – and ultimately the quality of the execution. What these memorials do that’s so profound is encourage us to slow down and look inward,” he says. “Buildings don’t do that generally.”
Melbourne architect Kerstin Thompson agrees. For the new Jewish Holocaust Centre in Elsternwick (opening in September 2021), she found abstraction offered the most powerful way for architecture to “speak of the unspeakable”.
Not for her the “heavy-handed archi tropes that quote Auschwitz and Holocaust infrastructure”, such as barbed wire and gantries. The bunker is another trope she avoids: while it offers security, it’s not exactly welcoming. Instead, Thompson’s facade of brick and glass conjures abstract memories of Kristallnacht, when bricks were thrown through Jewish shopfronts. The glass bricks are practical: they’re transparent, welcoming and bomb-resistant.
“You get this tension around new thinking on the Holocaust building as being more open as a community resource and less intimidating,” she says.
Memorial designers are adept at eliciting emotion by manipulating our senses. Most contemplative spaces achieve their solemn power through silence (and the gravitas of materials such as granite and steel). In the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture by Freelon Adjaye Bond/Smith Group, sound is used another way: the music of Chuck Berry and Aretha Franklin uplifts.
Lin’s Vietnam memorial encourages another sense — touch. Visitors trace rubbings of names from its reflective granite surface. The Memorial to Victims of Violence in Mexico by Gaeta-Springall Arquitectos goes a step further. It hopes loved ones scrawl, scratch and record victims’ names on the Corten steel in an urgent form of personal remembrance.
The four decades since Lin’s groundbreaking work has seen a “memorial craze”, with abstraction as the international house style, says Bailey. How did it occur? A catastrophic century of warfare has been shadowed by momentous upheavals: the rise of the counterculture in the 1960s and ’70s, the evolution of abstract art and minimalism, greater sophistication in psychology and the appreciation of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Add to that “shifts in religion and spirituality, how we mourn and the rise of victim culture in the US, created this perfect storm for memorialisation,” he says.
So how should we recognise historic events such as the coronavirus pandemic, or deal with the cultural reckoning around monuments to colonial explorers here, confederate soldiers in the US, and slave traders in Britain? Bailey believes leaving monuments defaced with graffiti would be a powerful reminder of changing attitudes. The Mexican violence memorial and the giant yellow Black Lives Matter banner painted on the street leading to the White House are evidence of the power and immediacy of graffiti.
“Memorials tell us who we are, how we got here and where we are going,” Bailey says. The lack of memorials to the 1918 Spanish flu “probably explains in part the social and political amnesia that’s led us to our current situation,” he says.
“We need memorials to remember, so we don’t make the same mistakes.”
A physical memorial to COVID-19 could be completed at an unprecedented scale – a globally coordinated, uniformly designed memorial.
“It could be a really simple design, it doesn’t have to be some big ‘architecty’ thing,” Bailey says. “Simple enough that it could be built anywhere. Aesthetically singular to stand out so that everyone goes ‘oh, there’s the COVID memorial’. It could be this universal worldwide reminder that we are all connected as a species.
“Memorials teach us that no matter how dark the depth of our realities may get through loss, grief and trauma, we can come out the other side stronger and more hopeful.”
In Memory Of: Designing Contemporary Memorials, by Spencer Bailey, published by Phaidon RRP $100.
Spencer Bailey shortlisted six local memorials for In Memory Of, but none made his final cut. They included the Gay and Lesbian Holocaust Memorial in Sydney by Russell Rodrigo and Jennifer Gamble and Reconciliation Place in Canberra by Kringas Architecture. We asked local experts to nominate memorable Australian abstract memorials and whether a COVID-19 memorial should be established.
Quentin Stevens, Associate Professor, School of Architecture and Urban Design at RMIT and co-author Memorials as Spaces of Engagement (2015)
Reconciliation Place (2001) by Kringas Architecture: A promenade connecting the National Library of Australia with the National Gallery of Australia, its ‘‘slivers’’ display images and text on various themes of reconciliation. “It’s one of the world’s most significant public memorials to indigenous history,’’ Stevens says. ‘‘Washington DC does not even have a public memorial to Native Americans.”
Memorial to the Bali Bombings in Lincoln Square, Melbourne (2003) designed by City of Melbourne: Two rectangular pools with 91 fountains represent the Australians who died. The names of the 22 Victorian victims are recorded on the sides of the fountain and 202 lights represent all those who died. Each anniversary the fountain stops and becomes a reflection pool.
On a COVID-19 memorial: “The COVID-19 pandemic is a very diffuse event, and I’m not sure if people will see a need to create a collective memorial which has a shared narrative that mourners want to communicate to the wider society.”
David Nichols, Associate Professor in Urban Planning, Melbourne School of Design, University of Melbourne, co-editor Community: Building Modern Australia (2010)
Reconciliation Place, Canberra; Fallen Firefighter Memorial, Richmond (2011) designed by Tim and Deborah Edwards: A mound of abstracted, fissured ochre stones rise like flames. Plaques of the fallen appear on the sides.
“A COVID-19 memorial should be like the war memorials in each suburb/town. But they don’t need to be structures, sometimes the oldies are goodies – avenues of honour, memorial parks, memorial places. Things with a function that don’t just sit to one side, forgotten or so ordinary you don’t think about them any more, but things with names/designations that keep them in your mind. Which makes sense, because this was a random affliction. It’s a good idea to make a public memorial that talks not about the site of the trauma, but a place of respite and heroism. So let’s not put a statue up at Rydge’s Carlton just yet, but maybe at key hospitals or even aged-care centres, as much as that might embarrass the federal government.”
Professor Kathy Temin, artist and head of fine art at Monash University, was commissioned to do the public artwork Integrated Holocaust Memorial 2020-2023 in the Selwyn Street precinct, Elsternwick.
For Our Country, (2018-19) designed by artist Daniel Boyd and Edition Office architects. Located at the Australian War Memorial, it recognises the military service of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Behind a ceremonial fire pit a sculptural pavilion with two-way mirrored glass reflects the viewer and the Australian War Memorial. Set in the wall are thousands of transparent lenses, representing our perception and highlighting our incomplete understanding of time, history, and memory. In Absence (2019) designed by Yhonnie Scarce and Edition Office: A 9-metre timber tower of two halves that simultaneously recall Indigenous eel traps, traditional stone architecture and the interior of old smoking trees; 1500 glass yams seep from the interior walls. The work reminds viewers that while Indigenous history and story may be neglected, they still live.
On a COVID-19 memorial: “It’s too early to be contemplating this but I definitely think there needs to be a space to acknowledge the loss of so many lives. Memorials take place over time. They don’t happen at the time catastrophes take place. We’re not out of the woods yet.”