Architecture is where we exist at all times – a fact increasingly noticeable in 2020. We are in constant sensory dialogue with our surroundings. More times than not, for more people than less, where you are is not in sync with how you feel. Most of us live in inefficiently optimized, tediously shaped, egotistical spaces that hardly know how to make way for their users’ emotional needs.
Grief is a primary human emotion and is felt by everyone at one point or the other. It is shape-shifting – consisting of several different hard-to-separate stages, felt in several different ways, for many different reasons. One can feel it at an immensely personal level, or as a part of a larger community, or both. In this cocktail of existential paraphernalia, one thing that remains unquestionably true is that we need each other through it all.
On Grieving As a Part of a Community
Sometimes, we are faced with such harrowing instances in our society, that our foundation as a part of a larger people is shaken to the core. The Bhopal Gas tragedy on the night of December 2-3, 1982, killing thousands in their sleep, and tens of thousands more subsequently- is one such instance that drastically shook us and our trust in the system. The year 2020- the year of the pandemic, with people losing their lives, livelihoods, the freedom to go outside, to see loved ones- has been a year of collective grief at the global level. While there is no escaping the flood of emotions that one has to deal with at the individual level, there is some semblance in knowing that others understand.
The book ” Bereavement: Reactions, Consequences, and Care” talks about how grief, traditionally, has been shared amongst the members of a community via its ritualization. However, in today’s increasingly “individualistic and heterogeneous world”, many of us no longer share strong bonds within our community based on religious beliefs or traditions. People, therefore, feel increasingly lost when they try to understand, make sense of, and channel the overwhelming emotions they may be feeling.
The Role of Architecture Amongst It All
What architecture can offer to a community and its people, I think, is the acknowledgement that all of us are in this together. A space dedicated to the collective loss of a community asks one to remember, and therefore, strive to be better. That what one does with one’s life matters. It offers an environment, both physical and emotional, for a kind of introspection that doesn’t often happen in the rhythm of our day-to-day lives. These scars of the past are of tremendous value as lessons of the future. Commemorating them is a decision to remember, revere, and learn.
The Power of Landscape in Commemoration
The Cultural Landscape Foundation defines ‘Commemorative Landscapes’ as, “A landscape set aside and marked by a culture to recall, celebrate, honor, or memorialize significant people, places, ideas, or events in its history.” According to an essay called ‘A Primer on the Geography of Memory’, landscapes give the past a sort of “tangibility and familiarity”. The landscape the past in our very being. It grounds us to the reality of the events that are being commemorated. The seeming permanence of the land makes it seem like a reliable record of history. According to another paper called, ‘Landscape as Memory’, landscape acts as a means of storage of collective memory and empowers people to access and interpret it.
How Designed Landscapes Can Commemorate: Two Cases
A landscape needs to be activated for the interpretation and commemoration of important events. It involves curating the spatial experience in a way to generate certain feelings and reactions amongst the people.
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe by Architect Peter Eisenman and Sculptor Richard Serra
The site consists of 2711 grey coloured concrete slabs of varying heights, having small, narrow paths between them. They are a symbolic representation of graves, signifying death and loss. The lower height slabs are used playfully by children and as seats by seats by tourists. But, as we go further in, the heights of the slabs increases and the alleyways seem to get narrower, and increasingly claustrophobic, acting as a metaphor for how misfortune struck the happiness of the Jews. The memorial is placed in the heart of the city, showcasing its significance. The concrete floor is uneven, giving the users a feeling of uncertainty.
Grand Cretto in Sicily by Artist Alberto Burri
In January 1968, an earthquake destroyed fourteen towns in Sicily, Italy. The people of Gibellna, one of the towns struck by the tragedy, built a new town on a site 20 km away. A landscape was created by artist Alberto Burri in the existing damaged site of Gibellina to commemorate the devastating event. Enlarged to the huge scale of the existing site, the Grande Cretto is in ways, itself a representation of the disaster. The ruined plots are covered with concrete blocks almost 1.6m high. The streets are marked by gaps between these blocks that act as alleyways. So, the whole landscape gives a cracked look, signifying what the earthquake did to the dwellings and other built structures in Gibellina and surrounding tows. This space allows for quiet contemplation as people navigate within the fissures of the landscape. It was here that it all came crumbling down.
In both the above cases, the boundaries between the landscape and sculpture have been blurred. The landscape acts as a sculptural element in itself while also allowing people to move through and experience it.
The act of commemoration acts as a reminder of the collective loss and failure of humankind and that this moment in history is why we need to strive to be better. Commemorative landscapes allow us to feel what we need to, by ourselves and in the company of others. They are a space to break-away from the constant cycle of “what to do next”, to where we are and what it all means.