Memorials are sculptures, statues, fountains, parks, or structures established in memory of a particular person or event. It is a symbol of honouring the deceased who have profoundly impacted the masses or are associated with a historical or tragic event. Many times these memorials serve as major landmarks in the navigational sphere.
Memorial spaces have also been serving as popular tourist spots. A beautifully carved, flamboyant sculpture standing with pride in the heart of a park tends to gravitate the crowd. However, the intention behind establishing memorials sometimes gets lost along the way. The intricately carved out and massively layered memorial overpowers the memory of the deceased. It fails to be true to its intention, thereby losing its purpose. It is as good as swapping the target audience.
Priority shifts from the memories and triumphs of the deceased to “what would attract more people?” Dissemination of related information gets easily overpowered. The mystic pasts, victimhoods, and personal sacrifices are of relevance. Several memorials resemble the architectural styles of the associated geography but do not quite relate to the ideas and beliefs of the deceased, who need to be placed at the centre of the design.
In “Memorials as Spaces of Engagement: Design, Use and Meaning,” Quentin Stevens and Karen Franck wrote about how memorials became an important component of architectural settings. They became a part of the spatial design and created an engaging radius around them. This trend became notably popular in the 1980s and engaged visitors but did they succeed in disseminating relevant information?
How can this gap be bridged effectively? Can finding a balanced crossover of the many paths of that person’s or event’s life resolve this ambiguity? How can the intent of a memorial be fused into its design? This is when contextual design could be used for generating concomitant designs that breathe intention into the inanimate piece.
The most crucial step towards designing a memorial would be conducting thorough research on the person’s or event’s life and history. Getting into its depth and comprehending the thought processes behind all their actions is equally important. Memorials should allow people to remember, reflect and mourn. They should possess the power to evoke sensory reactions.
“All wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory.” This was written by Viet Thanh Nguyen, the author of The Sympathizer, referring to the infamous Vietnam War. It should evoke deeper sentiments among the ones close to the victim and at the same time educate the novice about the happening.
Quite a few living examples of memorials succeed at subtly imbibing the context, two of them being:
Chandigarh War Memorial
This memorial was built to commemorate the 10,500 Martyrs who made the ultimate sacrifice in the wars/battles post-Independence in 1945. It is harmoniously intertwined with the Bougainvillea Garden, which sits adjacent to the Capitol Complex designed by Le Corbusier. It is an oval-shaped subterranean facility with two spiral arms emerging from the centre, along the north-east and south-west respectively, which serve as ingress/digress paths.
The central podium has a sculpture that entails the fusion of three posts to resemble the three armed forces of India—the Army, the Navy, and the Air Force—who worked as a team to protect their country. The exposed concrete wall enclosing this space bears granite slabs with names of the martyrs engraved on them. This structure fits into the organicity of the surrounding garden, thereby retaining its character.
The takeaway from this example is that contextual design not only includes addressing the inherent narrative of the memorial but also the immediate context. The convergence of these contexts should echo throughout the structure. Context is the starting point and ending point of a design. There is a fine line between contextualizing the design and copying it. Directly incorporating associated elements into your design fails to evoke curiosity amongst its users.
Gentle abstraction of the context generates a sense of belonging while evoking curiosity as well. The idea is to emulate, not imitate. The context needs to be interpreted and uniquely embedded in the design expression.
USS Arizona Memorial of the Pacific
This memorial was designed as a resting place for the 1,1177 crewmen who lost their lives during the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941. Essentially, it is a war cemetery and is accessible only by boat. It is a simple white-washed reinforced concrete structure. A dark foyer transforms into a sunlit deck as one moves from the entrance to the middle of this 184 ft long structure. The centre has a large opening that overlooks the sunken midsection of the ship.
Consequently, the most sunken point of the catenary roof coincides with the opening that overlooks the sunken mass. This symbolizes the moment of conquest transforming into an uplifting triumph of the United States.
This simple white structure possesses the ability to elicit sensory responses to the plight of the victims. The subtle symbolic references augment the experiential aspect of the memorial. The white facade against the blue waters evokes emotions of peace and mourning. A striking balance, in terms of the architecture, has been established between a direct response to the context and a response at a symbolic level.
“Contextualism is a philosophical approach in architectural theory that refers to the designing of a structure in response to the literal and abstract characteristics of the environment in which it is built.” Evidently, this example seamlessly resonates with contextualism.
The contextual design establishes the roots of the proposed design. It helps people connect to it sensitively and makes the design cohesive and consolidated. According to Gestalt’s theory, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It determines several aspects of a structure. Continuity and uniformity are ensured across all the design choices.
Rethinking the designs of memorials has become an important part of today we’re living in. As we pave our way for the future, what we don’t realize is that the magnitude of history is escalating. In that case, how can we preserve the sacred history, history that enlists the men and women who left an indelible mark on the face of this planet and its people?
World Architecture Community. 2021. Chandigarh War Memorial: Built-Form Firmly Embedded In Landscape Exemplifies Contextual Architecture. [online] Available at: <https://worldarchitecture.org/architecture-news/eccef/chandigarh-war-memorial-builtform-firmly-embedded-in-landscape-exemplifies-contextual-architecture.html> [Accessed 22 July 2021].
SAH ARCHIPEDIA. 2021. USS Arizona Memorial of the Pacific. [online] Available at: <https://sah-archipedia.org/buildings/HI-01-OA182> [Accessed 22 July 2021].