“The question of how to memorialize an ongoing epidemic is a fraught one, particularly at a time when mass shootings have become such a common feature in the daily headlines that they no longer surprise us.”
An old pair of swimming goggles lies encased in a small glass vitrine, like a precious artifact in a museum. Nearby, a tape measure is similarly displayed, alongside a bow tie, a baby’s pacifier, a jump rope, and a small blue pebble. The pebble belonged to a young boy who brought it home from kindergarten one day and gave to his mother, telling her it was a “magic pebble.” His mother has carried it with her every day for the past five years, ever since her son was shot dead, aged 17.
These are just some of the many objects and stories that have been gathered and displayed like treasured relics inside little glass bricks, as part of an endeavor to build a national memorial to victims of gun violence in the United States. The Gun Violence Memorial Project was unveiled at the Chicago Architecture Biennial last year and has traveled to Washington, D.C., where it will be shown at the National Building Museum until May 2021. The hope is that it will one day find a permanent home in the capital.
The glass blocks, each containing a personal memento of someone killed by a gun, are stacked to form small house-shaped enclosures, each one built of 700 blocks—a figure that, staggeringly, represents the number of people killed by gun violence in the U.S. every week. From the outside, the little houses look like showcases of random bric-a-brac from a garage sale. It is only on entering the enclosures that the names and stories of the individual victims are revealed. At once, the design conveys the infinite scale of the problem and the intimate, local impact of each personal story.
“Our first priority was to focus on the individual narratives,” says Jha D Williams, project lead for the memorial at MASS Design Group, the Boston-based nonprofit behind the plan. “We didn’t want it to be a typical memorial where you’re confronted with an overwhelming list of names and numbers. We wanted something that would reflect the personal stories but also speak to the enormity of the issue.” The house forms, she says, are a reflection of the domestic setting in which so many shootings occur. Two-thirds of all gun deaths in the U.S. are suicides. Many others are caused by guns accidentally going off at home, often in the hands of children.
“There are so many misconceived notions of who is affected by the gun violence epidemic,” says Regina Yang, a senior director at MASS. “The phrase might conjure images of inner-city gangs in many people’s minds, but the majority of gun deaths are older white men in rural areas. The reality is that every single community in the U.S. is affected.”
“Yet in the past 20 years, more than 200,000 people have been shot and killed in this country. And there is no discussion about how to memorialize the lives of American citizens who fall victim to weapons of war at home.”
The idea for the memorial project began when Pam Bosley and Annette Nance-Holt met the founders of MASS at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, a collaboration of MASS and the Equal Justice Initiative that opened to the public in 2018. Commemorating the barely recognized history of lynching in the South, it is an incredibly powerful monument, described by architecture critic Mark Lamster as “the single greatest work of 21st-century American architecture.” It consists of a large rectangular enclosure raised on a grassy knoll and supported by a grid of rust-color steel columns. It is only as you get closer to the structure that you discover that they are not columns at all, but body-size blocks hung from the roof on thin steel rods. There are few spatial experiences that come close to the awful impact of walking beneath these suspended mute bodies. As Lamster put it: “The feeling is funereal and archaic; sublime in the way that the Romantics used that word, meaning not just beautiful, although it is, but possessed of a sense of fearsome awe.”
Both Bosley and Nance-Holt lost their teenage sons to gun violence in Chicago, which prompted them to set up the advocacy organization Purpose Over Pain in 2007. After visiting the monument in Montgomery, they wondered if an equally powerful memorial could be made to commemorate the experiences of families like theirs. Together with MASS, they teamed with campaign group Everytown for Gun Safety and artist Hank Willis Thomas, whose work has dwelt on the impact of gun violence since his cousin was fatally shot in a mugging in Philadelphia in 2000. Over the past couple of years, the group has been reaching out to victims’ families across the country to gather remembrance objects and stories. The meeting of families and the ever-expanding network of survivors, they say, is as much a part of the memorial and healing process as the final structure itself. With conversations with families ranging from five minutes to an hour, the group “cried, and laughed, and cried some more,” says Williams.
For Thomas, the project continues a preoccupation that has taken on a heartfelt, activist dimension. “There are beautiful memorials to presidents and to victims and fallen soldiers of foreign wars on the Washington mall,” he told The Art Newspaper last year. “Yet in the past 20 years, more than 200,000 people have been shot and killed in this country. And there is no discussion about how to memorialize the lives of American citizens who fall victim to weapons of war at home.”
For the Portland Art Museum in Oregon, Thomas recently hung a circle of 28-foot-long blue banners stitched with endless rows of white stars, as if a loom weaving the Stars and Stripes had gone out of control. The title of the piece, 14,719, refers to the number of stars, which equate to the number of people shot and killed in the U.S. in 2018. Standing inside the immersive circular chapel, it is hard not to be shaken by the size of America’s gun problem and the futility of any current solutions.
“So the question of how to memorialize an ongoing epidemic is a fraught one, particularly at a time when mass shootings have become such a common feature in the daily headlines that they no longer surprise us.”
By definition, memorials tend to commemorate historic events, providing a vehicle for remembrance and closure for something that happened in the past. So the question of how to memorialize an ongoing epidemic is a fraught one, particularly at a time when mass shootings have become such a common feature in the daily headlines that they no longer surprise us.
Last year, two mass shootings in the U.S. within 24 hours left 31 people dead: An attack on a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas, on August 3 killed 22, while nine died in a shooting in Dayton, Ohio, the following day. A month later, seven people were shot dead in Midland-Odessa, Texas. The list goes on. By the end of January 2020, there were already more than 2,500 deaths from gun violence in America.
There are now so many shootings that memorials to these horrific events have become an architectural typology in themselves. They are variously charged with serving the roles of healing and reconciliation, remembrance and bearing witness, as well as monumentalizing a sense of collective fury and injustice. They can send a political message or be consciously apolitical. They can celebrate life and community or be designed to shock people into action, embodying a sense of rupture and rage. The results are as varied as the communities they reflect and the people that make them, and they often don’t follow the rules of a conventional commission.
Illinois carpenter Greg Zanis decided to devote several years of his retirement to a personal mission to memorialize as many gun violence victims as he could. He calculates that he has crafted 26,569 white crosses, Stars of David, or Islamic crescent moons since 1996, when he began commemorating these deaths after finding his father-in-law murdered. From Parkland to Las Vegas, and Columbine to Sandy Hook, Zanis has always been among the first on the scene at any mass shooting, driving from his home in Aurora, Illinois, in his pickup truck and trailer to deliver and erect the memorials. He estimates that he has amassed debt of around $14,000 through constructing the crosses, each of which takes an hour to make, and has traveled about 850,000 miles to deliver them. He finally hung up his hammer and saw last year, exhausted, and is handing on his Crosses for Losses operation to Lutheran Church Charities (LCC). [Editor’s note: Mr. Zanis passed away in April 2020, shortly after the completion of this article.] Larger memorials usually take longer to agree upon, given the emotionally charged nature of the aftermath of mass violence. But in El Paso, a permanent monument was erected just a few months after the Walmart shooting. Landscape architects SWA Group were already working on the site, and Walmart immediately asked the company to incorporate a way to memorialize the victims. Considering the short time frame, the response was a subtle, well-judged intervention. It takes the form of a 30-foot-high perforated aluminum cylinder, made from 22 individual arcs, one for each of the victims, joined together in a “luminous circle of unity” that shimmers in the sunlight and glows like a warm lantern by night. In a thoughtful move, it was designed to be high enough to be seen by the impacted communities on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.
Coincidentally, a year earlier, Ben Waldo and Daniel Affleck, two young architects working at SWA, decided to enter the competition to memorialize victims of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. The shooting, which took place on December 14, 2012, when 20 children and six adults were killed, remains the deadliest at a school in U.S. history. The event prompted renewed debate about gun control—including proposals for making the background-check system universal and for new state and federal legislation banning the manufacture and sale of certain types of semiautomatic firearms and magazines with more than ten rounds of ammunition—but little changed. The local impact was more visible: The entire school was demolished, and a new $50 million school opened in its place in 2016. Yet a permanent memorial would take much longer. A commission of local residents and victims’ families was established in 2013, leading to an architectural competition five years later, finally won by a project titled “The Clearing” by Waldo and Affleck—chosen from 189 international submissions.
“It’s important not to repress the trauma…It’s important to express it, and sometimes the building is not something comforting. Why should it be comforting? You know, we shouldn’t be comfortable in this world.”
“We really didn’t expect to win,” says Waldo. “A lot of people approach these memorial designs as a celebration or glorification of the tragedy, or an embodiment of really painful emotions. But we wanted to approach it from how to celebrate these people and how to facilitate healing.”
Memorial architecture can often fetishize shock and pain at the expense of healing. The Polish-American architect Daniel Libeskind has built his entire career on transforming human anguish into architectural form, beginning with his monumental Jewish Museum Berlin, completed in 2001. The fractured, faceted language of the building was an invigorating shock to the city and the world at large when it opened. But Libeskind has since recycled the same motifs over and over again, using the same aesthetic of jagged angles and intersecting planes for everything from shopping malls to conference centers, watering down the power of his memorial designs in the process. “It’s important not to repress the trauma,” he has said of his work. “It’s important to express it, and sometimes the building is not something comforting. Why should it be comforting? You know, we shouldn’t be comfortable in this world.”
It’s fair to say Waldo and Affleck have taken entirely the opposite tack. Comfort, they think, is exactly what the family members of Sandy Hook victims need.
“We had the idea of walking as a form of healing,” says Affleck. “We are both landscape architects, so we thought, what could be a more fitting tribute to the lives lost than a design that celebrated growth and rebirth with the changing of the seasons and created space for walking at your own pace through the landscape.”
Set on a five-acre site, surrounded by rolling fields and woodland, their design takes the form of a series of curving, intersecting pathways that inscribe long, shallow arcs through a parkland planted with evergreens, dogwoods, maples and holly—providing year-round color to represent resilience even in the depths of winter. The looping pathways come together at a central body of water, convening at a space where candles can be lit and floated toward the middle of the pool, where a single sycamore tree will rise above the landscape from a central island. The names of the victims will be carved into the stone edge of the reflecting pool. It is a beautifully simple proposal, and crucially one that will provide a calming, meditative space for all, whether they were affected by the shooting or not.
“They’re not honoring my son…They’re making it into a spectacle, a circus. My son is not a tourist attraction. He lived his life with honor, with dignity, with character…. His death is being exploited to make it into a tourist attraction.”
A thousand miles south, a proposed memorial to another horrific mass shooting hasn’t been quite so well received. The competition to design a memorial for the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida—where 48 people were killed in 2016—attracted a star-studded shortlist, including Diller Scofidio + Renfro, MVRDV, Daniel Libeskind, and more. Entries ranged from a gigantic mountain-shaped structure spelling out the word love, to a stacked, robot-like tower. The winning entry, by Paris-based Coldefy & Associés, takes the form of a huge spiraling cylindrical building, to house a museum, which flares out at the top and bottom to form a canopy above a park. Victims’ families are aghast.
“They’re not honoring my son,” said Christine Leinonen, the mother of Pulse victim Drew Leinonen, speaking to the Orlando Weekly. “They’re making it into a spectacle, a circus. My son is not a tourist attraction. He lived his life with honor, with dignity, with character…. His death is being exploited to make it into a tourist attraction.”
The proposal, which has an estimated cost of $45 million, has prompted the formation of a campaign group against the project; a petition to stop it now has more than 45,000 signatures. “A mass shooting is being used to generate money, none of which is going to the survivors,” said Zachary Blair from the Community Coalition Against a Pulse Museum. “Three survivors in our coalition have been in and out of the hospital while protesting the proposed museum. One has a colostomy bag, another has metal rods in his leg, and another still has to go to the hospital’s emergency room because the nerves [in his back] get so inflamed.”
The controversy surrounding the Pulse project shows the delicate line to be navigated when dealing with such a sensitive subject, and the challenge that still awaits in finding a permanent home—and ultimate form—for a gun violence memorial. One of MASS Design Group’s current ideas is to place 52 of its glass brick houses on the National Mall, representing the number of weeks in a year and the number of U.S. states, containing a total of 36,000 remembrance objects from victims. It would be reminiscent of a sobering action that took place in 2018 when activists placed 7,000 pairs of children’s shoes on the Capitol lawn, representing the number of children who had died from gunshot wounds since the Sandy Hook atrocity—only on an even more jaw-dropping scale. It is a scale that is evidently needed for those in power to finally wake up and take notice of the ongoing tragedy being played out daily before their eyes.