Sky garden

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Poignant and provocative, Sky Garden reconfigures the materials and techniques of the traditional memorial to create a project which is at once familiar and unusual. Katrina Simon reviews the Pentagon Memorial proposal by Room 4.1.3 and collaborators, one of six short-listed in the international competition.

Images of the water-filled stone “life recorders”, the individual memorials which fill the sky garden plaza.
Images of the water-filled stone “life recorders”, the individual memorials which fill the sky garden plaza.

Memorials have become something of an obsession in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Design competitions continually solicit proposals that will memorialize activities of global and local significance – events that range from deep geological time to the present and immediate past. The international design competition called to memorialize those who died in the September 11 attack on the Pentagon, to be submitted on the anniversary of the event, can be seen as part of this contemporary interest in the memorial. The design team of Room 4.1.3 (Richard Weller and Vladimir Sitta) in association with Jacky Bowring, Peter England and Martin Musiatowicz was one of only six teams, and the only non-USA-based team, to succeed in reaching stage two of the international design competition, which drew over 1100 entries.

The large body of built and unbuilt work accruing that focuses on memory and the past contrasts interestingly with an early/mid twentieth-century fascination with the future. Much as proposals for the future were a way of imagining and potentially creating it, proposals for memorializing the past are a way of creating and defining that past. At the same time, the very issue of how to acknowledge and accommodate the complex and often irreconcilable memories which are embedded in an event or place is as much a feature of the memorial design process as the specific event .

Reviewing stage two of Room 4.1.3’s competition entry I found it interesting to reflect on how the proposed memorial landscape could operate for a range of audiences and purposes: as a memorial to the individuals who died, as a memorial to the event itself, and as an example of the emerging contemporary memorial design tradition.

At first reading, the design deploys a fairly conventional array of memorial ingredients: blocks of stone, reflecting water, bronze text, grids of trees and of individual memorials.

The central metaphor – the black box flight recorder – is used to recombine and transform these elements to create a landscape that is recognizable and familiar and, at the same time, juxtaposes materials and effects in a provocative and poignant way, and offers a new variant on the language of memorial design.

The developed design submitted for stage two of the competition consists of a plaza in which 184 individual memorials are arrayed in two overlapping, offset grids, which in turn are based on the fenestration of the adjacent Pentagon building. The plaza is sunk slightly into the ground, and is defined on one side by a retaining wall and on the other three sides by tiered seating and densely planted rows of scarlet oaks.

Looking across the plaza the visitor will see a field of small reflecting pools contained in each of the individual memorials, which reflect fragments of the sky.

The individual memorials are in the form of dark-coloured reconstituted stone cubes, which are supported in such a way that they appear to hover slightly above the ground. Each memorial contains a well filled with water, and a small orange chest placed in the side into which relatives can place personal objects. These memorials are sized so that a person may lean comfortably on one and look into the surface of the water, which reflects the changing conditions of the sky, and is broken by bronze letters that identify the name, age and place of birth of a victim.

The central metaphor of the black box flight recorder has been mined for its literal and associative meanings, in both its form and the way it operates. A flight recorder contains the unique history and path of each flight. After a plane crash or explosion there is always a focus on the need to recover and analyze the material contained in this box in the hope that it will explain the plane’s fall from the sky, and, if possible, prevent such a thing from happening again.

The individual memorials are described as life recorders – marking each individual trajectory from place of birth to the place of death. The small orange chest, a literal reference to the actual form and colour of the flight recorder, contains the mementos that will be placed by the victim’s family during a dedication ceremony. On its surface is a map of the victim’s place of birth. The denotation of the time and place of birth and death is a common device in Western cemeteries to record the span of time that a person has been on the earth. The use of a map to denote the start of a life path is an unusual and powerful way of transposing here and there – then and now – compressing the start and end of a life, the lived space of a lifespan.

Maps and the activity of mapping has been significant in the work of several of the stage one collaborators, notably Room 4.1.3’s Garden of Australian Dreams at the National Museum of Australia, where overlaid maps of various scales, purposes and intensities create a cacophony of intent and possibility across the delimited space.

Considering the scheme for the memorial, I became curious about whether the map on the orange chest would be an enigmatic, context-less roadmap, or a spatially rich topographical map, or would it be rescaled according to the perceived size of a person’s place of origin; city, town or rural settlement, and who would get to decide?

The association of the small map and the personally chosen objects concealed in the chest also gives the collection of memorials an enigmatic, ritualistic aspect, a suggestion of memories and meanings which will never be known or perceived by another visitor. The act of marking the place of death, as well as (or instead of) the resting place of the body, also has much in common with the increasingly frequent practice marking of roadside deaths with crosses and other symbols.

The proposal for the Pentagon Memorial Sky Garden is within the emerging design discourse of “anti-memorials”. It uses traditional materials and techniques and reconfigures them to allow a space between the fixed and the uncertain. The apparent solidity of the black boxes is belied by their appearance of hovering above the ground, and the fluid changing surface. Bronze letters, which would normally appear as permanent markers on a massive surface, are here seen against a watery reflection of the sky. The tradition of state mass memorials, which tend to homogenise the identities of those being commemorated, is in this case altered by the inclusion of private mementoes. At the level of the individual memorial the notion of the life recorder provides a conceptual and actual way of allowing multiple memories to co-exist in the landscape.

As a memorial for the attack itself the metaphor works rather differently. While the individual memorials have tactile, emotive and familiar qualities, as well as entirely private ones, the overall memorial plaza, as a collective memorial to the attack itself, is depicted as quite airy and distant. The references to the sky and its myriad reflections, the absence of engagement with the ground, and the displacement of solidity combine to present an abstract, spacious and cerebral memorial landscape. Its layout makes reference to the Pentagon facade that was devastated in the attack, yet virtually all trace of that damage has been repaired. In its configuration and conceptual organization it could conceivably act as a memorial for almost any air crash. The reinvention of the black box flight recorder into a life recorder has the curious effect of neutralizing the notion of disaster with which it is normally associated. The connection between the event of the attack and need to memorialize these particular 184 people is marked by the tranquil, but empty sky.

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