Karen Burns considers Richard Weller and Gary Marinko’s shortlisted entry to the Tsunami Memorial Design Competition.
Building a memorial to disaster is always a tricky business. Fictional film, documentaries and even theme park animations can effectively portray the disorder, terror and scale of destruction, but architectural and landscape designs are constrained obviously in their ability to simulate an experience, to physically enact the form of an event. This conundrum – to what extent should the cataclysm be portrayed – marks some of the entries for the recent competition for a Thai Tsunami Memorial.
The memorial is situated amidst one of the most devastated coastal landscapes and must commemorate the site of ruination among its other tasks. It was a disaster of grave magnitude. To remind you once more of what occurred, these are the facts.
At 9.38 am on 26 December 2004, a tsunami struck the coast of 61 southern provinces of Thailand, along the Andaman coast and its islands. In many countries bordering the Indian Ocean the event left enormous damage – over 280,000 people died, more than 500,000 were injured and over two million people were left homeless. The tsunami produced extraordinary physical effects. Ominously the sea receded 500 to 1000 metres from the coast, then twenty minutes later the first wave of two to three metres in height rushed in. Fifteen minutes later a second wave appeared, three to ten metres high.
There was a final wave, five metres in height, which inundated the coast and inland areas for an hour. The sea returned to a calm state at 12 pm.
The site in Khao Lak-Lamru National Park in Phananga was selected from the most seriously affected Thai province, Khao Lak, once a major tourist area. Five finalists, from China, Spain, Finland, the USA and Australia, have been selected to enter the second stage of the competition.
The shortlisted Australian entry was produced by Richard Weller and Gary Marinko, together with team members Mike Rowlands and Bruce Rowe. This design organizes the various acts of memorialization into an intelligent choreography, dispersing paths, museum, sacred space and memorial across the landscape.
The brief called for a master plan, memorial expression, museum space (with flexible interior spaces and exterior spaces, restaurant, gift shop, library), a visitor centre including multi-faith worship area, a learning centre, outdoor amphitheatre, indoor lecture, small conference area, offices, back of house. These are a lot of works to reconcile with another demand of the brief – to respect the site’s natural ecology and to provide a “non-intrusive pathway through its different elements”.
Like all briefs, competition briefs usually contain some contradictions and successful entries often recognize and resolve these tensions. This is the case with the Australian design.
One paradox is the vision of nature generated from the contrast between a violent natural event and a tranquil site.
Part of the Khao Lak-Lamru National Park amidst an abandoned rubber plantation, the chosen site rises to a central hill and the land falls away to a small idyllic bay.
Literalizing the wave as a design form is one way to incorporate the destructive natural world, and numerous competition entries did incorporate a symbolic wave (but none of the finalists, thankfully).
Although, as Weller observes, surprisingly none of the entrants site their memorials in the ocean – the disastrous origin of the tsunami devastation. The Australian team does, however, mark the ocean.
Their design proposes a large circle, with a diameter of two hundred metres, made of lights housed in black casing, not dissimilar to beacons used for navigational safety. Like many successful acts of memorialization this work activates a number of symbolic levels. It references candles or lights as objects of remembrance, carries the seeds of earlier land art projects, perhaps recognizes the global nature of the event and the global aid response in the form of the circle and, through this form, also conjures the ghosts of former sublime architectures from the late eighteenth century. As Edmund Burke famously defined the sublime in 1757, the concept of terror and power and physical effect produced a more apocalyptic view of nature than that encoded in other forms of idealism. The lights will move with the water, effectively incorporating a temporal element and encapsulating movement and change, the forces of the event.
By requiring a museum and a memorial the brief implicitly raised another tension – the difference between the two forms. Most entrants chose to combine these functions.
This makes some sense given that the gallery will be a place to screen footage, preserve artefacts and no doubt use photographs, videos, testimony and possessions to personalize the sense of loss and tragedy. But, in specifying a memorial and museum, the competition did not assume that the two were the same, or necessarily even congruent. Within the space of the museum it is difficult to incorporate the sea as a mutable, sometimes violent element.
Weller and Marinko’s proposal offers a number of places where different acts and forms of remembrance may occur. They site the museum adjacent to the existing road, effecting a lesser impact of building works.
They choreograph two paths to the site, one for the journey towards it and another for the return, perhaps recognizing the changed emotional landscape people will inhabit after visiting the sea. They offer a spirit house on a deck by the beach, a place of offering and spiritual commemoration.
Their museum design is unsurprisingly schematic, given that it is a first-stage response. One noticeable element of the building is its material, a special dichroic glass that Weller describes as a bit like driving through a rainbow. It plays with vision and a visually transformational architecture. The jurors have expressed some reservations about its reflective nature. I understand their concerns about being blinded in the Thai sunlight, but I am also attracted to the symbolic possibilities of the form. Its dazzling lightness may produce another sublime moment of overwhelming blindness and illumination. To read this even more symbolically, and perhaps over-determine the designers’ intentions, unstable light and vision may be a space of disappearance, a space beyond overt interpretation, a movement into the infinite. KAREN BURNS IS AN ARCHITECTURAL WRITER AND CRITIC BASED IN MELBOURNE.THE OFFERINGProject team— Richard Weller, Gary Marinko, Mike Rowlands, Bruce Rowe