Remembering through design


Over time, years after the dust finally settles in places beset by disaster and conflict, different battles emerge. The politics of memory and forgetting come to the fore—and it is quite literally a matter of politics, because choosing what to restore and what to erase is always a matter of power.

Left to governmental institutions, commemorations can become propaganda. Left to survivors representing rival factions with competing views of history, they may never get off the ground. It is enormously difficult to decide how to rebuild and honor divergent memories in places marked by layers of turmoil, both visible and invisible.

One of the most significant historical examples of this challenge exists in the city Warsaw, Poland. Decades after World War II, which led to the decimation of 80% of the city’s buildings, there are wounds that have yet to be healed—or even be properly dressed. As Elżbieta Janicka, a photographer and professor of Slavic Studies, points out, a decidedly over-wrought memorial that commemorates non-Jewish victimhood within the bounds of the former Jewish Warsaw ghetto is nothing less than denial through misdirection.

Polish Army soldiers holding wreaths line up in front of the Warsaw Ghetto Heroes memorial during commemorations marking the 73rd anniversary of the start of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, in Warsaw, Poland, Tuesday, April 19, 2016.
The Warsaw Ghetto Heroes memorial in Warsaw, Poland. (AP Images/Alik Keplicz)

In modern times, this challenge is illustrated by the fractious and protracted development of the Freedom Tower’s main structures and the accompanying memorial on the site of the former World Trade Center in New York. As Martin Filler argues, “The transformation of the World Trade Center site was hampered to a shameful degree by the intransigent self-interest of both individuals and institutions,” including real-estate moguls, city agencies, crusading journalists, and even the families of the victims.

One World Trade Center appears through the roof of the Oculus transportation hub Sunday, Sept. 11, 2016, on the 15th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York.
The One World Trade center, viewed through the roof of the adjacent Oculus transportation hub. (AP Images/Craig Ruttle)

More and more designers are using their practice for social good. But working in hostile places—occupied territories, resource-depleted lands, war zones, and the refugee encampments they spawn—demands far more than good intentions. In fraught situations, consensus on design interventions is often difficult to achieve. In Utøya, Dahlberg’s proposal was ultimately rejected by the island’s inhabitants, who alternately described it as a “rape of nature,” a “tourist attraction,” and a “hideous monument,” according to a report in Dezeen. Such reactions typify the challenges posed by wounded places wherever they exist.

When the time comes to honor sites felled by recent conflicts—from Brussels to the Bataclan Theatre, and from Crimea to the Northeastern Nigeria—designers will face questions about how and where death and loss should be remembered. In situations like these, designers—whether professionals or ordinary people—can choose to either conceal politically undesirable histories or make them visible.

At its best, design is a shared act of listening and building; designers and activists should therefore be allies, not evangelists, in their work.

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