The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What should a coronavirus memorial look like? This powerful statement on gun violence offers a model.

The Gun Violence Memorial Project at the National Building Museum, created by MASS Design Group and the artist Hank Willis Thomas. (National Building Museum/Elman Studio)
Placeholder while article actions load

The Gun Violence Memorial Project, a collaboration between MASS Design Group and the artist Hank Willis Thomas, is a wrenching experience. First seen at the Chicago Architecture Biennial in September 2019, the memorial consists of four gabled houses, each made of 700 glass bricks, with niches that allow families to display a few treasured items left behind by a loved one lost to this country’s scourge of gun violence. The memorial closed in February 2020, just as the coronavirus pandemic was beginning to ravage the country, but has reopened in Washington at the National Building Museum.

The houses have the simple geometry of a child’s picture of a house, and the objects displayed in the structures are small but potent: a bow tie that belonged to Jajuan McDowell, who lived from 2002 to 2016; a pair of sunglasses and the driver’s license of a boy who died at 17; a toy car, a wrench and a few inspirational words scrawled on a piece of paper, left by man killed in his mid-30s.

The objects were collected from people in Chicago, Las Vegas, Miami, Detroit and other cities, and the memorial is an ongoing project. The 700 bricks represent the weekly toll of gun violence in America. But if the memorial were to encompass the full, horrifying emotional toll of this tragedy, it would have to grow from four houses to a necropolis of thousands or more.

The memorial may become permanent in some form. “The installations in Chicago and Washington, D.C. are the first steps to recognizing the great need for a national, permanent memorial to gun violence victims,” MASS says on a website dedicated to the memorial.

Since the installation was seen in Chicago, the nation has suffered another epidemic that raises serious questions about this country’s ability to grapple with basic, systemic and existential questions. Covid-19 has claimed more than 500,000 lives in the United States. In 2020, gun deaths reached their highest level in two decades — nearly 20,000 from violent encounters, 24,000 from suicide.

What will the defining metaphor of the covid-19 crisis be?

Both plagues are ongoing, and while covid-19 may eventually be contained by mass vaccination, the virus rampaged largely unchecked for months because of this country’s political dysfunction. A culture of libertarian selfishness, grounded in historical myths of national exceptionalism and exploited by political and religious demagogues, has made it difficult for America to defend itself against self-inflicted tragedy.

The coronavirus epidemic has made the gun violence memorial even more powerful today than in 2019. It points toward a new generation of memorials that are fundamentally open, memorials not just to past traumas, but to present ones that seem to be expanding, and perhaps permanent. The pandemic has taught us that it is in the nature of America to stagger, not stride; to bleed, not heal. We are self-destructive and unwilling to make the basic changes necessary to get better. And our memorials must reflect that. They must be open-ended, expandable and dynamic, like our propensity to violence and death.

The dichotomy between open and closed helps make sense of recent history of memorial architecture. Closed memorials commemorate someone or something — usually with a statue or architectural element — that sends a contained, limited and agreed-upon set of messages: This war was good, this man was great. Closed memorials often reflect historical closure — the triumph of one truth over other possibly valid ones — with architectural closure. Friedrich St. Florian’s 2004 World War II memorial in Washington, with its ferocious symmetry of ovals and rectangles, and inward facing pylons and towers, is a classic example of a closed memorial.

Open memorials respond to the unfinished work of grief and the lack of historic closure. And now, a new generation of them responds also to the unfinished work of mass death. Where there’s no agreement on basic facts — whether the war in Vietnam was just or whether wearing a face mask is necessary — only an open memorial makes sense.

A new Native American memorial occupies a patch of urban wilderness

Maya Lin’s 1982 memorial to the Vietnam War was an open memorial — to those who died in a war that was still a fundamental fault line in American politics and culture. Lin didn’t invent the open memorial, but her work was so radically open that its critics felt compelled to “close” it, which they attempted by forcing the architect to accept a traditional sculpture — Frederick Hart’s bronze “Three Soldiers” — as a 1984 amendment erected near the open, V-shaped, subterranean wall of names.

The history of open memorials is perhaps best seen in spontaneous gestures of grief that are immemorial. These include the heaps of flowers left by anonymous mourners at a site associated with the life or death of a famous, beloved public figure. Or the small roadside piles of stuffed animals and religious tokens that commemorate a recent accident victim. Or even the impromptu potluck at the house of someone who has recently died, a gesture of ongoing and open-ended support by neighbors, friends and family.

It isn’t easy to capture that kind of openness with architecture alone. But as demonstrated by a concurrent National Building Museum exhibition that surveys MASS’s larger portfolio, the firm’s designers have a special intuition about “openness.” The exhibition includes images of their 2018 National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala., commonly known as the memorial to the victims of lynching.

A deeply powerful new memorial to the victims of lynching and racism

That memorial, the most compelling U.S. memorial in decades, includes hundreds of steel columns, each one dedicated to a U.S. county where a lynching occurred. These are hung in an open-air, pergola-like structure. But the memorial also includes a duplicate steel form for every county, with the intention that individual municipalities or counties will claim the duplicate, bring it home and use it as a local memorial.

This is a monumentally scaled “open” memorial design, which depends not just on a building or fixed object but also on a process — the reclamation and adoption of local lynching memorials. The thousands of racial lynchings in the United States between Reconstruction and the middle of the last century may be historic events, but the openness of the memorial demands that we think of them not as past traumas but as resonant ones, fundamentally connected to an ongoing crisis of racism and systemic inequality.

A university creates a memorial to the victims of its own history of slavery

Open and closed exist on a spectrum, and they aren’t synonymous with good or bad memorials. Closed design has a particular beauty, a balance of elements, a sense of protection and often enclosure. The Taj Mahal and the Lincoln Memorial are closed designs, and exceptionally beautiful. “Closing” a chapter in our history may be a way of making peace with the past, or at least moving to a place where past traumas no longer inflame contemporary conflicts.

And open design has its own set of challenges. Like the AIDS crisis, the covid pandemic is ongoing and may not have a definitive end point. The AIDS quilt, an inspiration for the gun violence memorial, was a classic open design and eventually became so large it could be displayed only in pieces. Today, it weighs about 54 tons. There is a dark, Borgesian danger to open memorial design, the threat that eventually the map of grief will be so large, and so detailed, it can’t be distinguished from the landscape of sadness that it maps.

Today, all signs point to the same fate for the Gun Violence Memorial Project. It can only grow — more houses, more memories, more grief — until eventually everyone has lost someone, and every one of these glass houses feels like home. Even then it can keep growing, until we are all dead.

That is the fear that will haunt our memories and our memorials long after the current pandemic ends. It is the fear that not only have we learned nothing, but that we are incapable of learning, and will be no better at warding off death the next time it marches on America.

Is the Eisenhower Memorial the last of the ‘great man’ memorials?

Richmond grapples with Monument Avenue, stripped of monuments and lies

At the Lincoln Memorial, Marian Anderson and a concert for the ages