Let’s get this out of the way: Public space is, and always has been, political. Public spaces are the sites of protest–the places we exercise democracy. And as 2017 made unabashedly clear, many are also spaces of institutionalized oppression. Last August, protests over the removal of two confederate statues in Charlottesville, Virginia, erupted into deadly confrontations between white supremacists–who wanted the statues to stay put–and anti-fascism, anti-racism counterprotestors–who want the statues removed from the city’s parks.
Debates about public space typically remain between design professionals and politicians. However, the Charlottesville protests catapulted those conversations onto the national stage. The argument over whether or not Confederate statues should exist in parks and town squares and outside government buildings and schools was never about the statues themselves; they’re a proxy war about cultural erasure and how cultural memory materializes spatially. Last year, that debate played out on national television, dominated the 24-hour news cycle, and incited violence–and it remains unresolved today.
Meanwhile, designers across the country are already hard at work embedding our collective history into public places in new ways. Their work, from Seattle to Nashville, suggests that there’s no single, prescriptive formula that can be applied across America. Yet these exciting local endeavors hint at a more inclusive and honest path forward. From adding new monuments to redefining what a “monument” even is, these designers are leading the way for communities that are reckoning with the past.
In Philadelphia, Unearthing The Next Generation Of Monuments
Look around Philadelphia and you’re keenly aware that the city is one of the most historically significant in the country. There are hundreds of statues upon which to gaze and hundreds of plaques to read, commemorating literary figures, presidents, mayors, and sometimes–in the case of a Rocky statue at the base of the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s famous steps–fictitious characters.
When Kenneth Robert Lum, chair of the Fine Arts department at the University of Pennsylvania, moved to Philadelphia, he took a stroll around his new neighborhood and came across a small marker commemorating Billie Holiday. He wondered why a world-famous jazz singer was barely a blip in the landscape while a department store owner received a stately statue on the grounds of City Hall. When he took a closer look at the city’s public artwork, he discovered there were no people of color and very few women (in September Philadelphia unveiled its first public sculpture of of an African-American individual, the civil rights activist Octavius V. Catto). Rocky had a prominent statue but Joe Frazier–the legendary real-life boxer–didn’t. (Frazier ended up getting a statue in 2015.)
“We weren’t concerned about who’s speaking so much as who’s being ignored,” Lum says.
Lum and his colleague Paul Farber, managing director of Penn’s program in the environmental humanities, lead the curatorial team at Monument Lab, an initiative established in 2012 to question and provoke dialogue about the city’s existing monuments and what makes sense for present-day Philadelphia’s new public art. The Lab examines what the city has inherited from past generations and–through research, public workshops, educational programs, and exhibitions–investigates how that inheritance could be reinvested to offer more returns today.
For example, this fall Monument Lab–which is associated with the 30-year-old advocacy group Mural Arts–hosted a citywide exhibition that invited 20 local and international contemporary artists to create temporary installations around existing monuments, reinterpreting them for modern audiences and enriching them with narratives that aren’t currently represented in public artwork.
These projects included Hank Willis Thomas’s All Power to the People, an eight-foot-tall, 800-pound Afro pick stationed across from an infamous statue of Frank Rizzo, the city’s controversial police commissioner and mayor who was known for sanctioning excessive force on gay people and African Americans. For Seguimos Caminando (We Keep Walking), Michelle Angela Ortiz projected animations onto City Hall of mothers unjustly detained at a prison for immigrant families located just outside of the city.
“Our goal with the project is a lofty one, but it’s how we rewrite the history of cities, together,” Farber says. “It’s a project that tries to unearth the next generation of monuments as well as reflect on the monuments we inherited.”
Monument Lab identified a crucial problem with the most of the existing monuments: They represent history and yet are divorced from it, since there’s very little interpretation accompanying them. Their large, stately physical presence signals importance and often reverence, regardless of the nuance that exists within every human and his or her actions. Plus, how many statues do you regularly walk past, knowing nothing about the people or events they lionize?
“There are countless monuments that fade into the background as furniture of the city,” Lum says.
Monument Lab’s temporary installations didn’t attempt to erase the painful and traumatic history of Philadelphia–like its former racist and homophobic mayor–but they offered counterpoints. They inserted the voices that have long been omitted from the city’s spatial vocabulary.
To Farber, what’s truly “public” about public art isn’t that it’s just outside; it’s art that’s open to all perspectives. So in addition to commissioning work from contemporary artists, the curatorial team also invited people to submit requests for the type of public art they want to see in the city. Over 2,800 suggestions poured in, and they’re available for anyone to read on Monument Lab’s website. The team also added the suggestions to Philly’s Open Data project and plans to create a formal report about insights gleaned from the city’s collective imagination.
“It’s important to listen,” Farber says. “We need to have the conversation. It’s been going on for a long time, but listening to the conversation and finding official channels to amplify amplify it [are important]. The options that are given to those who are seeking to transform the monumental landscape are to leave or remove the monuments. We believe there has to be another way that that speaks to remediation. If you don’t connect removal to the enduring systems that exist, like racism, you’re not connecting the symbol to the system.”
There was one event that kept popping up in the public suggestions Monument Lab received: the police-sanctioned aerial firebombing of an African-American neighborhood on May 13, 1985. The event embodied the tensions of race, class, and policing in America, still present today. Monument Lab’s project is resurfacing the event, and may help instigate some civic healing and reckoning.
“It’s easier to mythologize a history that didn’t exist than grapple with a history that’s not resolved and is traumatic,” Farber says. “People are seeking to transform traumas, not buy shoving history under the rug, but airing it out, and finding new ways to represent that in public space.”
In Nashville, Arlington, and Charleston, Designing Landscapes That Sear History Into Memory
Landscape architect Walter Hood asks himself the same question about each of his projects: Does it look strange?
It’s a design provocation that leads to spaces that have an uncanny ability to sear themselves in your memory and evoke powerful emotions. This October, Hood spoke about his work at the Harvard GSD’s Black In Design Conference. When he welcomed audience questions, the first person who spoke didn’t have a query–he offered a commendation. As he choked back tears, he said seeing the face of Barack Obama emblazoned on a gateway structure he passed by every morning on his commute from West Oakland to San Francisco gave him the strength he needed in the dark days after the 2016 election. You might expect to see a tribute to a civil rights leader in a park, but seeing it on a street that arches over four lanes of traffic is unexpected–and that moment of strangeness is enough to capture your attention and make you think.
Hood thinks of landscapes as mnemonic devices, able to communicate values, history, and culture. For Witness Walls–a recent public space project in Nashville commemorating the Civil Rights movement–he and his team mined the public library for photographs of the era and cast them as eight-foot-tall relief sculptures on a downtown street corner. He’s also currently working on a design for the town square of Nauck, a historically African-American and currently gentrifying neighborhood in Arlington, Virginia. The area, originally called Freedmen’s Village, was settled by former slaves who were freed before the Emancipation Proclamation. To both preserve and remind people today about the community’s roots, Hood is designing a towering sculpture in the center of the square. Made from interconnected replica slave badges, the artwork will spell out “Freed.” Today, the site is essentially a grassy hill, and Hood’s proposal includes seating areas, landscaped rooms, an open lawn, a trail walk, and rain gardens. It’s about bridging communities past and present, and drawing current residents together.
“One of the beautiful things about memory is it’s not singular and particularly in a cultural setting, the meanings can be collective,” Hood tells Co.Design. “There are shared and collective memories in places. If you’re open to them, you can have a cultural conversation versus an individual conversation. Whether they’re good or bad or okay memories, they register time and place. Sometimes we forget and it’s only when we can turn back to those touchstone objects and events that we can understand those relationships.”
To Hood, the place and purpose of monuments is to express cultural memory. “[Monuments] are things that can become touchstones for events and for cultural transformations,” he says. “I think of the [Roman] Coliseum as a monument, it’s reassuring that it’s still there, even when it’s in a different cultural setting. As a young country, we don’t know how to deal with the ruin. This, for me, is more interesting: How do we not erase so quickly? Ruins become the monuments of tomorrow. Monuments should be a palimpsest, these collective memories one chooses not to get rid of versus what one chooses to make. That could be a landscape or an object or a thing.”
Hood’s work at the International African American Museum–a forthcoming cultural center in Charleston, South Carolina–is more archaeological in nature and speaks to ruins that aren’t visible today. The museum will be located on a the former site of Gadsen’s Wharf, a port where over 100,000 slaves entered the United States between 1783 and 1808. You wouldn’t know about the atrocities that happened on the site if you visited today.
“It’s hallowed ground,” Hood says. “It’s a place where something happened and it’s more tied to ruin [than Nauck] because it’s still there, but it’s beneath the ground. These latent and nascent pieces only need an action to unearth them.”
Around the museum, Hood is designing a landscape that takes its cues from the Carolina low country. He’s planting local grasses and trees on the site and creating social areas that nod to hush harbors, places that slaves gathered in secret.
At the site’s edge, where it meets the waterfront, Hood is designing a monument to the enslaved Africans who passed through Charleston. It’s a reflecting pool whose waters periodically ebb and flow, like the tide. When the waters recede, relief sculptures of bodies slowly come into view. They’re arranged just like the Brooks Map, a diagram showing how hundreds of slaves were packed into ships.
“The fountain and the commemorative pieces try to put people in touch with the site,” Hood says. “There’s a different way to understand the archaeology under your feet. It’s an emotive thing that’s done through this design of this horizontal sculpture that’s reflective of the scale of human bodies.”
In Seattle, Creating A “Living Monument” To Preserve Culture
History materializes in public space not just through statues and plaques. Cities name streets and parks after important people and designate historic districts to keep the past alive. In Seattle, organizer K. Wyking Garrett is experimenting with creating a living monument in Seattle’s Central District, an historically black neighborhood. Instead of only renaming streets or adding plaques and statues to the neighborhood, Garrett is working to reshape the neighborhood itself as a tribute to the city’s African-American community, which is facing erasure through gentrification.
“The important thing for us is the traditional ways [of preserving culture] are more passive, like historic arts districts, which the Central District has been designated,” Garrett says. “The economic side was important to us because you can have an arts district, but can artists afford to live there? We didn’t want our history to become cultural amenities for a community we couldn’t be in. That’s why we identify as an innovation district.”
Garrett wants to rename the Central District Africatown, and has created the Africatown Community Land Trust to help him do this. He believes that public ownership of the land is the only permanent way to halt displacement and keep the black community in Seattle. So far the land trust has acquired two sites in the area and is building mixed-use developments that include affordable housing, commercial space for small, black-owned businesses, community arts spaces, and educational programs.
“I don’t think a monument celebrates culture because culture is a way of life; a monument celebrates history,” Garrett says. “The greatest way to honor history is to make your own history–make a present inspired by the past. We have to create space for that to happen. It’s great we can point to Jimi Hendrix [as a local hero], but it’s even greater if we can have a recording studio for the young Jimis of today.”
Landscape architect Sara Zewde is working closely with Garrett on the project to ensure the design is specific to the community. For example, there will be a marketplace with small stalls that nods to both on Seattle’s famous Pike Place market as well as traditional open-air markets in Africa. She’s ensuring that a street corner where older residents have been meeting and gathering for decades has space for them post-development. She’s finding opportunities for local artists to contribute their work to the development, and hosting workshops to co-design the buildings with the people they’ll eventually serve.
“We are designing a monument, but the idea of the monument has to change,” Zewde says. “For communities who have lived here for a long time, the city is a vessel for memory.”
By creating an entire district that supports people, Garrett and Zewde are making a monument that will never become anonymous street furniture–a place of cultural memory that will never not be appropriate for its time, and will always be exciting.
The macro forces that led to Africatown exist in cities and suburbs across the country. They’re what ultimately sparked the year’s biggest public space battle, which hinged on how to express history in our civic arenas. Should the statues of the past remain in the present? Should course-correcting new statues exist along side the old? Who deserves to get a statue in the first place? Do statues even do enough in the long run?
Reckoning with history in a moment when fact itself is embattled is complicated. Yet the gatekeepers who decide what is immortalized in stone and bronze, what is celebrated, and what is dismissed are slowly changing, as our elected officials slowly become more demographically representative of the population. Baltimore’s mayor removed the city’s confederate statues in the cover of night. New York City decided to convene a committee of cultural professionals to evaluate “monuments seen as oppressive and inconsistent with [its] values.” In New Orleans, one designer is putting up posters to commemorate historic events that don’t have permanent monuments.
History isn’t static; it’s in a continual cycle of questioning, reevaluating, and rewriting as we gain insight that only time and new voices can provide. There’s never been more awareness of these monuments, nor momentum to make them more inclusive. Now, across the country, it’s up to local jurisdictions to decide what that means. That plurality of local dialogues should make spaces that tell richer, more nuanced stories. “If there is a density of narratives out there in the environment to navigate, I’d rather live in a landscape were they exist than they don’t exist,” Walter Hood tells me. “They give a point and counterpoint to reflect on my life and the places I’ve been and what I believe in.”