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A new national memorial to victims of gun violence makes its debut

It contains hundreds of personal belongings and mementos of victims, from baby shoes to high school graduation tassels.

A new national memorial to victims of gun violence makes its debut
[Photo: courtesy MASS]

Each week, 700 Americans lose their lives as a result of gun violence, a national trend that is as horrifying as it is heartbreaking. At this year’s Chicago Architecture Biennial—which revolves around the relationship between built environments and socioeconomic inequality—one installation in particular makes the weight of this deadly epidemic plain: Inside the Chicago Cultural Center sits a neighborhood of glass houses, each featuring hundreds of personal items that once belonged to victims of gun violence.

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Gun violence is a national epidemic whose sheer scale often reduces victims to statistics. @massdesigngroup, in partnership with @hankwillisthomas and gun control advocacy groups @everytown and @purpose_over_pain, developed “The Gun Violence Memorial Project” to honor the lives of gun violence victims. Through advocacy and remembrance-object-collection workshops, they invite the public to contribute stories and memories to the ongoing memorial. The objects reside in this collection of glass houses representing the magnitude of gun-related deaths that occur over a single month in the United States. #AndOtherSuchStories #ChicagoBiennial Image: Chicago Architecture Biennial / ​Kendall McCaugherty,​ ​2019

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“We definitely wanted to think through a way to communicate and manage the tension between the enormity of the problem and the individual narrative of the families and communities that are affected by the gun violence epidemic,” says Jha D Williams, project manager at MASS Design Group. “The archetype of the house is something that’s immediately understandable and resonant with folks. And so we felt like that was an appropriate form, one that was approachable, so therefore people are more welcome to walk up to it.”

The installation is the work of the Gun Violence Memorial Project, a collaboration between architecture and design collective MASS Design Group, conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas, Chicago advocacy group Purpose Over Pain, and anti-gun violence nonprofit Everytown for Gun Safety. The goal? To create a “permanent, national memorial that honors the lives and narratives of victims of gun violence.”

Given the theme of this year’s biennial in Chicago, the collaborators felt it was fitting to pioneer the built memorial, designed to bring visibility to the thousands of lives lost every month, at the architectural event.

“It was an opportunity that we were invited to the Chicago Architecture Biennial, and we found it serendipitous to have this opportunity to pilot a conversation about what a memorial to victims of gun violence could look like,” Williams says. “The impetus for this project came from our conceptual partners Purpose Over Pain, founded and led by two women . . . They charged us to see what it would look like to memorialize these lives lost to gun violence, as they both lost their sons’ lives to it,” she adds.

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The design team chose to create four houses, made up of 700 bricks each, symbolizing the monthly death rate from gun violence. The foundation of each house is a white, wood lattice with glass walls on either side—a design choice made because “it was important to us that people had a great sight line,” Williams says. “[Another] material is the objects themselves . . . the individuality does not show up until the objects are contributed and installed in the bricks. Having these different textures, sizes, and colors really begins to bring the personal narrative into the memorial experience.”

The items highlighted in each of the 2,800 total bricks range from baby shoes, to high school graduation tassels, to an heirloom tea set, and various family photographs.

[Photo: courtesy MASS]

Each of the houses also features a sound installation of audio recordings related to gun violence, running on a 15-minute loop. One piece of audio is from the Pulse Nightclub Shooting that occurred on June 12, 2016 in Orlando, Florida; in that same house, the bow tie of a victim slain that night is positioned in one of the transparent “bricks.”

While the MASS Design team is generally concerned with the power and potential of architecture and political policies, this hybrid memorial-art installation project marks a new direction for the group.

“It’s impossible to ignore that there are staggering statistics of gun violence in Chicago,” Williams says. “But if you dig deeper, two-thirds of gun violence deaths are actually suicide, and 70% of those two-thirds are estimated to be older white men living in rural areas. There’s a much larger story for us to tell, which is why we’re sure to collect objects from around the country.”

To collect the items in the memorial, MASS partners with local organizations in different American cities to acquire personal item donations from the families of gun violence victims. During each visit, they spend two to three days in a designated part of the city and perform a lengthy intake process, sometimes charged with enormous amounts of grief.

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Moving forward, MASS and their collaborators hope to take this temporary memorial around the country and are currently in the process of figuring out how to launch a national campaign of glass houses designed for gun violence awareness.

“We’re still building coalitions to get a more permanent memorial, [brainstorming] how we will exhibit the houses in multiple states and who we can partner with on nationwide remembrance object collection events,” Williams says.

But for now, the installation is slated to move to the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. in May 2020.

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