A meta-memorial of the National Parks that projects high-definition recordings into the city at full scale, examining the role of wilderness in times of social inequality and ecological change. (Courtesy of the National Park Service)

A meta-memorial of the National Parks that projects high-definition recordings into the city at full scale, examining the role of wilderness in times of social inequality and ecological change. (Courtesy of the National Park Service)

The “Memorials for the Future” competition was intended to “reimagine how we think about, feel, and experience memorials.” This competition—a collaboration among the National Park Service, the National Capital Planning Commission, and the Van Alen Design Institute—elicited entries that both aim to fill in topics and themes that have not been commemorated and to anticipate those that might merit memorial attention in the years ahead.

Held in conjunction with the National Park Service’s centenary, the competition is not designed to culminate in the production of an actual monument at the close, but rather, as the competition’s goals cite, to “advance a framework for the planning and design of commemorative works in the 21st century.” It is, as Jessica Lax, associate director of competitions at the Van Alen Institute, indicated, “an opportunity for us to reflect on what monuments have been and what they’ll look like moving forward.”

If these entries are any indication, monuments moving forward may look radically different from anything people have known, involving proposals concerning climate change and personal tragedy, victims of terrorism and Japanese-American internment, conceptually sophisticated entries such as a “Memorial to Public Space,” a “Memorial for Future Lost Cities,” even a proposal for an altar memorial to the late pop star Prince (with participatory tributes encouraged), and many more entirely unlike anything one will find today on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

D.C. is obviously full of monuments to reflect on. The broad outline of their character and evolution is easy to trace, even in brief strolls. Marcel Acosta, executive director of the National Capital Planning Commission, noted two principal trends that have shaped commemoration. The first was an age-old historical favor for statuary and single-structure monuments or memorials. This changed in recent decades. “Since the 1970s, we’ve seen large landscapes, stories are told in a multiacre setting. This has been a blessing, but we are in fact running out of space in our capital.” With the main axis of the National Mall now closed to additional construction, future commemoration will require new locations, and very possibly entirely new ideas about commemoration that does not involve locations at all.

Acosta spoke to the somewhat narrow band of subjects encompassed by most memorials: “About 50 percent of them talk about war or the military, which is an appropriate subject, but what are the untold stories?” Even if concerning other topics, memorials almost solely involve “a specific point of view or a specific point in time.” One of the questions and prompts of the competition was why can’t a memorial offer a commemoration featuring multiple viewpoints, or alter meaning over time?

Guidelines were relatively simple. They asked for proposals that were cost-efficient and that were “inclusive of multiple narratives and have the potential to be flexible as perspectives change.” The competition suggested a number of sites outside the “monumental core,”—one near the Kennedy Center, one in East Potomac Park, and two in residential neighborhoods. The guidelines asked that “the character of the surrounding neighborhood should be considered in any future memorial for the site.”

One of the more intriguing opportunities of the competition was the indication that entries needn’t occupy any site at all; they could be “virtual,” and a large number of the semifinalists were. Many were proposals for apps, some of which interacted with specific locations, others that had no geographic mooring at all. The “Pop-up Portal” proposing “instantly constructing and sharing the collective experience of commemoration from multiple geographical locations,” the “Memorial for Otherness” employing “a Solar Doodle, a crowdsourced, semiphysical and three-dimensional take on Google’s Doodle” (the animation that the search engine puts on its home page to mark certain holidays and anniversaries), and many apps that add narration and additional stories to existing monuments.

The four finalists, selected from the 30 semifinalists, put both traditional and contemporary forms in the service of innovative subjects for commemoration.

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Climate Chronograph is a living observatory for sea-level rise, wherein rising waters flood rows of cherry trees along a ramped shore, thereby recording shorelines past. (Courtesy of the National Park Service)

The finalist that might look most conventional—the “Climate Chronograph,” which resembles a riverfront park—is in fact intended as an evolving document of climate change, intended to change as the sea level does.

“As seas rise, cherry trees die in place, becoming bare-branched delineations of shorelines past. Over a lifetime, a visitor will experience the same place in its ever-changing condition, a legible demonstration of generational-paced change. This new memorial is continually becoming, and in doing so offers a new approach to monumentality.”

Two entries are intended to supplement any number of sites with multimedia accentuation—“American Wild” and “VOICEOVER.” The former proposes high-definition video and audio recordings of all National Parks, which could then be “projection-mapped at full scale.” Their aim is to broaden “access to both phenomenological experience and ecological understanding.”

VOICEOVER is a memorial “overlay” system that voices the collected stories of the city’s monuments (official and not) through a roving flock of iconic storytellers. HOT AIR (shown) is an inflatable monument in the shape of a giant toppled statue head at the site of the 1989 Romanian revolution.

VOICEOVER is a memorial “overlay” system that voices the collected stories of the city’s monuments (official and not) through a roving flock of iconic storytellers. HOT AIR (shown) is an inflatable monument in the shape of a giant toppled statue head
at the site of the 1989 Romanian revolution.

The latter, VOICEOVER, is intended as an accompaniment to the current monumental stock of the nation’s capital, intending to broaden perspectives available on the events or subjects they commemorate.

“Rather than a freestanding monument, VOICEOVER is a supplemental overlay that expands the original monuments’ meanings and extends the territory of possible memorial subjects deeply into Washington, D.C.’s urban fabric. Fragmentary and dependent by nature, VOICEOVER makes no claims toward cultural conclusions on historic events. Rather, VOICEOVER is a loud call to reawaken a nation to its relevant and multifaceted pasts. It gives voice to the diverging understandings and conflicting perspectives of a multicultural society.”

Im(migrant) responds to the elemental experience of movement/migration, arrival, and making a new home by commemorating the varied journeys that friends, family, and strangers have taken through America’s landscape.

THE IM(MIGRANT) responds to the elemental experience of movement/migration, arrival, and making a new home by commemorating the varied journeys that friends, family, and strangers have taken through America’s landscape. (Courtesy of the National Park Service)

Lastly, “The IM(MIGRANT): Honoring the Journey” is a project intended to commemorate “the varied journeys that grandparents, parents, brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles, friends, and strangers have taken.” Its interest is in the multifaceted nature of this experience—both the commonality of this past and its differences, as well as the welcoming and the hostility that immigrants faced.

A single winner will be selected from these finalists in September, with the winner allocated additional resources to develop their idea.

While no budget exists for building any of these proposals, the competition hosts hope that its results will influence future monument construction, to offer a glimpse of the many possibilities of commemoration today. While its theoretical focus is on Washington, their hopes for inspiration are not confined to it. As Julia Koster, director of the Office of Public Engagement at the National Capital Planning Commission, commented, “We also hope that what we’re doing with the capital is offering ideas that any city across the world or the U.S. might use.”