Friday, July 25, 2008

Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial's Vision

While in Oklahoma City with ACDA in early July, I had an opportunity to visit the Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial and hear designer Hans Butzer discuss its symbolism. His design team, Butzer Design Partnership, which includes his wife Torrey and associate Sven F. Berg, was chosen from over 600 entries to design the memorial based on their vision for the space.

Butzer started his talk by recalling the mission of the memorial site:

We come here to remember those who were killed, those who survived and those changed forever. May all who leave here know the impact of violence. May this memorial offer comfort, strength, peace, hope and serenity.

Butzer explained how from the beginning they were moved by this tremendous opportunity to leave a legacy, to make an impact that was the final statement on the incredulous, impersonal, violent act of others. They viewed their challenge as an incredible paradox: to create a place of serenity and peace from something that was created from evil and violence. They understood that part of the challenge was to create a sense of presence from absence, an enduring absence that caused random lives to be taken by an intentional act.

The site is incredibly moving. The two gates that stand sentinel over the bombing site gracefully and powerfully mark the intellectual threshold for the space. One gate is engraved "9:01" and the companion gate is engraved "9:03". The bombing took place at 9:02 a.m. Butzer's point is that things can only be understood in context. That placing this intentional act and its ramifications in context of the past, in the context of our culture, in the context of Oklahoma City, in context of the individual lives it touched, and in context of the future is the only way to make meaning. Similarly, choosing to make the street where the Murrah Building fronted as part of the memorial, commemorating it with a shallow black marble reflecting pool, changed the traffic flow of the downtown grid, forcing people trying to get from points downtown to encounter the reality of what happened perpetually. The reflecting pool is mystical. With every breeze, the waters distort their reflection of the memorial, inviting the viewer to understand that we work to understand, but that true understanding is not available to us because it has no ending point. Once we think we have a clear picture, a clear understanding of the motivations and ramifications, the wind blows, events in our life change and offer new awareness, and the picture changes.

Butzer team's vision was powerful and palpable as they designed this memorial. They created a sense of space, a sense of scale, a sense of story - individual stories, community stories, societal stories, a sense of history, a sense of absence and longing, and strangely a sense of presence and hope. The chairs that honor the 169 men, women and children who were killed are at once headstones and chairs at the table in the discussions of why?, and how not again?. All, from the power of a vision. This memorial is a great of example of vision as the details and the experience of the mission incarnate.

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