Living Memories, Living Memorials

One of the biggest New York design stories of the past year has been the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation’s selection of the World Trade Center memorial. There were grumblings about the winning design—Michael Arad’s “Reflecting Absence”—a stark tribute whose edges have since been softened by landscape architect Peter Walker. When I saw a rendering of the refined memorial scheme, which now includes an underground center to house artifacts from the attacks, I immediately thought of two other memorials I visited this fall: One in Paris for Diana, Princess of Wales, and one in Lisbon for Dr. Jose Thomas de Sousa Martins.

The Princess Diana memorial is located across the river from the Eiffel Tower, on a concrete traffic island above the Pont de l’Alma tunnel where Diana, her companion Dodi Fayed, and chauffeur Henri Paul died in the August 31, 1997, crash. A steady stream of visitors still stops by the monument, which is a giant, gilded-copper flame that sits atop a six-foot, green marble pedestal.

Yet this memorial was not built to mark Diana’s death. In 1987, the English-language newspaper The International Herald Tribune gave this flame—a replica of the one that tops the Statue of Liberty’s torch—to the city of Paris; the gift was to commemorate the paper’s 100th anniversary and the friendship of the American and French peoples.

The monument went virtually unnoticed until Diana’s accident, when—perhaps due to its location so close to the crash—the public spontaneously transformed it into a memorial to the princess.

The day I visited it, a wide green ribbon was tied around the column; it read “Diana 31 Aout 1997.” Someone had left a heart with a collage of images next to the bouquets of flowers. Tourists were taking pictures of the memorial and nearby ledge, which was inscribed with messages in different languages to the late princess. They typically read: “Dear Diana: Rest in peace. We miss you.”

The transformation of the memorial happened to the chagrin of French officials. The city tried to restore the monument to its original purpose in 2001, spending 60,000 euros (at that time, about $60,000) to remove the flowers, notes, and graffiti; they also erected a chain link fence around the memorial, not only to keep the pilgrims from getting too close to the monument, but also to serve as a psychological barrier.

Paris does have an official monument to Princess Diana. In 2001, a walled garden behind a primary school in the city’s Marais district was turned into a kid’s nature center in Diana’s memory. The plaque at the entrance, which sits above some rose bushes, reads, obliquely, “the Princess of Wales Rose.”

When I was in Lisbon, I visited another memorial: that of Jose Thomas de Sousa Martins (1843-1897), a celebrated Portuguese pharmacist and doctor.
Located in Campo dos Mártires da Pátria, the monument is a bronzed figure of Martins: pretty typical of Beaux-Arts monuments created in the first half of the 20th century.

Yet since the memorial was erected, it has become the focal point for a religious devotion to Sousa Martins. People believe that by praying to him and asking for his intervention, they will be cured. Those who have been healed offer their gratitude in the way of marble plaques. When I visited, the plaques were stacked about three feet high, one atop of each other.

One marble plaque that caught my eye combined the shape of a heart and speech bubble (a great potential information graphic) and was inscribed with a heartfelt message of thanks. Little wax heads and other wax body parts had also been left behind by the afflicted or those praying for them. Over time, these wax objects melt around the monument.

On another side of the memorial, some ladies had set up shop under sun umbrellas, selling flowers, candles, and religious articles. I loved that this memorial had been incorporated into the everyday lives of these devoted visitors. They had personalized it in an almost haphazard way, leaving evidence that Sousa Martins was alive in the memories of many.

Both the Princess Diana and to Dr. Sousa Martins tributes show that memorials can be transformed by those who want to perpetuate a loved one’s memory. Whatever the WTC memorial’s final iteration, there should be ample room left for people to connect with it. A living and breathing memorial isn’t just a pretty monument that people pass by, but one that they can make part of their daily lives.

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