This Concept for a COVID-19 Memorial Builds a Stronger Community
Yale architecture students tackle the challenge of designing a memorial to victims of the pandemic in New Haven.
The design brief sounded simple: Create a memorial to COVID-19 victims. The group of Yale University students, embarking on a summer internship, were ready to sketch ideas out for their real-world client, the city of New Haven, Connecticut. But as they got started, George Floyd’s murder galvanized the nation. Knowing that Black and brown communities in New Haven were disproportionately affected by the ongoing pandemic, the students expanded the prompt to ask: How can the project combat racial inequity?
Several weeks of extensive outreach to those communities, including dozens of Zoom interviews, digital surveys, and sticky-note bulletin boards at a Juneteenth gathering, guided the resulting concept for a place of reflection and healing. In a first phase, temporary plywood structures, which could be swiftly and economically implemented, would provide a place for people to record their thoughts about the pandemic and remembrances of loved ones. (The city’s desire for a memorial grew from the knowledge that community members had been unable to hold funerals.) One powerful example of this participatory art is Candy Chang’s 2011 “Before I Die” installation, where passersby were invited to write down what they would like to do before their time is up.
The larger vision is of an “art park” on a remediated brownfield that would devote substantial resources towards urban greening, which has public health benefits, and also puts residents in control. “’Art’ kept on coming up in the information-gathering by the students,” says Adriane Jefferson, director of arts and cultural affairs for the city of New Haven. “And when they presented various options on a call with different community members, the feedback was, ’Where is the room for artists to design? We have a lot of talent here.’ It became clear that this was the option that would allow for the space to continually evolve and be masterminded by the community, and give us a chance to work with artists and hopefully find funding to pay them to be part of this process.” The proposal, which Jefferson says is “extremely feasible,” calls for an advisory board of community leaders to lead the project going forward.
The memorial was one of three pandemic-related projects that 20 Yale students, mostly from the school of architecture, tackled in the Design Brigade internship program. Atelier Cho Thompson, a design studio with offices in San Francisco and New Haven, organized the virtual paid internship in collaboration with the Yale Center for Collaborative Arts and Media to help students with their professional development during the shutdown. “Each project addressed what it means to design with people, not for people,” says principal Ming Thompson. “The art park idea is is not a huge stone statue or a building. It’s the opposite of a ‘big ego’ designer project.” Says graduating senior Hana Davis: “It made me reflect on how top-down and external the process of architecture is, and what we could do to reverse that.”
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