In the charged contexts that follow major atrocity and disaster, architecture is key to finding a means of recovery and redemption, writes Jon Snow
From Berlin to Phnom Penh, from New York to the Rwandan capital of Kigali, remembrance has become central to the process of recovery from major atrocities. Contemplation has always been at the heart of these potent sites of man’s inhumanity to man. The needs of survivors have been uppermost in the minds of those who seek to enshrine remembrance in an enduringly physical, built statement. The drive is for all time to ensure that in remembering, humanity seeks to inform future generations of what happened, and to provoke a determination to commit to the theme of ‘never again’.
As a reporter and as a citizen, I have stood at both ends of this equation in micro and macro circumstances. In October 2001, three weeks after the horrific 9/11 attacks in New York, I stood within Ground Zero, the surface still hot beneath my insulated boots; the smoke and steam still rising; tangled wreckage all about, protruding against the less ruined structures beyond. In that moment, I could not begin to imagine the impact this horror would have on the course of history, not least the immediate wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the vast scar it would etch upon the American psyche. To this day, the survivors still wrestle with those engaged in the memorial about where their loved ones should be laid within the structure that is being built to commemorate them. For some this remains, unhappily, a contested memorial.
As a citizen, I have observed the impact of the built environment on the individual attempting to recover from the deeply individual atrocity to which he or she has been subjected. For 40 years I have been involved in the care of vulnerable, often homeless, 16- to 21-year-olds adrift in central London. Before becoming a journalist I was, for three years, the Director of the New Horizon Youth Centre. Our work with these young people was undertaken in a grubby sanctuary beneath St Anne’s Church in Soho. Later, we moved to an even grubbier basement in Covent Garden, before moving to larger but hardly more beautiful council premises close to the British Library. For the vast majority of my years with New Horizon I never gave a thought to the built environment in which we worked.
Then, one day, the architect leading the rebuilding of King’s Cross Station knocked on our door. John McAslan was brutal in his evaluation of the physical circumstances in which we were working with our young clients. In short he described our premises as ‘unfit for purpose’. Many of our clients would come in from a night on the streets to be greeted in an environment that was hardly better than where they had slept. Though the staff was skilled and committed, the building was dark and uninviting.
The young people themselves had suffered persistent abuse, neglect, poverty and acute mental difficulties. McAslan had already become aware of their presence in some of the nooks and crannies of the area where he was working, 500 yards away at King’s Cross Station. He had already understood the likely impact of the built environment on their lives. He believed our Centre would ensure that society’s ‘disconnected’ people would be considered as a continuing element in any mass transit interchange project.
We wanted to stay where we were, partly because of the disruption of attempting therapeutic work in what was still a daunting building site. So McAslan set about educating us to appreciate the impact the immediate built environment can have on the effectiveness of our work. In a micro sense, we were to develop the physical arena in which lasting individual recovery could take place. Five years on, the effect of his input – an architectural competition, a Lottery grant, and the delivery of a state-of-the-art building designed by Adam Khan – has been beyond our dreams. The work has been transformed. The uplift that the individual client experiences upon entering the building is palpable.
Good architecture and intelligent treatment of public space improve people’s lives. Think of Trafalgar Square, a memorial island trapped in a whirlpool of traffic until part-pedestrianised. Think of Turner Contemporary’s burgeoning effect on Margate, a town that until recently had little allure to the general public, and no sense of having been Britain’s grandest seaside resort in the late 19th century.
I have witnessed another place in which the built environment has played a huge part in resurrecting a place of devastation. In January 2010, I was sent to Haiti’s capital city Port-au-Prince to report on the earthquake in which a staggering quarter of a million people are estimated to have died. At the very heart of Port-au-Prince, the flamboyant Iron Market had been reduced to mangled wreckage. Here again I encountered McAslan at work, painstakingly rebuilding this extraordinary structure. Frankly, I wondered at the time how this endeavour could be justified amid such injury, sickness and food shortage. But in truth the usual agencies were tending to these needs and the decision to rebuild this vital civic hub has been vindicated: today, the Iron Market stands once more as the city’s thriving hub and life once again swirls through and around it.
So what happens when ordinary daily life becomes horrifyingly extraordinary, and in the most overwhelming way possible? How do architects, in the service of governments who want to create places of cultural redemption, express the democratic and the humane in memorial projects?
Anyone who has visited Edwin Lutyens’ Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme battlefields, where 72,194 British and South African officers and men died, has felt the sombre weight of mass death. The memorial, completed in 1932, is monumental, a grand statement about the fatal results of an apparently clear-cut war. But how do we memorialise the loss of life sustained in deadly conflicts in the 21st century, when their origins and outcomes are often extremely complex, and tangled in competing international influences? How do architects develop a memorial response that addresses loss of life, yet also encourage a revival of hope and reconciliation? And isn’t it much harder to achieve this when substantial loss of life in major conflicts is relatively recent?
Our perception of widespread loss, and the way we go about marking it, has evolved. We live in an age of rolling news, amid a complex confusion of information, texts, tweets and Prime Ministerial ‘selfies’. It is extraordinary to think that, only 20 years ago, commuters sat silently on their journeys. Now, on trains, in the street, in cafés, at home, life is lived much more verbally and digitally, and with more obvious emotion.
It happens that somehow my life has cast me from time to time among architects. I have highlighted McAslan + Partners because the practice’s activities continue to coincide with both my reporting and NGO life. Strangely, I have worked in both King’s Cross and in Rwanda. Two places in which McAslan + Partners has been active in very different arenas. In the long years during which the practice worked on the rebirth of King’s Cross Station, it has also been developing the design of the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Rwanda. This stands in marked contrast not only to relatively historic memorials like the structure at Thiepval, but also to Peter Eisenman’s geometrical, tomb-like Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, honouring the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust. In contrast too, to the shelves of skulls and the ‘waterboard’ furniture at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia – a school that served as one of 150 execution centres set up by the Khmer Rouge in the mid-1970s.
The Kigali remembrance architecture forms a dramatically organic setting, rather than being an impressive memorial object. The arrival sequence is green and leafy. The journey within embraces memory, learning, remembrance and debate. Yes, the mass graves are there, but so too is the Stream of Tears and the Lake of Reflection. The centrepiece is the Amphitheatre, close to both the Africa Centre for Peace, and the Education Centre, designed by Hannah Lawson, Director of Culture and Education in McAslan’s office. The environment has been devised so that it stimulates both memory and that journey of commitment toward ‘never again’.
What has been achieved in this verdant space surely offers those who seek more humanised resolutions of conflict a way forward. We must hope that for Baghdad, for Damascus, for Kabul, there is, tucked away in Central Africa, a different kind of blueprint for the part that architecture can play in humanity’s recovery from conflict. The Kigali Memorial Centre is not an architecturally bombastic statement of loss, but a landscape and place of gathering where memory, emotion, and very gradual redemption can reside.