Expressing Empathy: Memorial Design Today - by Michèle Woodger

Michèle Woodger, co-author of new book Remembrance Now: 21st-Century Memorial Architecture reflects on writing about the diversity of memorial design in the 21st Century...

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The question of who and what we as a society choose to commemorate has come under scrutiny in recent times. Closely tied in with era-defining movements such as Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, communities are turning their attention to public monuments and asking: “Is this really who we are?” For decades, even centuries, statues of slave traders, Confederate army generals and heads of state have been presiding over our streets, acting as a daily insult to many. Consequently, many contested monuments have been subject to removal or vandalism as the tide of citizen’s anger over historic injustice is turning.

Mémorial du Camp de Rivesaltes by Rudy Ricciotti architect (Photo M Woodger)
The former prison, in southern France, witnessed the changing face of migration and decolonisation of the 20th century. The new memorial museum reveals the injustices to society’s ‘outsiders’ that took place here.


In parallel to this surge of feeling is the development of what could be termed a ‘memorial industry’ – a climate in which governments and communities, for many reasons, are driving the construction of new monuments; often, these celebrate underrepresented, forgotten, or previously-disregarded events and individuals. Correspondingly, there is often an expectation today that a given event, if it affects the lives of ordinary citizens, will be followed by a public memorial – with negative feeling if this does not occur.

With this demand comes an increase in memorial commissions for designers. And – partly due to the changing nature of the commemorative subjects, and partly due to the need to be memorable themselves – these projects are prompting an increasingly wide range of creative responses...Exciting, creative responses, which push boundaries, blur the distinction between typologies, and elicit strong emotions.

Anneau de la Mémoire by Atelier D’Architecture Philippe Prost (Andia/Alamy Stock Photo)
The elliptical monument at Notre Dame de Lorette, northern France, commemorates 600,000 people who died on the front during WWI; the mesmerising list of names lines the centre of the ring.

The above forms the simplified backdrop against which my co-author Tszwai So and I decided to write our book. As a practicing architect, and head of his studio Spheron Architects, Tszwai has worked on several notable memorial commissions, including the award-winning Belarusian Memorial Chapel in London (which commemorates Belarusian tragedies during WWII and Chernobyl) and the planned Pan-European Memorial for the Victims of Totalitarianism, destined for construction outside the EU Parliament in Brussels. His first-hand experience of working with victims’ groups, clients and political organisations, to create works of meaning, gives him a unique insight into such design projects. 

My academic background is grounded in the study of material and visual culture and its history – and memorials are loaded and active examples of material culture: they embody numerous paradoxes and fulfil many functions, for individuals and for international communities. Several years spent writing about construction products in my early career, helped attune me, as we were researching this subject here, to the fascinating treatment of materials within contemporary memorial design. Many such monuments deliberately reject traditional materials (such as marble and bronze) in favour of experimental materials (resin and burlap, household furniture, mirror-glass, charred wood...) which are capable of expressing abstract concepts and prompting unexpected emotional reactions. Our combined expertise as authors – architect and architectural journalist – gives this book its texture.

We researched many memorials and interviewed many architects for our book: some of these interviews can be read in full, others (because we don’t have infinite pages!) serve to paint a fuller picture of the structures they describe. We showcase 45 memorials from around the world, originating from the 21st century. These include temporary installations, largescale masterplans, synagogues, landscape interventions, converted houses, a gate to an elementary school, a petrified tree... We wanted to illustrate the diversity of the memorial typology today, and our examples all have one thing in common, which is that their designs consistently exhibit intellectual rigour and empathy.

Steilneset Memorial to the Victims of Witch Trials by Louise Bourgeois and Peter Zumthor (Photo Bjarne Riesto/via Wikimedia Commons)
This two-part memorial in the far north of Norway pays tribute to women persecuted in the witch hunts of the 1600s. Bourgeois’ installation positions a chair and a fire surrounded by mirrors in a smoked-glass enclosure, evoking terror and madness.

As we wrote this book, we were well aware of the weight of academia existing on this topic of memorialisation, by historians, anthropologists, sociologists and others. From our conversations with architects, it was clear that these designers had immersed themselves in relevant research, but, beyond that, had allowed themselves to explore the existential questions that arose from their own particular relationship with the subject matter. We didn’t wish to synthesise an enormous academic subject but rather to approach it a little like a conversational show-and-tell – celebrating our selection and offering context and a glimpse into the designers’ personal philosophies.

I personally found the writing of this book to be rewarding and emotional. I gave birth half-way through writing the manuscript, and during pandemic lockdowns when many of us were transfixed by the 24-hour news cycle, I became acutely aware of reasons why we, as a sociable species, feel the need to erect commemorative monuments. It ties us in with our past, binding us to each other in a material way, and thereby contributes to how we form our identities. And it also restores agency to us, when circumstances render us otherwise powerless: in materialising these tangible memorial artefacts, we are taking acts of resistance against forgetting, and engaging in positive acts of creation.

Babyn Yar Synagogue, Ukraine, by Manel Herz architect (Photo Iwan Baan)
The wooden synagogue, inaugurated 2021 at the important Holocaust memorial site near Kyiv, opens and closes like a book. It narrowly avoided bombing in 2022.


Find out more and order your copy of Remembrance Now HERE.