How can design commemorate the tragedies and struggles of this extraordinary year?
It says something about 2020 that if I suggest we should build a memorial, the obvious follow-up question is, "For which disaster?"
After all, we've seen over 500 Oregonians die this year from Covid-19 and counting. We've seen the most politically tense summer in Portland's history, with months of protests, tear-gassing, and two killings. Then there are the worst wildfires in Oregon's history.
Maybe we need three memorials — or maybe we just need one. Either way, the barrage of pandemic, injustice and a burning planet has me thinking about how Portland could someday commemorate historical struggles.
The central city has very few such commemorative landmarks. There is the David Campbell Memorial at Northwest 18th and Burnside, honoring the late firefighter killed in 1911. A 2010 design competition for a new, larger firefighter memorial on the Eastbank Esplanade has seen the winning entry go unbuilt for a decade. (That could still change with additional donations.) There is also the Oregon Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington Park, dedicated to all who served in the conflict, including the 710 Oregonians who lost their lives. But little else.
Today a broader national conversation is underway, about not the memorials and monuments we build to honor history's heroes. While many past soldiers and presidents rendered in bronze deserve the honor, we must also consider underlying motives. In many southern U.S. states, for instance, statues of Confederate heroes have historically been erected during times of racial-injustice protests. It wasn't about Confederate heritage at all.
Venerable Portland architect Donald Stastny has managed design competitions for some of the nation's most prominent memorials: Flight 93 near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where passengers gave their lives to thwart a September 11 terrorist attack, and in Oklahoma City, site of right-wing vigilante Timothy McVeigh's 1993 bombing.
I asked Stastny what great memorials share. "It's about the totality of the experience," he explained. "A certain part of it has to be iconic, but it's taking people on a journey. There needs to be a sense of discovery."
Last fall, I spoke to renowned Polish-American architect Daniel Libeskind, who designed the master plan for New York's World Trade Center site and has designed memorials around the world.
"There's no formula for it. You have to look into your own heart, your own soul," Libeskind said. "But without that emotion, you're just creating a material marker that will be forgotten soon. The truly great ones, you can see the spirit of the individual communicating something through all these layers of politics and history to another individual."
Libeskind believes in a time of increasing conspiracy theories, memorials are all the more important anchors of meaning. "We are in a time where people are changing truths into lies and lies into truths. Therefore it's all the more important to present memory against history. Memory is often a struggle against forgetting."
Many of us would like to forget this annus horribilis, but the truth is we need to remember. The pandemic, the injustice, the fires: in time, remembering those threats will remind us how precious, vulnerable and resilient our community is.
Brian Libby is a Portland freelance journalist, critic and photographer who has contributed to The New York Times, The Atlantic and Dwell among others. His column, Portland Architecture, can be read monthly in the Business Tribune or Online at: portlandarchitecture.com
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.