For "data.path," an immersive digital installation, Ryoji Ikeda Studio built video walls that serve as screens. r2hox/Van Alen Institute

By rethinking the future of memorials, a consortium of Washington, D.C., stakeholders also re-wired the open design competition.

Like democracy, memorial planning is a messy business. Decisions about what or whom a nation should memorialize—and where and why—are all potentially fraught. The how of a memorial may be the most difficult question of all. Competitions and commissions are imperfect tools for assigning a memorial design, whether it’s for a person, a place, a war, or a moment in time.

On Wednesday, memorial stakeholders in Washington, D.C., introduced a novel way of thinking about memorial design. The National Capital Planning Commission and the National Park Service, working in tandem with the Van Alen Institute in New York, announced “Memorials for the Future,” an open design competition for new memorials. The contest is asking not only for memorial designs but memorial concepts—opening up the questions of whom, what, and why to the public.

In effect, the people responsible for guiding memorials to completion are putting the cart before the horse. They’re asking for designs that will drive the debate about what memorials should do.

Julia Koster, the director of public engagement for the NCPC, says that the contest is an effort to “get us beyond the ‘grass-and-granite’ approach” to memorialization. In thinking about the contest, she says, her organization was looking toward temporary and alternative models for memorials—the AIDS Memorial Quilt, for example, or the 9/11 Tribute in Light—and ways that the contest could spur those kinds of ideas.

Janet Echelman’s “1.8” refers to the length of time (in microseconds) that the Earth’s 24-hour day lost as a result of the 2011 earthquake that devastated Japan. (Ema Peter/Van Alen Institute)

On its face, an open design contest would seem to be exactly the way to go about picking a memorial. As opposed to assigning a designer or architect with a proven record, opening up the candidate pool to the nation—maybe to the entire world—would seem to promise the most potential. But a meritocratic approach has its drawbacks. Open design competitions ask designers to give up their labor for free. (Those fancy renderings take a lot of work.) Massive, open-ended calls for entries seem to garner exaggerated designs. Consider the over-the-top entries in the contest to design the Guggenheim Helsinki or the National World War I Memorial (in the U.S.). A glut of tacky renderings can short-circuit any design conversation, leading people to reject the premise: the memorial itself.

The Van Alen Institute has considered of all of these shortcomings and more. Jessica Lax, the associate director for competitions at the Van Alen Institute, says that the planning for “Memorials for the Future” was informed by a survey that the organization conducted with Architectural Record last year. A majority of respondents (67 percent) complained that entering competitions never led to commissions or paid work, for example. Most designers said that they have to peg the amount of work they are willing to put into a contest entry to the value of the prize—which gives an edge to major architecture firms with time and resources to spare.

To work around some of these problems, “Memorials for the Future” will first ask for concepts only during the first stage, not full-blown renderings. There is no fee to enter. From the overall pool, the jury—a murderer’s row of civic art and architecture experts—will select three teams, each of whom will be given $15,000 and strategic assistance to develop a complete, site-specific proposal for a memorial. This opens up the contest to a wider realm of candidates than architects and design professionals.

Expanding the contest creates more work for the jury, of course. And to the extent that the competition solicits public input, it will necessarily provoke an argument over the purpose of the memorials. (The finalist designs will go on view in Washington, D.C., in September, at a location to be determined.) In this contest, the jury will select not just the best design, but also the best subject for a memorial—which is almost necessarily a political decision. It’s not obvious how this process works. After all, a jury member may appreciate a design but care not at all for the cause, or vice versa. No matter what, some constituency is bound to be offended by the jury’s picks. Unfortunately, there is no way to plan a memorial that avoids outraging somebody.

Winning the competition is not a guarantee of anything: The contest is purely for honors, not to produce a built memorial. But any memorial starts with a grassroots campaign. A gripping memorial design associated with Black Lives Matter, for example, or Vision Zero—or abortion or suicide or gun violence or drug abuse or really any controversial subject in life—could generate its own momentum. Maybe even the support of a member of Congress. Then the real contest begins.

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