Titled “One Pulse—One Poem,” his text framed the tributes left to the victims as living offerings, intimate details that locate a human life in all its uniqueness amid the infinitely vast, seemingly unsolvable societal crisis of gun violence in America. He wrote:
Set the page ablaze
with the anger in the hollow ache of our bones—
anger for the new hate, same as the old kind of hate
for the wrong skin color, for the accent in a voice,
for the love of those we’re not supposed to love.
Anger for the voice of politics armed with lies, fear
that holds democracy at gunpoint. But let’s not
end here. Turn the poem, find details for the love
of the lives lost, still alive in photos—spread them
on the table, give us their wish-filled eyes glowing
over birthday candles, their unfinished sand castles,
their training wheels, Mickey Mouse ears, tiaras.
Show their blemished yearbook faces, silver-teeth
smiles and stiff prom poses, their tasseled caps
and gowns, their first true loves. And then share
their very last selfies. Let’s place each memory
like a star, the light of their past reaching us now,
and always, reminding us to keep writing until
we never need to write a poem like this again.
Blanco’s list: the Mickey Mouse ears, tiaras, and photographs are the artifacts of lives. He asks us to see these objects as active, talismanic agents in our own transformational understanding of atrocity. When these charged objects, embodied with a human legacy, are placed in the right context and given space, they transcend time and culture and register a deeper impulse: the demand for us to contribute.
A lone gunman killed forty-nine people and injured fifty-three others at Pulse in an attack that garnered international condemnation. Pulse was an established gay nightclub whose clientele largely identified with LGBTQ+ communities, and the conventional “thoughts and prayers” response to yet another American mass shooting shifted into a global call for solidarity with queer communities. The nightclub grounds, on Orange Avenue south of downtown Orlando, immediately became a memorial site where thousands of tribute objects were left. The owners of the nightclub began to collect and catalog these objects only days after the shooting, acknowledging their historic significance and the importance of documenting the moment with care. The nightclub owners and organizers from the community are developing a new permanent memorial to mark the site of the atrocity and a museum to preserve and display the tributes left at the site.
This memorial and museum are a necessary repository of things, of the very real and weathered tributes left on the front lawn at Pulse and the digital proclamations from the global community acknowledging the trauma and expressing solidarity. They are also part of a larger memorial movement happening around the world. Designers, artists, and architects are being called on as spatial experts to create locations of memory that will also serve greater social aspirations and transform society holistically toward peaceful outcomes.
But how does our experience at such sites of memory change us? How is the design of the memorial an agent in a transformational journey? How do we, in Blanco’s words, “place each memory like a star, the light of their past reaching us now, and always, reminding us to keep writing until we never need to write a poem like this again”? How do memorials counter violence and create peace?
The Violence Triangle
The Norwegian sociologist and peace studies scholar Johan Galtung argues that in order to advocate for peace, we must first understand violence at different scales. Galtung’s triangle model articulates three types of violence: direct, structural, and cultural. Direct violence is physical or emotional injury inflicted by one person on another. It is personal, and its time scale is momentary. Galtung calls it an “event.” Structural violence, on the other hand, is a process, created by systems that inflict damage over time. It can last for generations and manifests itself in phenomena such as malnutrition, inadequate access to health care or housing, and inequalities in policing and sentencing. Cultural violence is perpetrated by one culture against another based on ideological justifications—religious, linguistic, artistic, or scientific—that can be used to legitimize injury in the name of belief.
All memorials act in some way, some subtly and some less so, but their effectiveness in creating peace or opposing violence can be difficult to determine. Galtung’s triangle provides a pathway for analysis. Among memorials, typologies align with the three types of violence he identified: memorials that mark—address direct violence; those that provoke—address structural violence; and those that evoke—address cultural violence. The first category is the most common. These are physical markers of historic events or people, and they typically take the form of didactic signage or the renaming of places. Statues and sculptures are three-dimensional markers. Their power, by design, is to emit an air of undebatable historical fact. They create a unique event, and they have been perceived both as causing harm—Confederate monuments, for example (pp. 30–31)—and as promoting reparative healing, like the memorial to the groundbreaking lawmaker Shirley Chisholm planned for Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, designed by Olalekan Jeyifous and Amanda Williams.
The second category, memorials that provoke, are those that demand a response—often tactile, participatory engagement. The AIDS Memorial Quilt is a striking example. It demands engagement from the public, namely the contribution of panels in honor of loved ones who have died. In this way the quilt is a participatory memorial. It is also both permanent (it weighs fifty-four tons) and adaptive, as it may be reconfigured to fit various display locations. Many credit the AIDS Memorial Quilt with the passage of beneficial congressional legislation regarding AIDS and with influencing a narrative shift nationally in the discussion of the disease. As an act of advocacy, it has led to lifesaving structural change in American law, policy, and justice.
Memorials in the third category, those that evoke, are often more spatial and experiential. A visitor goes on a journey through the memorial, a passage that enables the gradual absorption of ideas. Evocative memorials stimulate the visitor not just to acknowledge information but also to act on it. To experience the memorial is to take part in a ritualistic truth telling, an experience akin to cultural production and hence linked, in our rubric, with the amelioration of cultural violence. An evocative memorial works toward peace by catalyzing new cultural institutions and providing tools for cultural rituals that are physical and tactile rather than merely conceptual or historical.
Two Approaches to Memorializing the Holocaust
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (MMJE), designed by architect Peter Eisenman and completed in 2005, is intended to create a journey of indeterminate direction. A field of tomblike concrete slabs, the memorial is essentially a landscape of unmarked boxes, a labyrinth of multiple experiences, that leaves the visitor self-directed and disoriented. By design, it pulls the user in: the ground descends slowly, suggesting the hidden atrocities the Nazi regime was able to facilitate in plain site. The memorial resists the inclination to shape a didactic narrative journey. It is non-hierarchical: it has no singular entrance or exit, and visitors must choose their own paths and thus their own interpretations.
My own experience at the Berlin memorial was haunting but also perverse. I watched adult visitors navigate solemnly through the labyrinth of forms as they would through a cemetery: silent, cautious, respectful. But I also saw children using the space as a playground, jumping from one slab to another. Was this dual interpretation deliberate or even, possibly, the point of Eisenman’s design? I found the ambiguity troubling. I was not sure I had the tools I needed to decode this work. It was clear that the field of slabs evoked a sense of infinite, inconceivable loss. But who were the people? What were their stories? And then I noticed a design choice which specified this ambiguity: the sea of slabs are unmarked—no names, dates, stories, or intimate characteristics. There is a haunting museum of stories on the site, below ground, but it is not integral to the memorial itself. The MMJE evokes and provokes, but it does not clearly mark. Some see this indeterminacy as powerful, and some fault it for promoting problematic outcomes, such as children dancing on symbols of death.
The MMJE contrasts sharply with another memorial on the streets of Berlin, and in other cities in Germany: the Stolpersteine, or “stumbling blocks.” Designed by German artist Gunter Demnig, these small brass plaques are inserted among the cobblestones on streets and sidewalks. Each bears the name of a Jewish victim of the Nazis who lived at that location. On my first encounter with these brass plaques, on a drizzly day in Hameln, in Lower Saxony, I literally tripped over one of them while walking on Bäckerstraße. As I slipped, I was forced to look down at the sidewalk, where three cobblestone-sized markers were laid, one each for Moritz Blankenberg, Lotte Blankenberg, and Elise Blankenberg. Each was inscribed with their date of birth and date of escape, internment, deportation, and murder. I read their names and then I looked up at the house in front of me. I now saw the building, with its historic architecture, exposed wood rafters, and contemporary storefront window displays, as a site of murder, occupation, and theft. The invisible was made visible; I could sense the layering of history, with all its complexity and indeterminacy. In that moment, I experienced Moritz, Lotte, and Elise as memorable, personable, and relatable. I understood that if conditions were different, I too might have been a victim.
The Intimate and the Infinite
This is the realm of the intimate, where memorials connect a unique maker or object to an understanding of a life in all its humanity and individuation. The Stolpersteine do not tell us the full story of the Blankenbergs, but they supply us with enough data to locate ourselves in their condition (and to search for more information, if we so desire). They mark, and as we stumble on them; they also evoke—in this case, something sinister, a horror that is neither recorded or visible. They allow us to read the built landscape differently and force us to wonder what other stories may be hiding in plain sight. The Stolpersteine do not provoke a specific action, but they stimulate questioning: are there others, and if so where, and how many? As a memorial, they connect the viewer to one family or one group and do not try to convey the paralyzing enormity of the inconceivably large number of victims of the Holocaust.
Conversely, Eisenman’s memorial attempts to compose an image of the whole. The field, a gridded topography when viewed from above, a new landscape exhumed from the earth, suggests a labyrinth. The visitor here does not stumble into knowledge and empathy but is instead lost, discomfited, in search of answers and direction. This is the realm of the infinite, where an attempt to count the uncountable links individual loss to a greater shared loss. The infinite is transmuted through form into an experience, humanizing and historicizing death in something bigger than the self. The goal of the MMJE is cultural reckoning. Specifically naming European Jews and sitting at the center of Berlin, the Nazi party’s base, it makes a culture-wide demand: the nation and the continent must never forget the atrocity of the Holocaust. At its core, the memorial seeks a transformational outcome that is best explained by Michel Foucault: “The strategic adversary is fascism . . . the fascism in us all, in our heads and in our everyday behavior, the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us.”
Successful memorials navigate between the intimate and the infinite. They do not all have to mark, provoke, and evoke, but very effective ones might do all three. In the experiential flicker created by the memorial, a pathway for a shared human journey is revealed. Through the individual story, we surrender to the magnitude of shared loss. Each loss is our loss. If in this process we are given the tools to engage, the rituals to enact, the stories to hear, and the spaces in which to hear them, we may find that memorials are active contributors to cultural transformation—and are thus a tool for peace.
A Memorial to Gun Violence
In 2018 I was approached by two Chicago women who had lost sons to street shootings. Pamela Bosley and Annette Nance-Holt asked if it might be possible to create a memorial to victims of gun violence in the United States. With my design colleagues and collaborative partner, the artist Hank Willis Thomas, I wondered what it would take to memorialize the victims of an ongoing epidemic in which a hundred people are killed every day.
The AIDS Memorial Quilt teaches us that participation and collectivism in memorial making can be a potent force in manifesting political change. The quilt revealed the magnitude—the weight and breadth and physical volume—of the loss, and was thus a potent indictment of the broken systems that allowed it to occur. In the 1987 display of the quilt on the National Mall, ninety-two thousand panels covered the entirety of the nation’s front lawn, linking the infinite and the intimate together in one vast, collective exercise in public mourning. Without it, would structural change have been possible (p. 127)? This was peacemaking through place making. To make peace, we must create a space for it.
What kind of space could contain and communicate the epidemic of gun violence? What forms might signal both the total volume of its casualties to date and the ever-increasing and ongoing toll? The frame of the memorial is the essential design idea, and it must both register and oscillate between the intimate and the infinite. We designed a glass house made of seven hundred transparent “bricks,” one for every gun victim killed in the United States in a week. Fifty-two houses will be placed on the National Mall to evoke one full year of gun deaths. For every brick, we’ve collected an object, representing a life, to be contained within it. There are thirty-six thousand stories, thirty-six thousand lives, thirty-six thousand narratives to record, tell, and acknowledge.
We must see to believe, but it is not only the view of the glass houses on the Mall that will convince us. It is also entering the house, staring at the object, hearing a story. Capturing, in all its breadth, one lost life, and understanding that it could be yours. This is where we hope to break through. In creating a temporary city, and in forcing visitors to see each object within as representing a victim, we might catalyze cultural change. But the real goal is structural: to enact policy changes that American policy makers are currently too afraid to propose.
It is not enough to mark. It is not enough to represent. It is not enough to create a journey through undefined space. It is only in evoking empathy, through both the intimate and the infinite, that we can transcend a culture of violence. This is the task set for designers, artists, and architects—to create empathy, to effect change, to build peace in our world.