City Mnemonics

holocaust 2

During my previous trip to New York in 2013, I visited the WTC memorial for the first time since its final completion. It was really something – its hollowness deep and raw, its scale unforgettable. I was quite in awe to see how it hits so many individuals, even those including myself, who were not directly affected by it…

Memorials have always played a significant role in cities – they stand for real happenings, for collective values, for a geographic mark of the past –they are the city mnemonics. Of the memorials that I have visited during my travels as well as those that I have previously read about, when compared with one another, seem to hold ambivalent characteristics that make each one unique and memorable.


Verticality Above and Below

Historically, monuments have always been a way to both pass down stories through generations as well as spread word across the continent –hence the tall physical presence is key. The pharaohs were right to predict that the scale of the pyramids would speak more of a powerful historic event and achievement than any clay tablet would ever be able to describe. The mystery of how these were physically built has nothing but led to more research around the great Egyptian empires. When we become curious, we relive those stories and remember 3000-BC Egypt.

In contrast, the designers of the WTC memorial, rather than going above the ground plane, have decided to dig into the ground to commemorate all who have fallen with the Towers. Two voids, carved to match the exact base of each of the towers, mark the “once-there” and the unimaginable horror story. As I stand at the corner of the South Tower and look across I hear the water gushing down, muffling the sounds of terror from the 2,977 victims. Here lies a mark –not of power or pride, but of a great loss.

World Trade Center Memorial (photo: Anesta Iwan)


Repetition and Singularity

Just as we often say things aloud repeatedly just to make sure we don’t forget something, the design of memorials has often used similar strategies. In 2012, I visited the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin.[1] As I walk through the barren landscape of concrete, I become engulfed by the towering blocks –seemingly endless rows of blocks in front, behind, to my right, and to my left. To stand in the midst of 2,711 stelae was comparable to being told about the hostilities of the Holocaust 2,711 times…

Memorial to the Murdered Jews (photo: Anesta Iwan)

A friend of mine, Nish Kothari, and I had also proposed a design a memorial for the Holocaust (Warsaw, Poland) – but rather than mourning over the lost lives, this is a memorial to thank the Polish who had the courage to offer the Jews refuge in their homes. When we first designed The Threshold, we took the theme of doors – a gesture of welcoming strangers into the homes. The doors become the threshold between death and refuge but also as openings into new eras. Four doors stand in a cross formation, each one leading to the next door in an endless loop of open doors –the continual repetition of welcoming.

Threshold – Nish Kothari + Anesta Iwan

However, the strategy of the singular and the simple can also be just as powerful. Across the National Mall in Washington D.C., I as well as many others would agree, find the simplest piece to be just that. In Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the black “V” not only is a symbolic scar upon the ground, but is also a chronology of death tolls of the War –58,307 names visible only at the near, finely etched on black granite. Here, the multitude lies in pure, yet powerful, geometry.


Temporality and Timelessness

Like memories, they are sometimes short-lived and sometimes long-term, memorials also possess these qualities. As part of the centennial remembrance for the victims of WWI, a Brazilian sculptor had formed 5,000 ice figures at the steps of Chamberlain Square that would melt away throughout the day – reminding us of the lost soldiers during the Great War. The performance and temporarility of the Melting Man[2] foreshortens time to emphasize the insignificance of the war (within the context of the greater history) in contrast with the immense loss that it brings with it. One day, they’re teenagers in a classroom, the next they are fallen soldiers at war.

Melting Man – Nele Azevedo

But what if it is a memorial about a world leader rather than of a war? Can it be permanent and timeless? Nish and I had asked this question when designing a memorial to “Madiba” (Nelson Mandela). 27 Steps to Freedom is grounded by slabs of dark stone that stack to form two pyramid-like forms; an opening between marks Madiba’s journey; it is through here that visitors come and take that same journey. Polished granite along its perimeter reflects Madiba’s wisdom and composure and contrast against the coarse interior surfaces that bear deep scars from his 27 years at Robben Island. The two forms, with a stature of the Great Pyramids, stand the test of time and allow Mandela to be a timeless symbol of peace.

27 Steps to Freedom – Nish Kothari + Anesta Iwan



[1] Seemann, Uwe. 2016. “Stiftung Denkmal Für Die Ermordeten Juden Europas: Peter Eisenman”. Stiftung-Denkmal.De.

[2] Lloyd, Matt. 2014. “Lest We Forget- Ice Sculpture Event In Memory Of WW1 Fallen”. Birminghammail.


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