Private Grief, Public Place
The Columbine Memorial raises fundamental design questions.
By Kim Sorvig
Memorials make strange landscapes—personal and social,
sorrowful about the past yet aimed at inspiring the future.
Bob Smith, FASLA, partner at Denver’s DHM Design, has worked
on memorials ranging from Mount Rushmore to military tributes. Starting in
2000, Smith led the design team for the Columbine Memorial, commemorating
victims of the notorious 1999 Littleton, Colorado, school shooting. Dedicated
in 2007, that project changed how Smith and his colleagues view the purpose and
process of memorial making.
Smith’s office is filled with black-and-white photos of 10
often-controversial years at Mount Rushmore, redesigning public access to that
beloved monument. The Columbine Memorial, however, raises fundamental questions
that go well beyond the familiar. Those questions are multiplying across
America: what a memorial should be, what kinds of events should be
memorialized, and when.
In recent years, landscapes have increasingly replaced
statues and obelisks as vehicles for grief, tribute, and remembrance. Another
trend: Memorials are increasingly begun within months of the tragedy. The
Columbine Memorial is emblematic of both trends. The issues that make Columbine
different affect memorials as diverse as Oklahoma City, Kent State, Flight 93,
even the will-it-ever-be-built World Trade Center proposal.
After working on Columbine, says DHM landscape architect
Denise George, ASLA, “I don’t think I’ll ever look at memorial design the
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