Honoring our heroes through design

November 10, 2010 Robert Corning

Memorials aren't just monuments. They create places for respectful reflection that become hallowed parts of the landscape.


When people think about memorial design, they often think about slabs of granite with names on them, sometimes with some plantings and maybe flagpoles. These typical memorials are found all across North America, in urban city plazas, rural town commons, cemeteries, and college campuses. While the listing of names that are being honored is—and should be—the most memorable part of any memorial design, the design of commemoratory installations seems to be trending to a more experiential, artistic, and respectful reflection of a site and its context.



History of Memorialization

One of the first memorials to combine the notion of commemoration with art in the landscape is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Mall in Washington, DC. Designed by Yale student Maya Lin and completed in 1982, the two, 10-foot stone walls inscribed with almost 60,000 names are integrated seamlessly into the landscape, respecting the site context while providing a dramatic statement and experience. After some initial controversy over its design, it has since won great praise as people recognized the beauty and power of its simplicity, and its respect for the landscape of our National Mall.

Since then memorial design has continued to evolve in a similarly positive direction. The FDR Memorial in Washington DC, designed by landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, does a masterful job of using granite, water features, and planting to provide a sense of intimacy and a connection to nature. Paul Murdoch Architects’ Flight 93 9/11 Memorial in Somerset County, PA, is also respectfully integrated into its rural landscape, creating an experiential journey of remembrance: “A common field one day, a field of honor forever.”

Memorializing at Boston College 

I have had the great fortune to be involved with two memorial projects at Boston College, and these trends were very influential for the designs of both, especially when it came to integrating the memorials within the context of the landscape. The first was a memorial labyrinth to commemorate BC alumni killed in the events of 9/11. The labyrinth is built into the iconic great lawn that surrounds the historic Bapst Hall and Burns Library. The priority for us was to provide a respectful and contemplative environment without negatively impacting the character of the historic lawn.

The second was a War Veterans Memorial recognizing the members of the BC family who have given their lives in service to their country. When we were first approached by BC, a preliminary design featured a three-sided “room” of granite pieces of different shapes with the names of the war veterans engraved on them. But after making our case that the design wasn’t particularly reflective of BC and its campus, the college allowed us to explore alternative designs that were more context-sensitive and better integrated into the site. The final design consisted of a low curvilinear wall starting near the spruce tree and curving along the bank area, subtly merging itself into the topography. The wall’s granite cap contains the engraved names of the 211 BC alumni killed in conflicts from World War I through Iraq and Afghanistan. This memorial was dedicated on Veterans Day 2009 at a moving ceremony attended by families of those honored and the BC community. The highlight for me was when a respected member of the BC administration commented that the memorial “looks like it belongs there and has been there forever.”

And that’s really our goal as landscape architects—to enhance the landscape with features that look like they’ve always been a part of it. But when those features have the added job of memorializing our community’s leaders and heroes, it adds another layer of respect and reverence that sticks with you forever.

About the Author

Robert Corning

As the leader of New England’s planning, landscape architecture, and urban development team, Robert (Bob) Corning manages a broad spectrum of park and site development projects across the Northeast, from institutional campus master planning and design to urban streetscapes and parks

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