While most memorials are staid structures commemorating a fixed point in the past, the winner of the five-months-long Memorials for the Future ideas competition, announced this week, is a living monument to the slow creep of sea level rise.
Climate Chronograph, designed by Bay Area-based landscape architects Erik Jensen and Rebecca Sunter, envisions an orchard of D.C.’s iconic cherry blossoms planted in rows at low-lying Hains Point in the East Potomac Park. The site was formerly river, built up by the Army Corps of Engineers using dredged soil in an effort to protect the National Mall from flooding. But East and West Potomac Parks are themselves flooding with increasing regularity, according to Climate Chronograph’s project description.
Instead of fighting that flooding, Jensen and Sunter’s “memorial for the future rising sea” would sacrifice cherry blossoms to create a public record of climate change. They would be planted on a gradual slope, with the trees closest to the water planted at the lowest elevation. As sea levels rise, the trees would die in place, row by row, a retreating army that operates like an hour glass and invokes the plight of the world’s increasing population of climate refugees. The project proposal calls Climate Chronograph “a different form of memorialization, that commemorates the aftermath of the present.” As the trees die, wetlands would take their place.
(Credit: Climate Chronograph)
(Credit: Climate Chronograph)
The Memorials for the Future competition, initiated by the National Park Service (NPS), National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC), and Van Alen Institute, was an open call for ideas to reimagine what a D.C. memorial can look like, and the winning design will not necessarily be implemented. An honorable mention for “Futurism and Reinterpretation” was also awarded to VOICEOVER, a proposal involving a flock of pink mechanical parrots that would retell the many-layered stories of citizens encountering D.C.’s monuments. An honorable mention for “American Heritage and Community” was awarded to a project using audio to tell the immigrants’ stories along a D.C. bus line. A proposal to overlay images of the National Parks in D.C.’s metro received an honorable mention for “Marrying the Ephemeral and Iconic.”
The competition also yielded a report that highlights themes about how to create 21st century memorials gleaned from the finalist proposals. The first finding, “engage the present and future as much as the past,” speaks directly to the goals of Climate Chronograph.
“The tools of memorialization can help people learn about and appreciate recent events, important issues and on-going trends and experiences that impact their lives directly,” reads the report “New memorial approaches could be useful vehicles for sharing information, collective reflection and even serve as a call to action.”
The report also identified a need to allow for changing narratives, recognizing that the meaning of a memorial will shift along with cultural values, citing VOICEOVER as an example of ways to incorporate contemporary viewpoints into historical memorials. Another finding pointed to the need for memorials that speak to universal experiences like climate change and immigration, in addition to specific historical places, people and events. Other findings included the need to root national issues in local sites, to include the public in the creation of their own memorials, and to consider ephemeral, mobile and temporary memorials that may exist outside of physical spaces.
Jen Kinney is a freelance writer and documentary photographer. Her work has also appeared in Philadelphia Magazine, High Country News online, and the Anchorage Press. She is currently a student of radio production at the Salt Institute of Documentary Studies. See her work at jakinney.com.