the covid memorial project

How Will We Remember This?

A COVID memorial will have to commemorate shame and failure as well as grief and bravery.

Clockwise from upper left: Vienna’s plague column; the AIDS quilt; Mexico City’s Memorial to Victims of Violence; Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Photo: Getty Images
Clockwise from upper left: Vienna’s plague column; the AIDS quilt; Mexico City’s Memorial to Victims of Violence; Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Photo: Getty Images

Even before the bear-spray residue and splintered glass had been cleaned up, it was clear how January 6, 2021, would be remembered. Most Americans will think of it as the date of democracy’s attempted murder, though some will cling to the myth of a heroic last stand. It was the ultimate commemorable event, confined to one building and one day, replete with rhetoric, rich with historical resonance and physical mementos: flags, logos, helmets, baseball bats, zip ties, armored vests, shattered windows, pelts, and red caps, all ready to be labeled for an exhibition.

The COVID pandemic is the insurrection’s opposite. Silent and invisible, it has permeated everywhere and may never die out. It has no battlefields, no spasm of glory, no indelible footage of flames, not even any universally acknowledged villains. The instant politicization of the crisis made it impossible to agree on how extreme a threat it posed or how strenuously to fight it. “There’s no reason to expect that commemorating the pandemic will be any less political than managing it has been,” says Jeffrey Olick, a professor of sociology and history at the University of Virginia and an editor of The Collective Memory Reader. “The process of making meaning out of past events is a slow one.”

It will be a long time before we can distill an understanding of a calamity that hasn’t abated yet into an idea for a permanent monument: “We need to wait for the deaths to stop before tackling that one,” says Michael Arad, the designer of the World Trade Center Memorial.

A big hunk of marble isn’t the only way to commemorate disease. Memorials can be insubstantial, scraps that cling to the culture, even when we’re not alert to their source. “Where would German literature be without tuberculosis?” Olick asks, citing Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain. He sees a sinister echo of the novel’s setting, a Swiss sanatorium in Davos, in the alpine clinics where James Bond’s nemesis Blofeld dwells among beautiful women and nefarious plots in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and Spectre. “The disease left remnants in the background of our culture. I call that the ring-around-the-rosy problem,” Olick says. “When kindergarten teachers get kids to sing that nursery rhyme, few of them think about the fact that it’s a Black Death incantation. But that’s a form of memory too.”

No memorial, no matter how grand or artful, can encompass the infinite varieties of pain, or comfort everyone who experienced a global pandemic. So we at New York and Curbed have taken a stab at reducing an event of unimaginable magnitude to a series of local and communal yet personal markers. At our request, and in a matter of days, 15 design firms and collaboratives interpreted 15 New Yorkers’ particular slices of the pandemic experience: long nights in the ER, long days of delivering food, long-distance teaching, long months of mourning with no shoulder to lean on. (They will all appear on Curbed over the course of this week, starting today.) As varied as the styles and messages of these projects are, many recapitulate the passage from shock to hope. Some designers found ways for an inert object or a solid landscape to follow the emotional journey mirrored in charts that resemble the path of the Coney Island Cyclone—climbing, leveling off, tumbling and then, horribly, rising again. Weiss/Manfredi’s earthwork at the edge of Brooklyn represent mourning as a constriction, a movement from light to darkness and back again. Temporary installations could leave their own trace before passing on, the way Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s festooning of Central Park in orange banners remains indelible to anyone who saw it in 2005. But even if they all became fixed features of the cityscape, they would barely begin to form a complete picture of what the pandemic has meant.

“A memorial requires enough specificity that you know what it commemorates, enough abstraction that you’re not pigeonholing it into one interpretation,” says Spencer Bailey, author of In Memory Of. “Memorials should contain multitudes.” Some of those multitudes can be magically unintentional. New York’s most potent and pragmatic accidental monument to the victims of cholera is the Croton Aqueduct, with its stone arches and noble gates that brought the city clean, safe water. When Arad responded to our call for temporary installations, he designed a floating gathering spot in the middle of the Central Park Reservoir, not even conscious that he was tapping into a segment of that system, symbolically connecting one plague to another.

In the coming years of retrospection, we will have more nuances to digest, more connections to make. The darkest moments of the pandemic were not just the result of suffering but of dejection at how much of it we brought on ourselves and inflicted on others. A frank history of how humanity handled the outbreak reads like “Ashamnu,” the Yom Kippur confessional prayer of collective sins: We ignored, we politicized, we discriminated and exploited; we deflected, rationalized, and sabotaged the work of others. At the same time, the light we can see now is not just the passing of a mortal threat but a recognition that we are not powerless and need not be passive, that behavior, knowledge, technology, and organization can save many more millions of lives than the virus claimed. We need a separate litany of gratitude: for delivery workers, flimsy paper masks, public-health functionaries, researchers, portable freezers, Big Pharma factories, nurses, and line monitors — the whole apparatus that kept society functioning and sped vaccine development from urgent desire to mighty arsenal in under a year. The work of memorializing both the brutal facts and the emotional freight of the pandemic will have to find an equilibrium between regret and pride.

Until a generation or two ago, memorials were built to glorify, to mourn, or both. Great men, great battles, and great ideals were enshrined in a sculptural language that had its roots in ancient temples. Memorials were often didactic and simplistic: Remember this, forget everything else, they said, and don’t let history’s complexities and counternarratives deflate a swelling chest. Only in recent decades have we begun building monuments to shame, preserving stories we may prefer to forget. If one day we feel that way about the pandemic, we’ll have precedents to guide us. Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, completed in 2005, is an array of concrete -steles in an undulating piazza, a field of unmarked graves or an army of nameless ghosts. It’s an unbearably somber place that has also become a playground for the thoughtless. In 2017, the Israeli artist and comedian Shahak Shapira combed social media for photographs of visitors grinning in selfies, leaping from block to block or using them as yoga mats. Then, in a project called Yolocaust, he Photoshopped the figures into historical images of concentration camps so that now they were cavorting atop piles of bodies. It was a brutal way to revive shame, but it documented the way blitheness and even joy grow over bleak memories like bougainvillea on a stone wall. If remembrance didn’t fade, we wouldn’t need memorials.

But memorials can be tools of useful forgetfulness, too. In a 1992 article on the way young Germans were dealing with their parents’ and grandparents’ memories of the Holocaust, the sociologist James E. Young articulated a generation’s suspicion of a monument’s oppressive permanence. “The surest engagement with memory lies in its perpetual irresolution,” he wrote. A monument, however, runs the risk of offloading difficult moral topics onto inanimate blocks of stone, neutralizing debate. Among the artists who were born well after World War II but sought ways to keep its complexity alive, Young pointed to Jochen Gerz and Esther Shalev-Gerz, who in 1986 erected a lead-sheathed pillar in the German town of Harburg as a monument against fascism. The artists invited people to score the surface with their names, producing a tangle of graffiti that gradually worked its way up the rectangular column as it was lowered, bit by bit, into the street until its top was flush with the pavement. Instead of rising up against fascism, the monument demanded participation, then slowly disappeared into the earth, accepting the burden of memory for a while before quietly passing it back to those who will have to do the work of remembering all over again.

There’s something primal about leaving one’s mark on a monument, and some designers treat that impulse as a form of participation rather than vandalism. Gaeta–Springall Arquitectos’ Memorial to Victims of Violence, erected in 2013 in Mexico City’s Chapultepec Park, invites visitors into a forest of weathered-steel walls that started out blank and have gradually acquired text. pinta lo que sientes … expresa lo que piensas, a sign suggests: “Paint what you feel … express what you think.” Mexicans have responded by scratching names, prayers, and unanswerable questions onto the standing pages.

In this country, the pandemic collided with a raging debate over race and the legacy of the Civil War and Jim Crow. The Commemorative Justice Movement was formed to bring the landscape of statues, monuments, and historical recollection into alignment with invigorated assaults on racism. Given the racial inequities the pandemic bared, a grand rethinking of America’s memorial traditions will surely affect how we recall the history we’re going through now. The connection between trauma, steles, and inscribed names has become a familiar trope. The recently opened National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, by MASS Design Group, consists of 800 hanging, coffin-size boxes made of rusting steel, each one etched with the names of those who were lynched in a particular county. With its combination of heaviness and light, of delicacy and menace, it draws beauty out of rage. The power of such places makes them difficult to emulate because another assemblage of somber metal panels, either carved with an endless directory of the dead or ready to receive messages from the living, would feel reductive, distilling a complex story to the stark fact of loss.

These precedents suggest that the language of dark, vertical slabs is both overused and too limited to interpret an event that is slippery in its meanings. It’s the rare memorial that can absorb ambivalence, leave room for disagreement, and still function as a place of contemplation. With the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Maya Lin embedded an experience into the landscape, rather than placing an object on flat ground, creating an outdoor room. “What Lin did was to create a reflective space that invited your presence, your touch, your reflection. It anticipated the visitor having a visceral experience, and it allowed for catharsis,” says Paul Farber, the director of the Monument Lab.

Part of the unintended genius of that stark and restrained design is that it invites embellishment. From the moment it opened, family members and friends of missing soldiers brought votive -offerings—flowers, candles, snapshots, notes, teddy bears—and the contrast between black wall and bright bric-a-brac spoke to the way grief is simultaneously private and universal. Spontaneous shrines like those are often more affecting than any official marker could be. Cut off from lower Manhattan in the weeks after 9/11, New Yorkers converged on Union Square Park with candles, songs, and photocopied missing posters, although those were more statements of emotional fact than plausible attempts to locate people who had vanished into air. It’s easier to mark a single death with a ghost bike on the side of the road or a little metal plaque screwed to a park bench than it is to absorb the loss of masses. In our New York group, David Rockwell translated that impromptu, participatory spirit into a growing wall of photos of the dead—“a memorial that is perpetually in progress,” the architect suggests.

Counting the dead is an interpretive act and not just because their numbers keep growing. Whenever criteria are laid down and lists are made, someone is invariably left out. Lin’s wall of names doesn’t include all of the war dead, only U.S. military personnel whose identities were documented and whose violent fates could be accounted for in official detail. It doesn’t contain civilians, enemies, or shattered survivors, and so it measures only the discounted cost of war. Such choices are painful, exclusionary, and inevitable, especially when casualties are on a scale as inconceivable as -COVID’s. “There’s a mathematics of mourning we don’t even have the space to deal with,” says Farber. Even if we could come up with a complete census of COVID’s victims, inscribing all their names would require a wall the size of Hoover Dam.

As our designers’ contributions imply, the stages of pandemic grief move beyond remorse and rage to a sense of possibility. How we memorialize the pandemic will depend on the stories we tell ourselves about it and will be shaped as much by what comes next as by what just happened. A historical event doesn’t end after it has passed. And so we can hope—that our leaders will learn or that the rest of us can learn to elect leaders capable of looking a crisis in the eye and adapting; that this plague will turn out to be a calamity that jolts the world into firm determination to avoid a sequel. We have already witnessed an international vaccine race, which gives us hope that humanity can finally negotiate a détente with nature. We’ll refrain from blasting away the atmosphere in exchange for extending our lease on this comfortable but precarious planet.

A year ago, abject pessimism was the only rational position; today, there is reason to conceive a memorial that reflects both tragedy and optimism. Until the end of the 19th century, wave after wave of pestilences tore through cities and towns, killing so many that what we think of as normality was only an intermission. The surge in mortality over the past year is statistically minor compared with the decade Americans have added to their life expectancy since 1950. And the adrenalized development of not one or two but a passel of COVID-19 vaccines could supercharge the fight against infectious disease. If that momentum produced, say, a malaria vaccine, a memorial to COVID’s victims would simultaneously celebrate millions of lives saved. It would commemorate yet another victory in the long struggle that has transformed so many infectious diseases from mass murderers to manageable risks.

It may seem like tempting fate to erect a monument to deliverance from disease. We are too aware that, in the endless war against nature’s malicious imagination, the next bug is always crouching in wait. But it was common once. In 17th-century Austria, wooden pillars were erected for the self-mortifying convenience of the flagellants who roamed Europe, whipping themselves to expiate whatever sins had brought on the Black Death. If the plague receded, the columns were rebuilt in stone and usually dedicated to the Trinity or, less often, the Virgin Mary. Elaborately carved, embellished with saints and angels, and sometimes (as in Vienna) trimmed with gold, these Pestsäulen, or “plague columns,” became the pride of almost every Austrian town. When COVID hit, Vienna’s plague column served as an impromptu shrine and a place of prayer. Maybe what we’ll need post-COVID is a new kind of needle that does for public health what the Washington Monument does for democracy: provide an ambiguous symbol of its fragility and resilience.

Disease and density have long been intertwined. When Thomas Jefferson famously wrote to Dr. Benjamin Rush in 1800 that “I view great cities as pestilential to the morals, the health, and the liberties of man,” he was not being entirely metaphorical. Yellow fever had struck Philadelphia seven years earlier, was instantly politicized, and prompted a rush to the suburbs. (The current epidemic hit cities first, and latter-day Jeffersonians nodded in grim satisfaction.) How and where the country chooses to center its remembrance will surely reflect both the city’s impact on COVID and COVID’s impact on cities. A New York City Council member proposed a local memorial on Hart Island, where hundreds of COVID victims are buried in long pits. A nonprofit organization called Friends of the Ruin suggested dedicating the ruins of the smallpox hospital on Roosevelt Island to honor public-health workers. Then the disease rampaged through states where wide-open spaces proved a more effective barrier to delivering health care than to the virus’s spread.

Now that a portion of the labor force can theoretically do their jobs from a closet or a mountaintop, an article by the urban guru Richard Florida and the economist Adam Ozimek predicts the rise of “Zoom towns,” small cities like Tulsa, Oklahoma, or Truckee, California, that will attract remote-working residents because they are pleasant and cheap places to live (and have robust broadband). Such large-scale economic shifts could yield a whole new mythology. The next few chapters in America’s pandemic history will rewrite the previous ones. And depending on whether we look back on this period as the start of a golden era for the likes of Truckee and Tulsa, as the last days of the superstar city, or as the near death and glorious rebirth of New York, we will forge different narratives and different memorials. One way to gather all those options together may be as a representation of urban life set in the middle of nowhere—something like Michael Heizer’s City, a sculpture of Mayan proportions in the Nevada desert, still unfinished after nearly 50 years.

In his short story “Campo Santo,” W. G. Sebald describes the dissonance between an old cemetery in Corsica and the amnesiac society of his own time, “where everyone is instantly replaceable and is really superfluous from birth, [when] we have to keep throwing ballast overboard, forgetting everything that we might otherwise remember: youth, childhood, our origins, our forebears and ancestors.” Sebald is being unfair to the modern world, which is so repulsed by oblivion. We enumerate, preserve, and commemorate, selectively but with fanatical devotion, from the “In Memoriam” montage at the Oscars and the Times’ exhaustive obituaries (recently expanded to belatedly cover those whom the newspaper once neglected) to a densifying landscape of monuments.

I hope we’ll remember this moment as an Enlightenment triumph over the forces that attempt to usurp reason. It took a pandemic to remind a confused nation how dear we hold scientific inquiry, fact, and debate. When I try to imagine a memorial that pays homage to reason as well as loss—part mausoleum, part springboard, a place with the poetry of an ancient ruin and the clarity of rational thought—my mind keeps circling back to the Salk Institute in San Diego. Designed by Louis Kahn for Jonas Salk, who created the polio vaccine, the complex sits on a shelf above the Pacific, a symmetrical white piazza flanked by buildings that are angled like a theater’s wings and bisected by a narrow runnel. When conditions are right, the sunset lights up that straight wire of water like a message flowing from sky to ocean to land. It’s not a temple or a mausoleum, though it has some qualities of both; it’s a workplace, a machine for sorting knowledge, a laboratory of the sublime.

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