Architecture

A missed opportunity in Orlando

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Coldefy & Associés with the RDAI / OnePulse Foundation

Why is the Guggenheim as a garden the best way to commemorate the senseless death of 49 people? That’s the question raised by the Pulse Memorial & Museum Design Competition, designed to commemorate filming at Pulse 2016, a nightclub for the LBGTQ community in Orlando, Florida. As high as an office building in the middle of the climb, but with almost no program. The winning proposal of the team headed by the French company Coldefy & Associés goes the monumental way. It is a computerized version of an urban-scale Pyrex-style coffee carafe that functions as an obelisk or marker in the landscape. Aside from its formal innovation (although it is largely derived from the work of several companies, notably Coop Himmelb (l) au), its other departure from this tradition is to offer a spiral garden that goes from a base of educational functions up to a viewing platform. What all of this has to do with filming at the Pulse nightclub just down the street is a mystery to me, but the structure will surely be an object the size and difference of which will attract visitors both inside and out.

Coldefy & Associés with the RDAI / OnePulse Foundation

Even so, the Coldefy design seems to be the most inspirational to make it into the finals. The most intriguing submission belonged to the team led by MVRDV. The strength of his proposal lay not in the design of the museum, but in the second part of the brief, which aimed to turn the location of the nightclub, half a mile away, into an unprogrammed place of remembrance. MVRDV suggested leaving the building as it is, painting it black and then digging under it to create a hilly landscape with lights. Eerie and beautiful in equal parts, it combined some of the light-driven spatial qualities of a disco with a shady and contemplative space whose darkness would have contrasted with the bright Florida sunshine.

MVRDV / onePULSE Foundation

MVRDV / onePULSE Foundation

However, the MVRDV’s design for the museum was overdone: the company proposed a box that would have been pulled apart into a continuous loop of curved rooms that would have created exciting interiors but whose main function was to move the building into the transform word “love” seen from above. (How am I not quite sure: maybe an airplane or maybe a nearby skyscraper?) Dyed in the colors of the rainbow flag, it aspired to pop art, but became mundane. Coldefy’s design is far less exciting on the nightclub’s grounds (a semicircular pool of rainbow-colored water emanating from the building), but at least the main structure is (literally) uplifting and more ephemeral.

Coldefy & Associés with the RDAI / onePULSE Foundation

None of the designs were as good as the companies were able to produce, also due to the way the memorial is proposed by the competition committee headed by the Pulse’s former owner. The idea is to connect the nightclub, which was left as a silent monument surrounded by a kind of park, with the free block several blocks away, where the museum will be a place of gathering and community formation. The link between the memorial and the museum was the third part of the competition report, to which all finalists responded by suggesting some sort of tree planting and landscaping. The contract was also intended to contribute to the gentrification of this Orlando neighborhood and was conceptually divided into these three different components.

What is the problem with monuments in general these days. It is no longer enough to be abstract markers and representations of who or what has been lost. You need to educate, evoke experience, and suggest interpretations of history that could lead to an alternate future. This often means a kind of underground or otherwise suppressed visitor center with a landscaped object above and mostly a statue that fulfills the need for direct representation. The best recent examples, such as the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Ala., Or the 9/11 Memorial in Manhattan, do this more or less successfully.

Coldefy & Associés with the RDAI / onePULSE Foundation

Coldefy & Associés with the RDAI / OnePulse Foundation

The Coldefy design could reach its potential if the design is worked out, but the separation between the nightclub and the museum is worrying and the proposal to landscape the boulevard that connects the two locations seems shallow. Furthermore, I haven’t seen a solid program for what exactly the memorial is trying to achieve beyond the standard that facilitates memory and creates an object that keeps that memory alive in the community. The idea that this could be a place to promote the LGBTQ community, discuss diversity, fight gun violence, or anything that could make the memorial more effective was apparently too controversial. No wonder several family members of the victims have argued against the project, saying that they would prefer the money to help living victims, including family and friends of the deceased, as well as at-risk LGBTQ youth, rather than leave it a piece of architecture finance, the construction of which will not only be expensive, but will also accept donations for charitable purposes in the future.

The Pulse Foundation says they have heard the review and are keen to point out that the design they published, any glossy renders, and professionally recorded video are just a starting point for a project that will be further developed with “the community” whatever that means exactly.

I wish they had stuck to the actual Pulse site. I wish a living, breathing place where LBTQ people could come together could rise there and be retained by memory (but not be overwhelmed). I wish its architecture would not only embody the memory of the tragedy and hope for a better future, but also the reality of a society where we as members of the LGBTQ community not only come together, but also be part of other, diverse people can communities. I also hope that the threat to this freedom, which comes not only from disturbed people, but also from the laws that embed violence in our society, will be recognized by the Center. Without all of that, the Pulse Monument will be an empty veil wrapped over the memory of 49 people who died for no reason.

Aaron Betsky is a regular columnist whose views and conclusions do not necessarily match those of ARCHITECT magazine or the American Institute of Architects.

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Janet Smith