Affective design: the architecture of healing

Published:  February 1, 2016
Tara Watson

Memorial design is an emotionally intense project for any architect, that often presents a minefield of issues, weighing up community concern with design aesthetic. Here we explore some of the projects that encourage healing while confronting grief – a daunting task for any architect.





Good design can facilitate a variety of emotions; memorial design offers an expressive vehicle, for evoking emotion in a collective experience. The most common designs for public memorials, carry their message to visitors through simple but thoughtful work, while existing harmoniously within their surroundings.

Tying together imagination and subtlety, memorials can be some of the hardest and emotionally complex commissions a design firm can execute.

Taras Wolf from Wolf Architects is currently working on a memorial project in Thailand. The firm will design natural reserves and parks in a combination of landscape and urban architecture.

Wolf said one of the key considerations and challenges for the project was to leave as little impact as possible on what presently exists.

Wolf Architects, Artist Impression, Memorial Park Stairs, Thailand

Wolf Architects, Artist Impression, Memorial Park Stairs, Thailand

“It’s about respecting the land and those who lived on the land without disturbing it, and yet here we are ironically disturbing it with architecture,” said Wolf, adding the project is “different from past ideas about what a memorial should be in the sense of making a large building or structure to honour something. It’s about providing opportunities to contemplate and honour without being “in your face””.

The approach to a memorial can take different forms, serving intention through style, be it simple and refined or bold and provocative. War memorials often try and say as little as possible, in order to not serve a specific agenda, glorify war or disrespect those who served.

“When  designing any memorial you try to avoid contradicting what you are honoring. So with war you honour the fight without saying that it was a great fight even though it may have been,” said Wolf.

Classical architecture is often common in war memorials, it is simple but powerful, as seen in Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance and Canberra’s Australian War Memorial. Other Australian war memorials such as the Australian Ex-Prisoners of War Memorial in Ballarat and the Vietnam Veterans Commemorative Walk in Seymour, also use simplified Greek or Roman inspired structures- where the meaning is conveyed through the location and setting.

Shrine of Remembrance

Shrine of Remembrance, Melbourne, Australia (Image via Australian History of Genealogists)

Breaking with simple and classical war memorials is often met with controversy. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial honors U.S. service members who fought in the Vietnam War, was described by one critic as a “black gash of shame”and originally received public outcry.

The memorial designed by Maya Lin invites the viewer below ground level to read the names of the war’s more than 58,000 dead and missing inscribed on the face of two 247-foot black-granite walls. The memorial is confronting and opens the doors for the public to grieve.

Addressing painful pasts through design, the Oklahoma City Memorial for the victims of the bomb at the Murrah Federal Building, has at its centerpiece 168 empty chairs representing the deceased, including 19 small chairs symbolizing the children killed in the blast.

Urban historian Alison Hirsch spoke to the University of Carolina, regarding memorials:

“Inevitably, memorials trigger controversy, but this is what is exciting about them: They stimulate public debate and activate the public sphere,” said Alison Hirsch, adding “Should memorials confront the historical or political context of why these events occurred or should they prioritize healing? ”

Berlin's Holocaust Memorial,  DW

Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial, DW

One of the more confronting memorials is Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe by architect Peter Eisenman. Comprised of a maze of 2,711 massive inscription-less closely packed rectangular stone slabs – bringing forward imagery of nameless tombstones- ranging in height from 1 to 10 feet high, leaving the visitor feeling compressed into this dizzying space.

It leaves an ambiguous message; open to interpretation. Peter Eisenman said that he wanted visitors to feel the loss and disorientation that Jewish people felt during the Holocaust.

“Though the city of Berlin is sometimes criticized over making a tourist industry from the memorialization of the Holocaust, the palpability of the painful past preserved in the built fabric makes it a strong example of a place that is striving to recognize and confront its history,” said Hirsch.

Less confronting is the 9/11 Memorial in New York City, known as Reflecting Absence, a national tribute to those who died in terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 and February 26, 1993.

Reflecting Absence, New York City, NYC Architecture

Reflecting Absence, New York City, NYC Architecture

Designed by Michael Arad and Peter Walker, the memorial includes sheets of water that tumble into two shallow pools, with the names of those who died inscribed on the bronze parapet on the plaza level, the voids symbolize the absence left both on an emotive and physical level.

Thomas S. Johnson was a member of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation that headed the memorial. He says that a memorial should tell a uncomplicated story: “The simpler the message is, the better the memorial will be, ” said Johnson to the New York Times. “The memorial is better kept to a minimum of thoughts and emotions.”

Reflecting Absence relies heavily on location, with the pools replacing where the two twin towers once stood- an example of how memorial design can work with the environment to give a higher meaning.

“It is a big challenge to come up with designs and ideas that can really make a statement without having to build much and tamper with the context,” said Wolf.

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