“Gradually and silently the charm comes over us, the beauty has entered our souls;
we know not exactly how or when.”
– Landscape Architect Frederick Law Olmsted
Mending Wall / Wall Mending
Contributors: Paul Rosenblatt, Chris Siefert, Bruce Berrien, Kayle Langford
In contemporary parlance, the term genius loci refers to a location’s distinctive atmosphere – its “spirit of place.” This is the principle of design that we have adopted for our proposal for the Sandy Hook Memorial. We are inspired by the voices of the community, the work of the commission, the physical site itself and by the words of renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who once directed architect Robert Peabody to work with a site’s genius loci. “I would not attempt to change the very pleasing natural character (of the site),” Olmsted said, “I would take this present character and work it up.”
Our gentle and respectful approach to ‘working up’ the Sandy Hook Memorial site is based on the introduction of site walls – ‘Mending Walls’, we would like to call them – that are characteristic of the area and New England in general. To us, these walls have the power to communicate in a variety of ways: the ‘Memorial Wall’ is for remembrance and collective memory; the ‘Scattered Wall’ at the Tree Grove is a place of reflection for gathering or solitude; and the ‘Stones at Hemlock Hill’ form a place for contemplation in relationship to the overall site and community.
The inspiration for our approach is that the site, to us, already feels like a sacred place. In our design, we uncover aspects of the site’s hidden character that have been neglected to support a visitor’s journey. The path is what leads you along this journey, whatever route you may choose. Your journey is likely to be different each time, which allows the site to stay in a permanent state of renewal and discovery – it allows the simple act of walking along a path to be enlivened through the act of discovery, choice, chance, transformation, surprise, etc.
Together, many aspects of the existing landscape combine to create a place that is resonant, memorable, but gentle. Rather than impose a monument on the land, our design reinforces and elevates natural features of the site, creating a place that invites exploration and contemplation. To do this, we propose ‘working up’ the follow elements:
- The striking presence of Hemlock Hill, whose light filled canopy is at the pinnacle of the site and affords views back across it. The view corridor we are proposing from Hemlock Hill back to the Memorial Wall is intended to be the physical reflection of visitors’ internal journeys from remembrance to self-reflection and back, inward and outward;
- The Meadow creates an appropriately scaled expanse with natural beauty, enhances the edges, and allows for native wildflowers and grasses;
- Local stones that come together as walls are the central features at the edge of the meadow, and aggregate as large rock cairns to guide and connect visitors through the site;
- Hardwood trees located where there once was a wall to bring people together rather than dividing them;
- Footpaths located where people naturally wander on the site with individual benches located just off the paths to provide respite from the journey;
- Our natural affinity for ponds – lightly bubbling or rippling to maintain their ecology – to walk around and sit nearby.
Existing site features are highlighted through the introduction and enhancement of footpaths between features. We propose to rebuild, or ‘mend’, the existing stone wall with the benches as plaques in a manner that is characteristic of many New England walls built throughout the centuries. On Hemlock Hill, we propose to remove deciduous material and raise the canopy, remove the hardwoods (20’ back from edge of Hemlocks) near the ponds to emphasize the stand, and introduce new hemlocks to start second/third growth. Traces of foot paths naturally flow around the edges of the meadow and ponds, through the hardwoods and up the hill. We propose using wood chips to define and stabilize these routes, allowing existing trees to be in the middle of the footpaths, simply widening them where necessary.
Our ‘working up’ of these elements is representative of the sort of selective removals or ‘mending’ that we are proposing to reveal the natural history of the site coupled with careful interventions that enhance the logic and function of the place. Our design builds on what the site has to offer. Once fully revealed, the memorial site will not require heavy-handed maintenance. Over time, its ‘naturalness’ will be further revealed by natural growth and maturity in a careful and considerate manner to maintain this sacred place.