With each foot of sea level rise, four lines of cherry trees at the Climate Chronograph die. Eventually, the whole grove may be a ghost forest, its pink blooms withered for the last time as climate change shifts the shores in the surrounding Potomac River and Washington Channel. Designed by landscape architects Erik Jensen and Rebecca Sunter of Azimuth Land Craft, the grove is a memorial as much for the future as the past, and is intended to give each visitor a personal experience with climate change.
The Climate Chronograph was announced this month as the winner of the Memorials for the Future competition, an open call for ideas organized by the National Park Service (NPS), National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC), and Van Alen Institute. As David van der Leer, executive director of the Van Alen Institute, stated in a release, the Climate Chronograph and the other finalists “allow us to think outside the often-fixed nature of memorial design, looking beyond solemn marble statues of uniformed men on horseback, and envisioning emotionally resonant memorials open to varied interpretations.” All of the concepts were created with Washington, DC in mind, the country’s great gathering point for such marble behemoths. Unlike the Lincoln Memorial’s temple or the Washington Monument’s towering obelisk, all of the Memorials for the Future were designed to transform.
The four finalists each received $15,000 to flesh out their research and designs. The Climate Chronograph, imagined for the artificial island of Hains Point, is joined by fellow finalists “American Wild: A Memorial” by DHLS, where imagery of the 59 National Parks is projected over 50 days on the Brutalist ceiling of the DC metro; “The IM(MIGRANT)” by Honoring the Journey that incorporates stories of immigration into the city’s bus system; and “VOICEOVER” by Talk Talk, the most whimsical of these entries with mechanical parrots perched on existing monuments, squawking collected tales. All of these designs are currently on view in an exhibition at the Kennedy Center’s Hall of Nations.
While there are no plans as of now to construct any of these memorials, their ideas highlight the limitations of our past memorials, where granite stones and statues were intended as static reminders of history, and an enduring need for local interactions to connect us to larger stories. The competition’s “Not Set in Stone: Memorials for the Future” report is especially interesting, with key findings such as an increasing interest in mobile and temporary memorials over the permanent, and sites that invite each generation “to express new ideas that challenge any memorial’s original intent.”
Climate change is one of those issues that is so staggering, it’s hard to consider how rising tides might alter our planet even in our lifetimes. Yet memorials should be built with a consideration for changes in topography. The recent article on potential New York City floods due to climate change in New York Magazine described how the waterfall pools of the 9/11 memorial could be submerged at a rise of three degrees. That scenario might be extreme, but what is the point of investing so much into memorials for tragedies of recent memory if we won’t consider how they might appear in the future?
The Climate Chronograph is described by its designers as a “public record of rising seas,” where as waters cross “a tilted plane of land extending to the waterline, tides encroach on the land and trees die in place, row by row, becoming bare-branched rampikes delineating shorelines past.” The grove’s use of an earthwork to convey a colossal idea is similar to other recent memorials like the late Alberto Burri’s “Grande Cretto” with fractured white concrete consuming the ruins of Sicily’s Gibellina, wrecked in a 1968 earthquake, and the design by Jonas Dahlberg for a gaping void sliced in a peninsula to remember the 2011 massacre in Norway. All use the land itself to interpret catastrophic wounds, whether those that have already happened, or those, like climate change, yet to come.