memorial to enslaved laborers spontaneously inaugurated at the university of virginia

by | Aug 28, 2020 | Featured Slider, Latest, News

This Article was first published on Design Boom, For the original click here

The memorial to enslaved laborers (MEL) at the university of virginia (UVA) honors the lives, labor, and perseverance of the community of enslaved african americans who built UVA and sustained daily life of faculty, students, and administrators at the university. as the memorial’s official dedication — originally scheduled for april 2020 — was delayed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the memorial was instead spontaneously inaugurated as a gathering place for group and individual contemplation during the protests against racialized violence.

memorial to enslaved laborers spontaneously inaugurated at the university of virginia

image by alan karchmer, courtesy of höweler + yoon (also main image)

nearly a decade in the making, MEL was designed by höweler + yoon in collaboration with historian and designer dr. mabel o. wilson (studio&), gregg bleam landscape architect, community facilitator dr. frank dukes, and artist eto otitigbe. an estimated 4,000 enslaved persons worked on the grounds of UVA between 1817 and 1865, when the union army liberated the enslaved of albemarle county. owned and rented by the university, they created and maintained its grounds, pavilions, and rotunda.

memorial to enslaved laborers spontaneously inaugurated at the university of virginia

image by alan karchmer, courtesy of höweler + yoon

UVA students catalyzed a memorial to honor the lives of the enslaved community in 2010 with initiatives to raise awareness about the history of slavery at the university. the following year, they formed a student-run competition for a memorial to enslaved laborers. the president’s commission on slavery and the university (PCSU) was then formed in 2013 to explore and report on the history of slavery on UVA grounds. as a result of this work, UVA formally commissioned the memorial to enslaved laborers in 2016.

memorial to enslaved laborers spontaneously inaugurated at the university of virginia

Image by alan karchmer, courtesy of höweler + yoon

the design process began with a series of dialogues and community engagements. in multiple public forums and surveys, students, staff, faculty, alumni, and community members, including descendants of the enslaved, shared their vision, aspirations, and ideas. their responses informed each element of the memorial’s design. as one participant wrote, ‘the memorial must evoke the human spirit, show pain, love, life, and death…’

memorial to enslaved laborers spontaneously inaugurated at the university of virginia

image by alan karchmer, courtesy of höweler + yoon

the memorial to enslaved laborers rises on the east side of the lawn, directly east of the university’s rotunda dome. located in an area referred to as ‘the triangle of grass’, the new addition is centrally positiond on the campus, which is a UNESCO world heritage site. the original swales — the low areas that frame the entrance into the academical village — were part of a larger landscape strategy, which included the university’s serpentine walls, to hide enslaved labor from view.

memorial to enslaved laborers spontaneously inaugurated at the university of virginia

image by höweler + yoon

with its abstract circular form rooted in the terrain, the memorial carves out a gathering space for the community to continue the conversation about slavery and the ongoing injustices that catalyzed it. constructed out of local granite, MEL opens this part of the grounds as a place for collective commemoration and individual contemplation. the memorial evokes the ‘ring shout,’ an african american spiritual dance performed in a circle, that celebrates liberation.

memorial to enslaved laborers spontaneously inaugurated at the university of virginia

image by höweler + yoon

the memorial consists of concentric granite rings, into which nest a circular meeting ground, a water table featuring a timeline honoring the enslaved, a sweeping concave wall of memory marks and names of the enslaved community, and a textured convex sloping stone inscribed with a portrait of isabella gibbons — an enslaved domestic worker at UVA and later a teacher in charlottesville. the memorial measures 80 feet (24 meters) in diameter, which is also the diameter of the rotunda.

memorial to enslaved laborers spontaneously inaugurated at the university of virginia

image by höweler + yoon

the memorial’s inner wall honors each of the 4,000 members of the enslaved community. the design team worked closely with researchers to display the names of 578 members, and another 311 members whose names were not identified in records but are acknowledged by their occupation or kinship relation, as they were recorded without names. the 4,000 memory marks serve to underscore each enslaved person’s life and to remind visitors of the violence incurred in the dehumanization of men, women, and children whose names remain unknown.

memorial to enslaved laborers spontaneously inaugurated at the university of virginia

image by höweler + yoon

‘the memorial responds to the fraught history of UVA with an open form, a sweeping gesture in stone that is welcoming and inclusive, as if waiting for the visitor to complete the memorial,’ explains eric höweler, co-founder of höweler + yoon. ‘it is a form that is open in terms of meaning, alluding to the ‘ring shout’ and a space of shelter and gathering. the memorial is also open ended in that it is unfinished, with the list of names remaining conspicuously incomplete. the unfinished nature of the memorial also alludes to the historic legacy of slavery and the ongoing work in the present that needs to be done to address questions of bias and anti-black racism today.’

memorial to enslaved laborers spontaneously inaugurated at the university of virginia

image by höweler + yoon

‘the memorial is not just about memory,’ continues meejin yoon, co-founder of höweler + yoon. ‘it is about the present, and the work that we all need to be engaged in today. the memorial is about actively bringing people together. it is about opening up dialog, between visitors and individuals, but also between the university and the community. it is rebuilding a relationship and rebuilding trust. these are the necessary steps in the contemporary conversations about race and repair.’

memorial to enslaved laborers spontaneously inaugurated at the university of virginia

image by sanjay suchak, courtesy of UVA communications

‘this memorial confronts a campus whose very architecture was conceived to express the highest aspirations of our democratic society yet, at the same time, was literally designed to obscure the oppression of the enslaved individuals who realized jefferson’s vision and sustained life on campus for nearly 50 years,’ says dr. mabel o. wilson, professor of architecture and african american and african diaspora studies at columbia university. ‘it provides a much-needed space for active engagement with the grim reality of slavery and systemic racism, the repercussions of which the nation is still wrestling with today.’

memorial to enslaved laborers spontaneously inaugurated at the university of virginia

image by sanjay suchak, courtesy of UVA communications

memorial to enslaved laborers spontaneously inaugurated at the university of virginia

image by sanjay suchak, courtesy of UVA communications

Project info:

name: the memorial to enslaved laborers (MEL)
location: university of virginia (UVA)
design: höweler + yoon architecture (eric höweler, professor at the harvard GSD and meejin yoon, dean at cornell AAP) in collaboration with historian and designer dr. mabel o. wilson (professor at columbia GSAPP and founder of studio&), gregg bleam landscape architect, community facilitator dr. frank dukes, and artist eto otitigbe

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