The architecture of tragedy: commemorating Pike River?

Wednesday, January 19th, 2011

The Pike River Mining disaster has been cited as the worst mining disaster in New Zealand history. The recent news, that it is increasingly likely that the 29 men’s bodies will remain incarcerated in the mine, raises the issue of what to do with the site, particularly how to commemorate this event.

The mine, now a grave site, will no doubt require a physical memorial; the epitome of architecture – if Adolf Loo’s assertion that only the tomb and the monument are architecture is believed.  Yet this West Coast site is also aggressively one demanding a landscape response, and landscape architects and architects would understand such a site quite differently.

The architecture of memorial is often a sober and increasingly abstract field of design.

Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial (1981-1982) is a key example of this memorial aesthetic, and contrasts less ambitious designs of memorials of tragedy, such as the Port Arthur Memorial Garden, which is dedicated to the 35 killed in 1996 in a shooting massacre.

More recently the London Bombings Memorial (Carmondy Groarke, 2008), England, and the Firemen Tragedy Memorial (Radionica Arhitekture, 2010), Kornat Island, Croatia (commemorating the death of 13 firemen in a wildfire) have continued the interest in grand abstract gestures.

How then should the Pike River disaster be physically remembered? and is a new structure/ memorial/ tomb is appropriate? or should the men and the mine simply be left in peace?  Is design (landscape architecture or architecture) the right medium to commemorate such traumatic events and to remember those killed?  How does a tomb differ from a memorial in terms of design?

Eva Hagberg’s “How Architecture Commemorates Tragedy” (2005) recounts a panel discussion held in May 2005, “Remembering the Unimaginable: Berlin and New York,” and the panelists’ views on architectural remembering.  Issues of commemorative and regenerative memorialising, and the limits and potency of architectural representation were raised, as well as questioning the validity of spending millions of dollars on memorials when the money might be better spent helping survivors and victims.  This was a debate also voiced regarding the Bhopal Gas Tragedy.

These are important issues, and perhaps it is time that the discussions about the Pike River catastrophe begin to engage with them. Perhaps it is also time then that an open design competition for proposals be initiated.


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4 Responses to “The architecture of tragedy: commemorating Pike River?”

  1. clearwater Says:

    Too early, too early. You raise some good points, and there are some lovely images there, but the guys are still smouldering away, burnt to a crisp inside their tomb – if there is indeed anything left apart from dust. Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust indeed.

    I can’t really understand why some of the families want to get the dead miners’ bodies back, only to bury them again – and probably cremate them in between! Nobody, if they were really to sit down and think about it, would want to see the miners bodies as they are now – undoubtably burnt, probably remaining in one large lump, but quite possibly blown apart into many pieces – the scene is so horrific that it would be far better to just remember them as they were, alive, happy, laughing.

    One day, in a few years from now, a memorial could be unveiled. But until then, a large dark hole is the most poignant memory we could have.

  2. thompson Says:

    a simple plaque.. the existing mine entrance is the only structure needed as it IS the reality of their grave. No abstractions required.

  3. m-d Says:

    The mineshaft opening is a pretty fascinatingly hideous rock formation. bar the entry with a gate made of 29 crosses, and you got yourself a monument more evocative than a bunch of I-beams sticking out of the ground…

  4. alan Says:

    You’re right – it is suspiciously gaudiesque for a rocky protruberance, like a bad polystyrene formation by Weta Workshop or some such. Nicer, in many ways, if this was just sealed off with a simple concrete wall, and left for others to discover / remember with flowers at the base of it.

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