Coldefy & Associés with RDAI/OnePulse Foundation

Why is the Guggenheim re-envisioned as a garden the best way to commemorate the senseless death of 49 people? That is the question raised by the Pulse Memorial & Museum Design Competition, intended to memorialize the 2016 shooting at the Pulse, a nightclub serving the LBGTQ community, in Orlando, Fla. As tall as a midrise office building, but almost devoid of program, the winning proposal, submitted by the team headed by the French firm Coldefy & Associés, goes the monumental route. It is a computer-aided version of a Pyrex-style coffee carafe at an urban scale that fulfills the function of an obelisk or marker in the landscape. Beyond its formal innovation (though it is highly derivative of the work of several firms, especially Coop Himmelb(l)au), its other departure from that tradition is to offer a spiraling garden reaching up from a base of educational functions to a viewing platform. What all of this has to do with the shooting at the Pulse nightclub just down the road is beyond me, but the structure will certainly be an object whose size and difference, both inside and outside, will attract visitors.

Coldefy & Associés with RDAI/OnePulse Foundation

That said, it certainly appears as if the Coldefy design was the most inspiring of those that made it into the final round. As for the most intriguing submission, that belonged to the team led by MVRDV. The strength of its proposal lay not in the museum design but in the second part of the brief, which sought to turn the site of the nightclub, a third of a mile away, into an unprogrammed site of memory. MVRDV proposed leaving the building as it is, painting it black, and then digging underneath it to create an undulating landscape dotted with lights. Equal parts eerie and beautiful, it combined some of the light-driven spatial qualities of a disco with a shaded and contemplative place whose darkness would have stood in contrast to the bright sunshine of Florida.

MVRDV/onePULSE Foundation
MVRDV/onePULSE Foundation

MVRDV’s design for the museum was, however, over the top: The firm proposed a box pulled apart into a continual loop of spaces curving over and around itself that would have provided exciting interior spaces, but whose main function was to transform the building into the word “love” when seen from above. (From where I am not quite sure: an airplane, maybe, or perhaps a nearby skyscraper?) Colored in the hues of the rainbow flag, it aspired to be pop art but ended up being trite. Coldefy’s design is considerably less exciting at the nightclub site (a semi-circular pool of water with rainbow colors radiates out from the building), but at least the main structure has a sense of being (literally) uplifting and more ephemeral.

Coldefy & Associés with RDAI/onePULSE Foundation

None of the designs were as good as the firms were capable of producing, in part because of the way in which the memorial is being proposed by the competition committee, which is run by the Pulse’s former owner. The idea is to connect the nightclub, left as a silent memorial surrounded by some sort of park, to the vacant site several blocks away where the museum will be a place of community gathering and education. The link between the memorial and the museum was the third part of the competition brief, which all the finalists answered by proposing some sort of tree planting and landscaping. Also meant to aid in the gentrification of this Orlando neighborhood, the brief was conceptually split between these three distinct components.

Which happens to be the problem in general with memorials these days. It is no longer enough for them to be abstract markers and representations of who or what was lost. You have to educate, evoke experiences, and propose interpretations of history that might lead to an alternative future. That often means some form of underground or otherwise repressed visitor center with a landscaped object on top and, more often than not, a statue that answers the need for some form of direct representation. The best recent examples, such as the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Ala., or the 9/11 Memorial in Manhattan, do this more or less successfully.

Coldefy & Associés with RDAI/onePULSE Foundation
Coldefy & Associés with RDAI/OnePulse Foundation

The Coldefy design might fulfill its potential as the design is worked out, but the disconnect between the nightclub and the museum is troubling, and the proposal for landscaping the boulevard that connects the two sites seems perfunctory. Moreover, I have not seen a robust program for what exactly the memorial is trying to accomplish, beyond the standard facilitating of memory and the making of an object that keeps that memory alive in the community. The idea that this could be a place to foster the LGBTQ community, to discuss diversity, to fight against gun violence, or anything that might make the memorial more effective was apparently too controversial. No wonder that several family members of the victims have argued against the project, saying that they would prefer the money go to helping living victims, including the family and friends of those who died, as well as to at-risk LGBTQ youth, rather than have it fund a piece of architecture that will not only be expensive to build but will also suck up charitable donations in the future.

The Pulse foundation says that they have heard the criticism, and are at pains to point out that the design they have released, all the high-gloss renderings and the professionally shot video, is just a beginning point for a project that will be further developed with “the community,” whatever that means exactly.

I for one wish that they had stuck to the actual Pulse site. I wish that a living, breathing place for LBTQ people to come together could rise there, maintaining (but not being overwhelmed) by memory. I wish its architecture would embody not just the memory of tragedy, and the hope for a better future, but also the reality of a society in which we as members of the LGBTQ community can not only come together but also be part of other, diverse communities. I also wish that the threat to that freedom posed not only by disturbed individuals but also by the laws that embed violence in our society could be acknowledged by the center. Without all that,the Pulse Memorial will be an empty veil draped over the memory of 49 people who died for no reason.

Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.