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September 14, 2005:

Chloe Town *02 and Janette Kim *01

National AIDS Memorial Grove

Above, the design by architects Chloe Town *02 and Janette Kim *01 for an addition to the National AIDS Memorial Grove in San Francisco evokes the devastation of the disease and the promise of renewal. At right: Town, on left, and Kim. (Courtesy Janette Kim *01 and Chloe Town *02)

A stark tribute to those lost
N.Y. architects design stirring AIDS memorial

Terrible things happen, and afterward, memorials to the victims are built. But how does society acknowledge the lives lost in an event, such as the AIDS epidemic, that has yet to end? This is the question that New York City architects Janette Kim *01 and Chloe Town *02 were tackling when they entered the winning proposal in last year’s competition to design a new memorial feature for the National AIDS Memorial Grove in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Most memorials are about “singular events,” says Town, “but the AIDS crisis is ongoing.”

The answer they came up with is a wasteland.

Kim and Town aim to introduce into the grove a seemingly charred expanse of black carbon-fiber poles of various heights meant to resemble burned trees, “inspired by the landscapes of forest fires common throughout northern California,” say the architects in their design statement. The grove is a seven-acre section of the park, with benches and circular paths, that provides a quiet place for people to contemplate the toll AIDS has taken. Kim and Town’s design, chosen in April from among 200 submissions, evokes the devastation of AIDS and the promise of renewal, characterized by the regeneration of flora that occurs at forest-fire sites. The designers incorporated fern seedlings pushing through the rubble, for example, into their plan.

The idea for such a desolate space, titled “Living Memorial,” sprang from the architects’ desire to produce a kind of ground zero for the soul, to have visitors “start from a sense of depletion,” says Kim. Town says their design also aimed to create a space for reflection and self-awareness.

While Kim and Town had taken a studio course together while earning master’s degrees in architecture and urban planning at Princeton, the design competition was the first time they had worked as a team. Town usually works with her husband at their practice, Parallel City, based in Brooklyn. Kim has an architectural design and research firm called All of the Above, based in Manhattan.

Whether “Living Memorial” is built depends on a financial-feasibility study and subsequent fund-raising efforts. Over the next year and a half, the passion ignited by the project will take Town and Kim to three wildland fire sites around the country, where they will continue investigating how wood changes structurally, aesthetically, and ecologically when it burns.

By Jessica Dheere ’93

Jessica Dheere ’93 is a writer in New York.