A Park to Remember a Plague

The Winner: Infinite Forest, Studio a+i
Rendering by Guillaume Paturel/Courtesy of studio a+i

In April 2010, an urban planner named Paul Kelterborn read an article in this magazine about the doomed St. Vincent’s Hospital, where so many AIDS patients died in the early years of the epidemic. Since there was no major AIDS memorial in a city that had lost more than 100,000 people, wrote David France, “the bland sarcophagus along Seventh Avenue holds that place.”

Kelterborn and his friend Christopher Tepper felt that the exquisitely appropriate place for a memorial would be the neglected little triangle next to St. Vincent’s, bounded by Seventh Avenue, Greenwich Avenue, and West 12th Street. In the kind of urban activism that gave us the High Line, they formed a group, raised money, pleaded with bureaucrats, and held a design competition. Nearly 500 entries flooded in.

Memorializing a disease’s victims is not the same as commemorating a war. A plague is sightless. It has no values to reject, no goals to stymie; its story has no definite end. Although AIDS devastated the gay community, the virus has no orientation. All of its meaning derives from a resistance that was slow to start and remains maddeningly incomplete. “How do you create a memorial to victims some of whom have yet to be born?” asks jury chairman Michael Arad, who designed the World Trade Center memorial.

Map by Jason Lee

Those ambiguities inspired most entrants and flummoxed some. Many seized on the red ribbon. A few envisioned a multicolored grid of stones, an abstraction of the AIDS Memorial Quilt. Others focused on the dead, remembering them with lights or trees. Some designers, frustrated by the dissonance between the site’s flatness and AIDS’s tormented landscape, sculpted the topography, laying a meandering footpath across it.

The best entries mated conceptual clarity with the complexities of history and the site’s quirks. The jury decided that the winner would have to reconcile a lively neighborhood park with a meditative memorial. An arbor with a plaque wouldn’t do; neither would an overweening Stonehenge.

The point was not to impose a design on a city that has yet to accept the project. (Among other things, it still has to pass the community board.) Instead, the contest was meant to attract a cascade of ideas with which to cajole neighbors, bureaucrats, developers, and donors. The war against AIDS, after all, has been waged on many concurrent fronts. In the end, the jury picked a design of crystalline—and buildable—simplicity. “Infinite Forest,” by Studio a+i, consists of a birch grove enclosed by three mirrored walls that define a cloister and at the same time extend the reflections boundlessly, elegantly evoking the disease’s countless victims, its global reach, and its uncertain future.

Six more submissions.

A Park to Remember a Plague