A design that calls for a grove of trees reflected infinitely by 12-foot-long mirrors was selected today for New York’s first large-scale AIDS memorial.
The winning proposal, from Studio a+i, a Brooklyn, N.Y. architecture firm, beat out 474 other entries in the AIDS Memorial Park competition. Hosted by Architectural Record, Architizer, and the AIDS Memorial Park organization, the competition challenged designers and non-designers to create a park for an unused triangular lot in Manhattan’s West Village neighborhood.
The fenced-in site, which is next to the former St. Vincent’s Hospital—one of the first in the nation to offer HIV treatment—has 17,000 square feet on the street level, as well as 10,000 square feet below-grade, which the winning plan proposes to use as exhibition space. Connected by tunnels to St. Vincent’s, the site had been used as a loading dock as well as for storage of liquid oxygen tanks, until the hospital closed in 2010.
Unlike some other designs, which envisioned a sunken park there, Studio a+i’s design, titled “Infinite Forest,” treats the site as two distinct pieces.
The main piece is an above-ground park, which is ringed by 12-foot walls on all three sides with entrances at each corner. The sides that face inward, toward benches and a grove of 20 white birch trees, are reflective—an effect that could be achieved with highly-polished stainless steel, Studio a+i principals say. The mirrored walls are designed to create the appearance of boundless space inside the park.
The design has Chalkboard-like slate lining the sides of the walls facing Seventh Avenue, Greenwich Avenue, and West 12th Streets. Visitors would be invited to write messages on them with chalk, for impromptu tributes. Notably absent are any statues, signs, or plaques commemorating AIDS victims.
“AIDS is not a war, nor a disease conquered,” the firm wrote in its proposal. “There are no definite dates or victims.”
For the chalkboard idea, Mateo Paiva, a firm principal, took inspiration from a fence around a lot across the street, which was adorned with makeshift memorials after September 11, and which today has rows of similarly decorated tiles. “People want a place to express their loss, their emotions, and feelings,” said Paiva, who founded Studio a+i with Lily Lim in 2004. The firm will receive $5,000 for the win.
The design includes some AIDS-related programming at the site. A lower level, reached by ramps and stairs in two of the walls, has an exhibition space, though details will be hammered out later. (Entrants merely had to submit a single 11-inch-by-17-inch presentation with 500 words of description for the competition.) An interior space tucked inside the Seventh Avenue wall houses a bookstore and a café. “We wanted to create a space for school kids to stumble upon, or somebody trying to take a break from work,” said Lim. “It has to be for everybody.”
The 13-member jury included Museum of Modern Art chief curator of architecture and design Barry Bergdoll, Diller Scofidio + Renfro partner Elizabeth Diller, and actress and comedian Whoopi Goldberg. It was headed by Michael Arad, designer of the National September 11 Memorial.
The group also selected three runners up: “” by Ooi Yin Mau of Malaysia, “” by Rodrigo Zamora and Mike Robitz of Manhattan, and “” by Jonathan Kurtz, Christopher Diehl, Katherine Ritzmann, Brant Miller, Mykie Hrusovski, and David Berlekamp of Cleveland.
For his part, Arad, who saw his own memorial design beset by criticism in the years after it was selected, said Studio a+i must be open to “conversation and collaboration” going forward, adding, “I have made it clear to them that I am happy to assist them.”
The park, which is slated to open in 2014, is to be paid for with donations as well as $10 million from the Rudin Organization, a developer, which is seeking to build a 450-unit condo complex across the street, at the former hospital.
That $800 million project, which has been dogged by controversy because it includes new towers inside an historic district, awaits final approval from the city, though it is expected to be granted in March.
Besides the park, the plan will refurbish the O’Toole Building, a 1963 Modernist edifice by Albert C. Ledner; it will become a 24-hour community health center.
Currently, there is only one AIDS memorial in the city, a 42-foot engraved stone bench in Hudson River Park completed in 2008. Yet Christopher Tepper, a co-founder of the AIDS Memorial Park Coalition, which organized the competition, said something high-profile was needed, as 100,000 New Yorkers have died from the disease in the past 30 years.
For Tepper, an urban planner, the best feature of the winning design is its mirrors, which will make a powerful point about the AIDS epidemic. “The reason it became a crisis is the real lack of acknowledgment of the problem,” he said. Reflecting the faces of people passing through the park could make them realize that “they are part of the problem, which is how real social change happens.”
More information: aidsmemorialpark.org

AIDS Memorial Park Competition Jury
Michael Arad, Designer of The National September 11 Memorial
Kurt Andersen, Novelist and Journalist
Barry Bergdoll, Chief Curator of Architecture and Design at the MOMA
Kenneth Cole, Fashion Designer and Activist
Elizabeth Diller, Founding Partner, Diller Scofidio + Renfro
Whoopi Goldberg, Actress and Comedian
Thelma Golden, Director and Chief Curator of The Studio Museum in Harlem
Robert Hammond, Co-Founder and Executive Director, Friends of the High Line
Regan Hofmann, Editor in Chief of POZ.com
Brad Hoylman, Chair of Manhattan Community Board #2
Amy Sadao, Executive Director, Visual AIDS
Ken Smith, Landscape Architect
Suzanne Stephens, Deputy Editor, Architectural Record