In 1988, at the height of the AIDS crisis, activist Vito Russo compared the epidemic to trench warfare, a nightmarish battle in which “every time a shell explodes, you look around and you discover that you’ve lost more of your friends, but nobody else notices.”
Nearly three decades after Russo spoke these words—he later succumbed to complications from the disease himself—New York wants to make sure that everyone takes notice.
Thursday on World AIDS day, government officials and grass roots leaders dedicated the city’s first major public monument to the plague, honoring the lives of the more than 100,000 New Yorkers who died as a result of AIDS.
Invoking Russo’s words, memorial co-founder Christopher Tepper said at the dedication ceremony, “With this memorial I hope we have given our dead and our leaders from our community a drop in the ocean of recognition they deserve.”
Hundreds gathered at a triangular park formed at the intersection of Greenwich and 7th Avenues, a site considered to be Ground Zero of the epidemic; Across the street, the now-shuttered St. Vincent’s hospital contained the city’s first AIDS ward, one of the few havens that would accept and care for the dying.
Although St. Vincent’s went the way of many New York buildings (it was converted into luxury condos this year) its patients—and the staff who cared for them—are memorialized by an elegant 18-foot-tall pavilion designed by the Brooklyn firm studio ai architects.
The white, steel and aluminum canopy rests delicately on the northern tip of the 0.4-acre park like a piece of origami. Its open, lattice-like roof and walls—made up of slatted triangular panels—surround a central fountain.
An installation by conceptual artist Jenny Holzer anchors the pavilion’s crisp white geometries. In the installation, excerpts from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” spill across dark granite pavers in a dizzying spiral of text.
The final $6.5 million memorial is markedly different than studio ai’s preliminary scheme, which proposed a mirrored enclosure surrounding a grove of birch trees. This initial proposal beat out more than 500 entries in an international competition launched in 2012 (Architectural Record was a sponsor). But when the site size shrunk (the memorial was originally meant to occupy the entire park), the architects opted to rethink their design, while maintain their core ideas.
“Our conversations with the memorial organization gave us the sense that we should create a room—a container where people could put their thoughts, their fears, and their memories of the people they lost,” says Esteban Erlich, who designed the pavilion with Lily Lim and Mateo Paiva. “But at the same time, we wanted it to be a place for people walking by and for kids to play—to remain open for everybody. There would be no gate, no doors.”
There are a few finishing touches to be added (most significantly a series of granite benches) but at the dedication, passersby were already treating it like a familiar neighborhood fixture. Beneath the canopy, dozens stood contemplating the text, while others mingled with visitors, or let their dogs drink from the fountain. A short distance away, couples stood embracing one another as community members read the names of the dead during the ceremony.
“I realized the importance of the memorial beyond the design,” says Erlich. “The room makes room—It makes room for people to come and live in it, and use it, and feel it.”