This 2018 architectural competition entry is “a memorial to the men, women, and children whose labor and lives William and Mary held in bondage from its founding until the Civil War”.
We are proposing the installation of a glass canopy structure in the college Historic Center that will be inscribed with the names of the enslaved. When sunlight shines through the panels, the slave names will be projected either onto the ground or onto the bodies of passers by.
The letters of the names have been subtracted from a leaf patterned translucent laminate so that visitors will literally be tattooed by their light. As a person moves through the space, one name will replace another creating a shifting skin landscape. The phenomenon facilitates learning by permitting inhabitants to experience history anew directly on their bodies.
The site we’ve chosen is located on the south edge of the college Historic Campus along Jamestown Road adjacent to the Campus Center. We feel this is an appropriate location for the monument because it is the place where the college historic center connects to its cultural heart. Also it’s one of the few locations in the Historic Campus that is relatively shade-free. The project contains six overlapping square panel frames supported by a twelve foot square column grid. The grid can be extended and new panel frames can be formed as additional slave names are learned. The structure is as light as possible so that it interferes with neither the panel effect nor with the existing campus architecture. Wheeled benches on tracks allow visitors to experience the panel effect from different locations as the sun moves through the sky.
Let old be old and new be new: We would be doing the historical buildings on the campus no favors if we attempted to copy their style. Architects live in the present even as we remember the past, and we build using contemporary means and methods. Yet the past should be treated with great respect. The panels form a window into the past and the structure forms its frame. For this reason we have detailed the project with exceeding care.
The installation depends on the presence of people for its effect to be most powerful. Knowledge is like this: If we do not choose to involve ourselves directly with a subject then its effect will be lost on us and we will repeat the mistakes of the past. The panel effect is ephemeral, mimicking the way we understand historical truth. At night or when the sky is filled with clouds, the names will be obscured. And if you were to look up from below at the canopy glass, the names would appear backwards. Historical truth is similarly elusive. Meanings shift with time and objectivity is exceedingly difficult to achieve. Yet truth will out: When the sun is shining, the names will ring as clearly as a bell.