Tears' of a nation

Tears' of a nation

Art Center student wins design competition for Armenian Genocide Memorial

By Nick Smith 02/27/2013

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Earlier this month, the Pasadena Armenian Genocide Memorial Committee (PAGMC) approved an Art Center College of Design student’s concept for a monument commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, a human slaughter that started in 1915 and did not end until 1923, after 1.5 million people had been killed.

The concept offered by 26-year-old Catherine Menard was one of 17 reviewed by the committee, many of them submitted by established architects and designers. Menard came up with the concept as part of “Designmatters,” an Art Center program focusing on humanitarian need and social change.

“I was attracted to this project because we [designers] don’t often have the opportunity to engage in design work that is so deeply meaningful to people,” said Menard, who is not Armenian, but of French Cajun descent. She moved with her family to Los Angeles from Louisiana when she was 4. “I had made a few close Armenian friends at school,” she said, “so I was especially curious.”

“This was an educational experience for all that I feel will have them viewing their world in a fresh, new perspective, one with compassion, sensitivity, remembrance and hope for the human condition,” said Art Center Instructor James Meraz of the intensive seven-week course in which Menard and six other students submitted designs.

An Environmental Design major at Art Center, Menard didn’t always know where her artistic instincts could or would be applied. With a passion for history, dance, architecture and film, it wasn’t until others encouraged her to pursue it that she really considered environmental design. “[It] offered endless creative outlets for me,” said Menard of her chosen area of study.

“Every project was a new world,” she said of the curriculum’s demands. “It is the most challenging and rewarding work I could have ever imagined, and has proven to be where I truly belong.” After graduation, Menard plans to attend graduate school to study architecture and historic preservation.

The concept for the memorial, one of three designs Menard worked on, “had the strongest effect on the class and me, emotionally. It both moved me and terrified me,” Menard said.

As she described it, the minimalist design is “a death structure that is weeping over a carved stone basin … set into the ground.” With a drop of water falling into the basin every three seconds, by April 24, the memorial’s commemoration date, 1.5 million “teardrops” will have fallen, representing the lives lost in the “Great Crime” committed by Ottoman Turks during the course of World War I and afterward.
Although normally reserved for memorials commemorating America’s wars, the structure will be placed in Pasadena’s Memorial Park, as determined by the Department of Public Works and City Manager Michael Beck.

“This [memorial] will serve as a meeting place for multi-generational families of the community to contemplate such a horrific event,” Meraz said.

Architect Stefanos Polyzoides, consulting architect on the project and one of three panelists entrusted with choosing the design, told the Weekly why he was particularly impressed with Menard’s concept.

“When you sit in front of projects and you look at them for a while, some of them stand out. … [Menard’s work] was the most sensitive and the most imaginative and the most poetic of all the designs in commemorating the horror of genocide, particularly this one.”

It is important to note that Menard’s design is a concept for a memorial not to be completed until 2015. As such, (and given the politically sensitive nature of the project), those involved are reluctant to share specifics with the media “until the right time” — during the approval process by the city of Pasadena.

“It’s an ‘ideas’ competition. You don’t have to answer in the kind of definitive way that you would in front of a public works commission,” said Polyzoides. While it has been confirmed that a meeting was held on Thursday, Feb. 14, at City Hall to establish a schedule for the approval process, final details, including functionality, size, materials and cost will be determined by Polyzoides and his team, including Menard, who will not receive compensation for the design, save for the satisfaction of being a part of something so meaningful.

When asked about what inspired her toward this particular image, Menard quoted a poem by Siamanto, an Armenian poet among the first to be killed in the Genocide: “Don’t be afraid / I must tell you what I saw / So people will understand / the crimes men do to men / For two days, by the road / to the graveyard.”

A somber reflection of an ugly chapter in human history, the words are nonetheless inspiring of something beautiful and emotive to help people remember the past. When asked how she felt when her design was selected, Menard said, “I was completely emotional and elated, then moments later … felt the impact of this responsibility. I know I now have to defend [the design] to the world and make sure that the people who matter most, the Armenian community, truly love it as their own.”

But will they, is the question.

Former Pasadena City Councilman and PAGMC Committee Chair Bill Paparian, an attorney and the city’s first Armenian-American mayor of Pasadena (1995-97), said Southern California’s Armenian community will appreciate Menard’s design.

“I think it’s more compelling that [the memorial] was designed by a non-Armenian,” said Paparian. “The Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC, wasn’t designed by a Vietnam War vet.” In fact, Maya Lin, who designed the Vietnam War Memorial, was also a student at the time her design was selected. “We were deeply impressed by Catherine, who developed and presented an emotionally compelling design for a historical event that she initially knew nothing about,” said Paparian in a prepared statement. “We hope that this memorial will inspire a similar emotional connection in those who encounter it, for generations to come.”

Pasadena Mayor Bill Bogaard noted the cultural significance of the project. “Having in mind the significant presence and participation of Armenian Americans in the life of our community, a memorial to the Genocide is a matter of importance,” Bogaard said. “[The design] strikes me in many ways as an evocative and appropriate memorial for the Genocide.”

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