I’ve been an architect for over 30 years. As president of a growing firm, my job long ago stopped being designing and creating. These days its business plans and spreadsheets, HR and IT, selling and mediating. Then along comes Hearth: Memorial to the Enslaved. This memorial at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia acknowledges William and Mary’s enslavement of people. It also reminded me why architecture matters.
Scrolling through social media, I found a video of the dedication of this memorial. https://youtu.be/kD5p-wgZn-o , I also saw a post by a college classmate, Burt Pinnock, FAIA, NOMA. I did some searching on the internet. My wife and I visited the memorial. And like all good architecture, the memorial was more moving in person than in photos or videos.
In the podcast interview with Burt and Will Sendor, (memorial designer and winner of the competition that launched the project) we talk about the process of designing and constructing the memorial. But at one point, Burt talks about a mutual college friend who is Armenian and recounts how she was able to tell the story of Armenian suffering through recounting stories of her family. Burt said, “I never had that.” For many African Americans, their story of family begins only one or two generations back in time. Hearth: Memorial to the Enslaved, connects people to a longer arc of personal history, albeit often painful.
Like our mutual college friend, I am fortunate to have a long family history. Our family has traced our roots back to 18th century Europe. We were part of persecuted religious minority but in America we found freedom and a chance to thrive. Our communities have left many well-crafted and beautiful homes, barns, meetinghouses, and schools in which we can revisit our history and tell our story.
And that is why architecture ultimately matters. It matters because it by some virtuous alchemy, bricks and stone and glass and wood and steel and concrete can be stitched together and tell a story. It engenders conversations. It can sustain memory. Architecture can tell meaningful and transcendent stories.