Leading by Design explores the work of PennDesign alumni, faculty members, and supporters of the School who are expanding the practice of art and design to meet the challenges of the 21st century.
On June 5, 2013, the demolition of a building at 22nd and Market Streets in Center City, Philadelphia, led to the collapse of a neighboring Salvation Army store, killing six people inside. The collapse highlighted a lax approach to safety inspections at many demolition sites amid the city’s booming real estate market, and helped catalyze a movement for stronger regulations. The victims were Anne Bryan, Roseline Conteh, Borbor Davis, Kimberly Finnegan, Juanita Harmon, and Mary Simpson. Bryan was a 24-year-old student at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts whose mother, Nancy Winkler, a former city treasurer, helped lead the charge for a memorial to be created at the site of the collapse. Through a competition held at PAFA, artist Barbara Fox (Fine Arts, CW’74) was selected to lead the design. Architect Scott Aker, AIA (MArch’15), a lecturer in undergraduate Architecture, and architect of record for the memorial, collaborated with the artist, the June 5 Memorial Committee, and the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS). The memorial opened on June 5, 2018. PennDesign recently met with Fox and Aker at the site for an interview, which has been edited for length and clarity below.
PennDesign: I wanted to start by asking each of you what you were doing when the building collapsed. What were your impressions of what was happening at the moment, and how did your impressions of what had happened change over the course of time?
Barbara Fox: I read about it in the paper and I don't think it completely hit me, because I wasn't watching television to see it. About a week later, I got a magazine from PAFA and I saw a picture of this girl [Anne Bryan]. My son and I were taking a weeklong summer class at PAFA together, the week after it happened. I kept thinking: This could have been my child. He was just a little younger than her and he was going to Tyler when she was going to PAFA. And I went to PAFA. It just made me hurt so much that I started reading every scrap of news about it. There was a lot of coverage after it happened. I just thought, I wish I could do something, but I don't know what to do.
Then the following year, there was a newsletter for alumni that announced a competition at PAFA to design the memorial sculpture, and I said, I have to do that. I didn't expect that I was going to be the one chosen or anything. I just felt like, OK, I need to do something. This is speaking to me. This is my opportunity.
Scott Aker: At the time of the collapse I was in Washington, D.C., working for an architecture firm that specialized in aviation and military design. I read about the collapse in the national papers and I was deeply troubled by it. Coincidentally, I was already accepted into the University of Pennsylvania, PennDesign, Master of Science program. It was a career change for me, transitioning from practicing architect to student. I came to UPenn to study under Dr. David Leatherbarrow and Dr. Daniel Barber with a research focus exploring the intersection between trauma, memory and architecture.
In the fall of 2013, I started my studies with a psychologist at the university, Dr. Gordon Bermant. While I was auditing his class on the Embodied Mind, my research on trauma focused in on topics of civic memorialization, which I found to be a fascinating moment in time where communities joined together to build something in honor of a group of people after a traumatic event. I became interested in memorial architecture as part of the embodied mind experience, and the possibility of architecture as a healing mechanism for people dealing with trauma.
A couple of months into my research, Gordon came by the site and saw a small piece of paper, written with a sharpie marker that read, “Petition for Memorial.” And he said to me, “You need to contact them and share your research and see how you can help this community.” Part of Penn's message is social engagement, and I thought it was a great opportunity to help the memorial committee with history and ideas. Gordon and I met with Nancy Winkler and she invited me to join the memorial committee. I provided a year of research support on memorials before being commissioned as the architect to design the memorial park.
PennDesign: What can you say about the design process? How much were the two of you working together?
Fox: Initially the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and PAFA were working together and they had done a very straightforward design for this park. And there was a designated spot where the memorial was going to go, back in the corner. I thought, it's such a narrow space, I have to work flat.
So I thought about using granite and glass. When I first envisioned it, it was the same shape it is now but it was flat and it was against the wall. After my design was selected I met Scott and we started working together and talked about the height of the windows. That's when our collaboration really started. He said, the lower three windows, those would be the ones that a child could see through, and the upper three windows an adult could see through. So that was part of it.
The problem that I had was, how do you make a memorial that is personal for the people who are mourning the victims? And yet how do you make it a place where people in Philadelphia, or wherever their travels bring them here from—how do you bring them into it? How do you make it a public memorial as well? That was my issue, and that's when I came up with the idea of a seventh window for the public. The families would choose the colors for their six windows and that would be the personal part of it. And then I thought, an open window would be for the public.
Aker: In terms of the design itself, memorial architecture is the ideal intersection of art and architecture. Barb had the artistic vision, and I added architecture knowledge—rationalization, spatial organization, and understanding construction to integrating parts into a coherent whole—I think it was a great collaboration between art and architecture.
PennDesign: The victims’ families chose the colors on the windows. How did that discussion work? Did you say “pick a color, any color?”
Fox: That was really hard. First of all, just figuring out how to find the glass to have something to show them. I didn't know where to look for colored glass. Scott was great with that. We brought them color samples, and we told them to think about a color that would make them think of their loved one.
Aker: We gave very little direction to the memorial families other than to select a color they thought best represented their loved one. It was a private decision for the families, and there is a story behind every color. For Anne Bryan, her mom Nancy picked that color based on a Robert Frost poem she would read to her when she was a child.
Fox: It's called “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” And she said it has to be this green-gold color. I read the poem and I was stunned. It was an amazing, very short poem that has volumes written about it. And she said that that was Anne's favorite poem. I was just blown away by that.
Aker: It was a special moment in the design process. Some families shared with you the story, others were just very particular about a color. We would go through samples, light studies, testing the laminated glass to confirm it had the right light spectrum. And we had to look at data and charts—all scientific, but it had a very emotional significance to it. The transparency, Barb wrote a beautiful piece about why the color then should be transparent so that tragedies like this could never happen again. Seeing the city through these colors is something that people will never forget.
PennDesign: Is it unusual to have the families of the victims directly involved to this degree in the design process?
Aker: Yes, it is rare in memorial architecture to give the families of the victims a design decision that has a direct impact on the aesthetic character of the memorial. It was from Barb's idea that the families could pick the color windows in her granite sculpture. Since the families were involved in the beginning design process, they also bought into the concept of the sacred area, where the lights on the ground key to the color windows, and mark the location where the bodies were found. The markers are best seen at night as they light up in the evening. Everyone bought into this idea; although one family chose not to identify, they still supported the concept.
PennDesign: Barb, can you talk a little bit about the sculptural form?
Fox: The first thing that occurred to me when I read about each of the victims and their backgrounds is that, in six people, there was a big age gap, they were different races and they were from different countries. I found that really sort of inspiring. They didn't all know each other. How could I bring them together? I thought of this sheltering, almost house shape. But also sort of a Quaker meeting house shape.
And also, the day before Anne Bryan died, she drew a picture of the Winged Victory. It was this odd picture, but it really inspired us a lot. And I thought, how can I tie that in? So I came up with this idea—it's like a Greek temple that lost the pediment. The pediment has been lopped off or just destroyed over time. And I thought, that was the right shape.
PennDesign: In her review, Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron said the memorial functions as a place to mourn all the losses from a decade of runaway development. What do you think of that interpretation, that this is something that has a larger political significance than just this specific tragedy?
Fox: It does. We talked about that a lot. This particular tragedy made me very, very angry. We all know it was preventable. There was no warning, no scaffolding. How can that be allowed? How can you allow something like that? It was almost like an act of terrorism, in a way, that something could be allowed to happen without protecting people, without thinking about people. It seems like it happens in Philly a lot.
Aker: A building collapse during demolition should never happen. And the issue, more broadly speaking, is that architecture has over 2,000 years of history written about new spaces, traditions, renovations, and modifications. But nothing is dedicated to the philosophy, from an architectural standpoint, of demolition—how a building comes down or the inevitable fate of a building. How do you take it down? What’s the impact on the environment?
The architect has an important civic duty to serve the public, and protect the public health, safety, and welfare through the practice of architecture. In my involvement in the construction administration, I financially supported special inspections for the memorial, which is the new material testing regulations adopted by the city after this tragedy. That financial contribution was a symbolic gesture, a statement, that safety and inspection are important aspects of construction. Architects should be held accountable for demolition in the same way we are held accountable for new buildings. We have a responsibility, a philosophical and ethical duty, to be a part in how a building comes down. I understand that engineers are very much involved in the technicalities, but we should have ethical guidelines for architects, so designers know how to protect lives during demolition. That's really what it's all about. No one should die while constructing a building. And no one should die when a building is coming down, ever. That's just unacceptable, and unacceptable in a modern major city such as Philadelphia.
PennDesign: This intersection is, from a developer’s perspective, very underbuilt. Everything is low-density. And I wonder how much you thought about not only the decade of development prior to this collapse but about how this specific intersection might change in the next ten years or so.
Aker: This memorial has a unique opportunity, more than other memorials, because it is about building failure. But it is also about building a memorial that can engage in the future development, which is why there's an opening in the rear “identity” wall at the raised terrace. This is a literal and symbolic opening—you're looking into the future development of the City. I left this opening in the wall for the future developer to either opt to engage or not engage with the memorial. Regardless of what happens, it will be an interesting moment for the memorial park as the surroundings change over time.
Fox: We built a scale model of the sculpture. There was a small budget that I was allowed to spend to develop and I said I want to see what this is going to look like on the site. One thing we discovered when we brought the model to the site was that you couldn't see through the top window. So I played around with cardboard boxes in my house, trying to figure out how we could see through it—where to set that upper window and at what angle so you could actually look through it. Because if it was level like the other windows you wouldn't see anything through it, or it would be just this little opening. So that window becomes like a skyward moment. People will look up and see the words beneath that window, “For Those We Remember.”
June 5 Memorial design and construction credits, courtesy of Scott Aker:
Owner: Philadelphia Parks and Recreation
POC: Nancy O’Donnell – UPenn, PennDesign alumni from Landscape Department
Client Licensee: Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS), landscape designers
POC: Matt Rader, President & Leigh Ann Campbell, PLA, ASLA
Owners Representative: Brandywine Realty Trust
Chris Franklin & Jerry Sweeney
Architect: Scott L. Aker, AIA
Artist: Barbara Fox
Graphic Design for the June 5: Joel Katz
Graphic Typography Design: Richard Hunt, Archetype Typography