unisa architecture and interior architecture annual exhibition 2021


The hart island hope Memorial

bachelor of architectural studies

Dr. chris brisbin

Studio Coordinator and Program Director of Architecture


The hart island hope Memorial

The widespread social and economic impacts of COVID-19 continues to be felt across the world. While Australia has been undeniably lucky, there is no doubt that COVID-19 continues to highlight the inherent social inequality of many societies across the world. The 5M deaths globally attributed to COVID-19 has brought into stark relief the confronting ways different cultures and societies have conceptually and pragmatically addressed death, memory, and memorialisation.

Memorials are sites of memory – of grief, loss, and fear – but most of all, they are places of hope, strength, and resilience. They are material places that allow us to interpret and make sense of the past and our social and cultural connections to memorialised events, stories, and people as “important symbolic conduits not only for expressing a version of history but casting legitimacy upon it as well.” 1

Contemporary memorials have become phenomenological texts to be read, interpreted, and interacted with – not just objects to be looked at, but architecture and landscape choreographed as experientially affective theatrical events. These are environments whose meaning is generated, in-part, by the heterogeneous mix of personal histories and stories of those who interact with them where meaning is never fixed and never pre-determined, always in an un-ending state of becoming between spectator and memorial.

While the subject of the studio focuses on memory and memorialisation, the object of the studio is Hart Island, a 131 acre island in the Long Island Sound, located on the eastern edge of the Bronx (NYC, USA). While a real location with a real history, Hart Island is an abstract site; both in terms of its conceptual framework as a mass burial site on the other side of the world, and in terms of our inability to physically visit the site. It is a place that only exists through text and image.

In 1869, Hart Island witnessed its first official burial of a young 24-year-old immigrant named Louisa Van Slyke who died of Yellow Fever. Louisa would be the first of many more to come. Since its inception, Hart Island has become the preferred burial site for New York’s stigmatised, unwanted, unclaimed, and unidentified deceased. Over 1,000,000 men, women, and children have been buried in mass-burial sites across the island in trenches holding up to 420 pine-box coffins, marked only by small white bevelled concrete markers. From victims of homelessness, malnutrition, yellow fever, smallpox and typhoid, cholera, AIDS, tuberculosis, and now 25-deceased-per-day due to COVID-19, Hart Island has become New York’s “graveyard of last resort.” 2

The Hart Island Hope Memorial is the capstone architectural design studio in the Bachelor of Architectural Studies. In this studio, students have been researching and exploring a complex range of conceptual themes surrounding death, memory, and memorialisation through the design of a series of group-based and individual inter-related program elements including: (A) a Mortuary to store and prepare the deceased for burial; a (B) Machine to store and maintain the machinery used for the island’s operation; and a (C) Memory Mausoleum, which includes a specific memory space to memorialise the first COVID-19-attributed burial on Hart Island, Ellen Torron, and a collective memory space to memorialise those deceased and buried on Hart Island due to COVID-19.

This is a formidable studio as it asks students to confront challenging ideas and respond to them through methods, typologies, and a place that they have limited understanding of, but it is a highly rewarding learning experience that integrates the collective skills and knowledge of their Bachelor of Architectural Studies.

We are all worthy of hope and remembrance.

  1. Owen J. Dwyer and Derek H. Alderman, "Memorial landscapes: analytic questions and metaphors," GeoJournal 73 (2008), https://doi.org/10.1007/s10708-008-9201-5. ↩︎

  2. W. J. Hennigan, "Lost in the Pandemic: Inside New York City’s Mass Graveyard on Hart Island," (2020). https://time.com/5913151/hart-island-covid/. ↩︎

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