Oklahoma City memorial gently communicates tragedy

I visited Oklahoma City for the first time last week and took the opportunity to view the Oklahoma City National Memorial. The site is very moving, honoring the people that perished in attack in a quietly dignified way.

OKC memorial- chairs 2

The former site of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building is cleaned off with very little of the building remaining other than some of the retaining walls that remained intact following the blast.  The memorial itself includes a set of emptty chairs made of a glass base–that, I assume, glow at night–with a granite seat and bronze frame. The name of each victim is silk screened or frosted onto cast glass bases

The way  the chairs sit on the lawn along the reflecting pool is peaceful. There is a gateway on either side, where there is a ramp, allowing visitors to wind down to focus on the space. It reminds me somewhat of the entrance to the Parthenon in Athens, where you move from one portal to the next and then climb to the top. This, of course, is not as dramatic of a climb, but the effect is similar as it helps you to decompress as you enter the memorial from the hustle and bustle on the street.

OKC memorial- pool

There’s a functional asymmetry to the space. One side of the memorial is entered from a street with a church, while the other has a long chain link fence and a memory wall. The memory wall is different than the rest of the modern memorial, as it’s folk art created by visitors and families coming to the site. All the artifacts and signs attached to the wall are textural and rough, which reminds me of the mess the explosion caused.

The museum is quite another experience. The museum sits on a hill next to the memorial. After I bought a ticket in the lobby, staff guided me to the third floor, where I began to make my way down. I didn’t get any shots of the museum to share, but I think the designers failed to communicate the somberness of the moment. The exhibit is a chaotic experience with an awful multimedia presentation of video and sound systems fighting for dominance. Perhaps this was done intentionally to communicate the chaos of the event, but I’m not so sure. I didn’t get moment of peace until finished.

OKC memorial- gateway

All in all, I don’t think it’s worth going to the museum, however, the memorial itself is a wonderfully respectful place. The mass of federal buildings in this downtown area makes one think any of them could have been targeted, yet the bombers chose the newest building. To this day, the more classical federal buildings from the 30s and 40s remain intact. Perhaps the porosity and transparency of the Murrah building’s modernism gave the bombers insight as to the devastating effect of their attack, given the building’s glass construction on the street level.

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