SWA’s Sandy Hook Memorial opens in Connecticut

On November 12, the permanent memorial to the victims of the Sandy Hook shooting opened in Newtown, Connecticut. Titled The Glade The landscape project designed by SWA honors the 20 children and six educators who were murdered in the tragic December 14, 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The design was selected from a pool of 189 international proposals submitted through a public competition, and construction began last year.

“Yesterday we had a steady stream of people from the public; it’s a bit quieter today,” Ben Waldo remarked during a press visit. Waldo and his colleague Dan Affleck are the memorial’s designers. They independently submitted their proposal as a “passion project” but brought it to SWA when it was selected as a finalist in the competition as they both work at SWA’s San Francisco office. The work was personal as Waldo grew up in the nearby town of West Hartford.

This memorial expands on a focus on nature and healing established through reconstruction efforts. Nearly a year after the attack, which remains the fourth largest mass shooting in American history, the previous school building was demolished. A new school building designed by Svigals + Partners and opened in 2016 incorporated passive safety elements into its welcoming campus.

Aerial view of Sandy Hook Memorial surrounded by trees with elementary school nearby
(Artemis Landino)

The memorial occupies one hectare of a 5.3 hectare site and is located north of the school. The location was “already a kind of clearing,” Aldo said. Formerly a Little League baseball field, the commission chose the site for its proximity to the school, where the happy squeals of children playing could be heard.

Names of gun violence victims carved into a granite landscape wall
(David Lloyd)

Access to the memorial is via a path that runs downhill and is flanked by beds of wildflowers. Waldo and Affleck’s design takes visitors along paths that twist through woods and meadows. The walkways curve inward and join at a central clearing where a young plane tree grows in the center of a pool of water. The detailing of the pool follows the landscaping and rotates clockwise so the movement of the water hugs the tree. The victims’ names are engraved on top of the pool’s granite perimeter wall. Three wood-topped benches provide seating, and lighting illuminates the landscape for late-night visits.

Tree, pond and granite wall at night
(David Lloyd)

At the start of the trail back to the top of the hill, a large granite object is inscribed with a message of welcome and this statement: “Enclosed within this stone is the sacred earth created from the many objects found in impromptu memorials around the city left behind were the days after the tragedy.”

Waldo and Affleck noted that their completed memorial, while the only “commissioned” memorial, was not the only one created to honor the lost. In the days and weeks after the shooting, locals erected “prompt memorials,” including a series of benches with the children’s names, Waldo recalled. Affleck shared that the city burned many of these items, which had previously been stored in a warehouse, after they were temporarily used as expressions of mourning. The 3 cubic meters of ashes became the “holy earth”, part of which is now stored in the granite tomb.

Walkway access to circular landscape monument
(David Lloyd)

As of June 2022, mass shootings in the US have nearly tripled since the 2012 attack on Sandy Hook Elementary School. For the first few months of this year there was a mass shooting every week. Right now, people are mourning an attack in Denver that killed five people and an incident at the University of Virginia that killed three college students. Unfortunately, gun violence has become commonplace in America.

In response, architects today regularly design sites of remembrance and mourning, as they have done for centuries. In these cases, it is important to focus on the needs of the community. How do you design a place at the center of trauma? And, even more intensely, how do you design a memorial for a condition that is not yet in our past?

Architects are also engaging in conversations about how to make public spaces safer in the absence of broader reforms. Of central importance is the question of how schools can be made safer. What formal measures can be taken, e.g. B. controlled perimeters, hardened walls, strategically placed windows, or different elevations to obscure the view? And, even more invisible, what systems could be put in place to better protect students? The seriousness with which architects are responding to this issue is of paramount importance if current national conditions persist. It is hoped that in the future there will be no need for memorials to commemorate the victims of gun violence.

Aerial view of people gathered around a circular reflecting pond with a tree in the middle
(David Lloyd)

Still, these places offer some solace through contemplation in a natural setting. The weekend before the Sandy Hook Memorial opened, over a hundred people visited the site. “This was the first time some of the families saw the memorial,” Waldo said. He mentioned that “a lot of parents thanked us” and described the scene as “very beautiful”.

Keren Dillard is a New York-based architectural designer and researcher, a graduate of Barnard College and a current candidate for a Masters of Architecture at Princeton University School of Architecture.