Understanding Public Memorial Architecture and Design

Names of Vietnam veterans at Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. via Wikimedia Commons

When a large-scale tragedy or injustice occurs—such as war, pandemic, terrorism, natural disaster, civil unrest, or genocide—that forever leaves a scar on society, it is often remembered  by a permanent, public memorial. The same goes for influential historical figures and leaders.

“Memorial” in this context refers to a site or structure meant to remind people of a person or event. You might have encountered a public memorial on a walk at your local park, tucked away in a quiet corner. Perhaps there are some benches to sit on or a small plaque with contextual background on the memorial.


Regardless of how well-known the event or person was, their memorial was meticulously designed. Memorial architecture is a field of architecture all its own, and various opinions and factors influence the design process. Understanding the creative process behind  the spaces in which we publicly grieve, learn, and remember is essential in a world that has experienced incalculable amounts of collective trauma.

Who Designs Public Memorials?

The design of a public memorial is handled on a case-by-case basis depending on what is most appropriate—most of the time, an architecture firm or individual architect is contracted for the project. Other times, though, community input may be sought or a design contest held.


Some architecture firms specialize in designing memorials or allocate resources for the express purpose of memorial design. For example, MASS Design Group established the Public Memory and Memorials Lab in 2020. The Public Memory and Memorial Lab asserts that “spatializing memory can heal us and inspire collective action for generations to come.” MASS Design Group collaborated with the Equal Justice Initiative to design the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which will be covered later in this article.


As public memorials are meant to serve the communities in which they are constructed, open meetings may be held early in the memorial’s design process. The community is invited to give their thoughts and feedback on what elements should be included in the memorial.


Other times, the design for a memorial is selected via a contest. The most well-known instance of this was when the then-21-year-old Maya Lin’s design was selected for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1981 via an anonymous contest. The design—a black, V-shaped granite wall that was inscribed with the names of over 50,000 soldiers who died in battle—was initially criticized for its perceived simplicity. Today, however, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is one of the most praised memorial designs and an iconic D.C. tourist location.


The beauty of memorialization through public architecture means that there is no singular person responsible for the final design. Public memorials are an amalgamation of ideas, concepts, and of course, memories that come from all those involved in the design process. Memorial designs that are imbued with a deep sense of reverence and respect sometimes go on to become iconic landmarks themselves.

Notable Memorial Design

What makes a “good” public memorial? It’s a question that’s highly subjective. There’s no “rule book” for creating a memorial structure, but some memorials have struck the balance between poignance and aesthetic beauty just right to become globally renowned sites. 

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC Designed by Maya Lin via Wikimedia Commons
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC Designed by Maya Lin via Wikimedia Commons

Vietnam Veterans Memorial

The aforementioned Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. is the most visited memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. with 5 million visitors per year, according to the Department of Defense. As the Memorial’s most “prominent feature,” the reflective black granite wall with the names of the 58,318 men and women who were declared dead or missing in the Vietnam War carved into it showcases the somber reality of war. Interactive elements also further help visitors’ connection to the events of the Vietnam War and its legacy.

One “arm” of the V-shaped wall stretches west, towards the Lincoln Memorial, while the other extends east, to the Washington Monument. The names of those who were declared dead are marked with a diamond symbol and the names of those who were declared MIA are marked with a cross. Those killed at the beginning of the war in 1959 have their names listed at the highest point of the wall on the right arm of the V-shape. The names continue towards the right in chronological order of death, then wrap around to continue to the lowest end of the left arm of the wall. The names of those who died first during the war and those who died at its end meet in the middle.


A common ritual practiced by visitors to the memorial involves creating pencil rubbings of their loved one’s name by placing a piece of paper over the name and capturing the indentations of the letters by lightly rubbing a pencil over them. This physical action provides a way for the visitor to directly connect with the memorial and reflect on what it means to them. Even running your fingers over the smooth granite and the carefully carved names can be a powerful experience.

Maya Lin, the designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, faced criticism for both her perceived “simplistic” design choices and her Asian ethnicity. In an interview with Martin Filler in 2018, Lin spoke on the challenges and successes of the design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. She clarified,  “The object itself is not so much the form of the wall itself, it’s the names. So, the names become the object.” Lin explained.

Lin in fact does not view “the wall” as a wall, but rather as a geode, the black granite being what’s revealed from the “cut” in the earth created by the structure. “It could not read like an insertion of an object into the earth, it had to read as if I’m cutting and polishing the earth’s edges.”


Despite the politicization and controversy the Vietnam Veterans Memorial faced during its inception, Lin’s timeless design holds its own among the other towering monuments found in Washington, D.C.—it is a powerful memorial visited by people from all walks of life and is a must-see for anyone looking to be moved by the power of memorial architecture.

National Memorial for Peace and Justice

Located in Montgomery, Alabama, a key location in the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice is America’s first memorial “dedicated to the legacy of enslaved Black people, people terrorized by lynching, African Americans humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow, and people of color burdened with contemporary presumptions of guilt and police violence.”

Opened to the public in 2018, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice is sponsored by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), founded by Bryan Stevenson. EJI is “a nonprofit legal and civil rights group that represents poor defendants, including juvenile offenders and death-row inmates,” according to the Washington Post.


The National Memorial for Peace and Justice honors the Black victims who lost their lives at the hands of racist lynchings with its main focal point: 805 six-foot hanging steel rectangles, one for each county in the United States where a racial terror lynching took place. Each steel rectangle features the names of the lynching victims from that county engraved on the bottom. The symbolism of these steel rectangles being hung from the ceiling of the memorial is disturbingly straightforward, yet was done for a reason, according to Stevenson: “The people who carried out this violence could have just shot people and buried them in the ground, but they didn’t want it to be a secret [...] They actually lifted up the bodies because they wanted to terrorize. They wanted the entire community to see it.”


Designed with the help of the aforementioned MASS Design Group, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice also features smaller works of sculpture art, like the piece entitled “Rise Up” by Hank Willis Thomas. This piece touches on “contemporary issues of police violence and racially biased criminal justice,” and shows only the heads of young Black men seemingly drowning in the concrete they are placed atop. Their arms are stretched straight up toward the sky in a plea for innocence, referencing the “Hands up, don’t shoot” mantra that has become widespread among protesters after instances of police brutality. The title, “Rise Up,” conversely implies that these men are rising up from the ground, freeing themselves from the shadow of the racist history America has collectively tried to hide.

'Rise Up' (2016) by Hank Willis Thomas -- The National Memorial for Peace and Justice via Wikimedia Commons

Throughout the memorial’s six-acre site, quotes and writings from influential Black figures are featured. Those quoted include author Toni Morrison, poet Elizabeth Alexander, and Civil Rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. There is also a dedicated reflection space in honor of journalist and founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Ida B. Wells.

“Toni Morisson quote at National Memorial for Peace and Justice via Wikimedia Commons”
Toni Morisson quote at National Memorial for Peace and Justice via Wikimedia Commons

Stevenson notes that the design of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice took inspiration from other iconic and well-received memorials, including the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, South Africa, the Holocaust memorial known as “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe” in Berlin, Germany, and the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice proudly stands in stark contrast to other controversial memorials and monuments dedicated to Confederate soldiers and other racist, oppressive aspects of American history and society. Dedicated to showing the entire truth of the horrific experience Black Americans must endure and carry, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice combines art, architecture, and education in a powerful, sobering way that is sure to stick with all those who make the important and arguably necessary visit to this memorial.

Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park

The dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan on August 6th, 1945 marked the first use of a nuclear weapon in war. The effects on the city and its people were devastating—an estimated 140,000 people were killed, most of whom were civilians. How does one even begin to memorialize the event that ended a war and leveled a city? It seems like an impossible task. Hiroshima’s answer? A public park dedicated to world peace by emphasizing the horrors of nuclear war, encompassed by the phrase “No More Hiroshimas.”


Designed by Japanese architect Kenzo Tange, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park sits in the center of the city near the bomb’s hypocenter. Stretching over 120,000 square meters that were once an open field of burning rubble and corpses, the area is now a peaceful, green refuge from the rest of Hiroshima’s busy urban landscape.


Within the park stands the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, where visitors can experience a more in-depth history of the events of the bombing and see the harrowing artwork of the “hibakusha” (literally translating to “person affected by nuclear exposure”), the word given to those affected by the bombing through injuries or radiation exposure.


The park’s other main memorials and features include the remains of the Genbaku Dome (sometimes called the “A-Bomb Dome,” genbaku meaning “atomic bomb”), the only structure that survived the explosion and subsequent firestorm, and the Memorial Cenotaph, where each year on August 6th, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Ceremony is held.

Hiroshima Peace Park via Wikimedia Commons
Hiroshima Peace Park via Wikimedia Commons

The Memorial Cenotaph is shaped like a roof, to symbolize the sheltering of those killed by the bomb. Under the Cenotaph sits a stone box inscribed with the words “Let all the souls here rest in peace, for we shall not repeat the evil,” in Japanese. The stone box contains the registry of all the known names of the victims of the Hiroshima bombing, regardless of nationality. Looking out through the Memorial Cenotaph, one can see the Genbaku Dome straight ahead, standing as a testament to the resolve and strength of the people of Hiroshima.

Also located in the Hiroshima Peace Park is the Children’s Peace Memorial, dedicated to the thousands of child victims of the bomb. This memorial features a statue of Sadako Sasaki, a hibakusha who was two years old when the atomic bomb was dropped on her city. At 12 years old, Sasaki was admitted to the hospital with leukemia as a result of the radiation exposure she suffered. Hearing of the legend that if one folds 1,000 paper cranes their wish would be granted, Sasaki quickly began folding the paper cranes using whatever materials she could find around her hospital room.

She accomplished her goal, having folded 300 more cranes in addition to the 1,000 she initially set out to complete before her death in 1955. Her story is honored in this sculpture, which features Sasaki with her arms outstretched and the outline of a paper crane above her. Glass cases full of paper cranes surround the statue, a touching showcase of how Sadako Sasaki’s story and her legacy live on around the world.

Children's Peace Monument via ddmacgre, Flickr

Designer Kenzo Tange wanted the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park to be a “factory for the creation of peace,” according to Hiroshima for Global Peace. Tange achieved this by “embracing a modernist style that emphasizes functionality,” wanting to show the world that Hiroshima was a city reborn and rebuilt from the ashes. A beautiful, quiet place that respectfully and thoroughly honors the effects of the first atomic bomb used in war, Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park is an example of the level of care all architects and designers should follow when creating a memorial structure.

Challenges of Memorial Design

Designing a public memorial is an inherently difficult task. Memorializing any person or event comes with an enormous emotional toll and the deep desire to honor the person or event in a way that pleases everyone invested in the memorial’s creation. Unfortunately, it’s impossible for everyone to be entirely satisfied with every aspect of a public memorial’s design and contents.

In cases where the event caused casualties, there may be differing opinions on what to include in the event’s memorialization among families of the victims and the general public. Memorials most often attract criticism for their titles or other background text included in the memorial. In the context of remembrance, the details are important. One such example is the criticism directed towards the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe—often simply called “the Holocaust Memorial”—in Berlin, Germany.

Many feel that the memorial’s title erases the memory of the victims of the Holocaust who were not Jewish or European. In addition to the Jewish people, those targeted and killed during the Holocaust included disabled individuals, gay men, the Roma and Sinti peoples, political dissenters, and other victims who have been forgotten. Additionally, the memorial’s title does not include the words “Holocaust” or “Shoah,” nor are they featured anywhere on or around the 2,711 stone stelae that make up the memorial.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe via Wikimedia Commons
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe via Wikimedia Commons

Designed by Peter Eisenman, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe creates a vagueness that The New Yorker calls “disturbing.” Due to the memorial’s lack of clear textual background or context, many tourists are unaware that this memorial is one dedicated to the Holocaust. This has resulted in the memorial frequently being disrespected, with some sitting, playing, or jumping across the stone stelae.


The behavior frequently seen at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe brings up another challenge of memorial design—anticipating disrespectful behavior and vandalism. Due to the subject matter of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, it is one memorial that is often vandalized by neo-Nazis.


Public memorial designers who are dedicated to their craft can anticipate and navigate these challenges when they arise throughout the design process. When these challenges are accurately taken into account, the final design of a public memorial can achieve its full potential in helping those who visit it process the event being memorialized.

Aiding in Healing and Remembrance

Public memorials can be healing on both the community and individual levels. Individually, memorials can help someone to understand the important history and context behind the event or person being memorialized as well as invoke deep reflection as one comes to terms with their feelings on the event.

Memorials that are deemed “sites of conscience” are one way that deep, individual reflection can be invoked. According to the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience (ICSC), a site of conscience is “a place of memory – such as a historic site, place-based museum or memorial – that prevents erasure from happening in order to foster more just and humane societies today”. Memorial sites can partner with ICSC to become a site of conscience, where the memorial site can then help to “provide safe spaces to remember and preserve even the most traumatic memories'' and “enable their visitors to make connections between the past and related contemporary human rights issues,” according to ICSC.

Some memorials located in the U.S. that are designated sites of conscience include the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project, the National Cambodian Heritage Museum & Killing Fields Memorial, and the Pennhurst Memorial and Preservation Alliance. Sites of conscience help to elevate the purpose of a memorial through important educational tools and resources so that the public can fully understand the scale and significance of human rights atrocities.


Scientific studies have also shown how the design of public memorials can elicit deep reflection of the past in viewers, helping them to work through their thoughts and feelings on the event. In a 2022 study entitled “Memorials as Healing Places: A Matrix for Bridging Material Design and Visitor Experience,” researchers Brady Wagoner and Ignacio Bresco looked at three public memorials to study the behaviors of participants who visited them, aiming to analyze “how different material aspects of memorial design help to create engaging experiences for visitors.”


At the National September 11 Memorial, one of the three locations studied, researchers found that participants “had their most personal and profound reflections on the events the memorial represents” due to the flowing water of the two reflection pools that are the memorial’s most prominent feature. Visitors have their vision guided downwards to the water that cascades into the footprint of the two skyscrapers lost, but, upon looking up, they can see One World Trade Center, the building that replaced the original World Trade Center. This creates “a dialogue between horizontal and vertical forms” and “loss and hope.” The study also noted that at the 9/11 Memorial, “the visible absence framed by the two memorial pools at [Ground Zero] invited many of our participants to fill these voids with different nostalgic memories associated with water spaces, which resulted in a personal appropriation of the site.”

9-11 Memorial South Pool via Wikimedia Commons
9-11 Memorial South Pool via Wikimedia Commons

This study shows how important the consideration of physical space—or in this instance, its absence—can be in the memorial design process. Memorials cannot just be designed for the sake of looking aesthetically pleasing. Public memorials must also be designed with a sense of functionality in mind in order to evoke memories, reflection, and growth within their visitors in order to be successful in their purpose.

Understanding how public memorials are designed with the help of artists and architects is essential to the healing process as we come to reckon with collective trauma that demands memorialization—to prevent its recurrence. Discussions have already begun on how to memorialize the victims of the COVID-19 pandemic, and although it will be a while until it comes to fruition, contextualizing and studying public memorial design principles will be essential in ensuring a memorial to this world-defining event is executed appropriately.


Memorials are a unique form of art in themselves—it’s important to acknowledge that balancing functionality, respectfulness, and aesthetics when designing memorials can be difficult. When done successfully, though, a beautiful site of remembrance is created. 

©ArtRKL™️ LLC 2021-2023. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. ArtRKL™️ and its underscore design indicate trademarks of ArtRKL™️ LLC and its subsidiaries.

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