Rethinking how memorials should be built

Sticking to the traditional notion that memorials ought to be permanent may be inadequate for the new Founders' Memorial

In the roughly two decades I have spent travelling overseas as a working adult, I have come across many statues and memorials.

In every country and every major city, there is always someone or something significant in history to remember. The citizens of the place get together and decide to build something that will forever be symbolic of this person or event.

Then it is built and takes years to complete.

More than a century later, a Singaporean tourist who has waited months to don his new winterwear takes a selfie with it. He shares it on social media and his friends immediately comment on the clothes, not the memorial.

Or else he poses such that the distant image of the tall obelisk that is the Washington Monument - designed to "blend stupendousness with elegance" and made with granite and marble from all 50 states of America - is a candlestick held aloft.

Or the tip of a giant needle. Or something growing out of somewhere not to be mentioned in polite company.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

I'm being facetious, of course. But at least, the Washington Monument, completed in 1888 and built in memory of America's first president George Washington, is one of the more memorable memorials that I can recall.

Pictured with the White House in the foreground, it does invoke a sense that good government rises above the fray, with values that stand tall and proud.

The other memorial that has stuck in my mind is the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain in London's Hyde Park.

I remember it well because I was in London a lot in 2004, the year when it was completed and opened to the public. I was recovering from a bad break-up and staying with a good friend who was doing his MBA there.

Wandering around the city lost in thought, I came across it one morning as I was leaving a nearby museum in the park and thought it was the most meaningful public structure I had ever seen.

For those who haven't been there, picture a river of light grey stone which forms a big oval, placed on a gentle slope in a grassy field. Water emerges from the top of the river and runs left and right down the long sides of the oval before coalescing at the bottom.

On one side, the water flows smoothly with gentle ripples and on the other, the water flows violently over steps, curves and obstacles - a reflection of the two sides of Diana, happy and turbulent.

Because she was known as the "people's Princess", the fountain was designed to allow for open access. You could touch the water, sit by the banks or even walk on the flowing streams.

I thought it was brilliant, but the memorial - designed and built by an American landscape artist at a cost of £3.6 million - still came in for a lot of criticism by the British public. People said it was a giant urinal down which public money had literally been flushed. Others said it was horribly impractical because moss would grow on the structure. Then several children skipping in the granite river fell, and suddenly, a thing of beauty had turned into a safety menace.

This is why I do not envy Esplanade chairman Lee Tzu Yang at all, who is chairing a 15-member committee tasked with deciding what form the new Founders' Memorial in Singapore would take and where it will be sited.

To recap, the committee was set up in July last year, following the death of Singapore's founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew on March 23. But while the late Mr Lee himself supported the idea of such a memorial, he was always conscious he did not act alone and was part of a team, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in Parliament.

This is why the memorial will also pay tribute to founding politicians such as Dr Goh Keng Swee, Mr S. Rajaratnam, Mr Othman Wok, Mr Hon Sui Sen and Mr Lim Kim San.

Trying to sum up the intent of the memorial, the committee's chairman has said that it is not about coming up with a "defined view of history, and saying this is the end to history".

"This is really about stimulating interest, in how we became an independent nation and in the ideals and values that have formed us," he added.

Nominated Member of Parliament Kuik Shiao-Yin, who sits on the committee, has also said many on the panel are convinced that it should not be about "how the best story is over, but the best story is yet to come".

Going by that sort of thinking, the traditional form that many memorials have taken - life-like statues cast in stone or bronze - seem woefully inadequate.

That is probably a good thing. If there is one common characteristic among all the memorials I have seen globally, it is that most look quite dated, very much reflecting artistic and design considerations of the time they were commissioned and built.

So what should Singapore build that can break with convention, yet manage to meet such a multitude of objectives?

One idea that came to me as I saw pictures of Bay East Garden, the open and relatively undeveloped plot which the committee has strongly recommended as the memorial's location, was this: Why even build a permanent structure at all?

Why not have a different Founders' Memorial every year or every two years, built by a different architect, sculptor or installation artist each time? The memorial will be open to the public for a time and then torn down completely to make way for a new incarnation.

In London, the Serpentine Gallery runs a similar programme where a different architect is selected each year to build a Serpentine Pavilion in Hyde Park. The architect is given six months to build the "pavilion", if need be with the help of a corporate sponsor, and the finished product is open to the public for three months before the next cycle starts again.

The results have been nothing short of spectacular. Weird, wonderful, thought-provoking structures have risen in the lush environs of the park. Last year's translucent structure, made of colourful fluorine-based plastic, contained four worm-like tunnels darting out of a circular centre.

Famed Japanese architect Toyo Ito, who built the 2002 pavilion, found the project refreshing. "Whereas the thought that the buildings I design might stand for a 100 years or more wears heavily on me, the notion of a temporary project is liberating in many ways," he said.

The same thinking might well apply to whoever eventually designs a permanent structure for our Founders' Memorial or is tasked with approving it.

Of course, the lack of something tangible to anchor the memorial is an intuitive deal-breaker for most. But there are ways to get around that, such as setting a permanent foundation or cornerstone, or even having a small permanent gallery to explain the significance of each construct and who or what it is designed to memorialise.

Given the preference for consensus-based decision-making in Singapore, this is an idea that will never take flight. But I think it is still a useful thought exercise for those involved or concerned about the memorial here.

How far can we push the boundaries as we embark on what is probably the ultimate marker of the nation's history and identity?

The committee has pledged to "find its own way" and not be guided too closely by what has been done at other memorials around the world. I hope it will be given the freedom to do so.

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  • Share your views on what form the Founders' Memorial should take. Write to stlife@sph.com.sg
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 20, 2016, with the headline 'Rethinking how memorials should be built'. Print Edition | Subscribe