A Memorial for the Moment

National echoes underscore the power of a memorial to the victims of a mass shooting in Tucson, Arizona.

By Timothy A. Schuler 

Tapered landforms create a pair of sheltered spaces for reflection within the larger plaza. Photo by Tina Chee, ASLA.

Since at least the 1870s, Tucson’s El Presidio Plaza, located between the Pima County Superior Court and Tucson City Hall, has been a place of gathering, commemoration, and civic participation. Numerous monuments and memorials—to the original presidio, to veterans of World War II, to John F. Kennedy—dot the mostly paved plaza. The latest, and largest, memorial is titled The Embrace, and it commemorates the mass shooting on January 8, 2011, in which then-Representative Gabrielle Giffords was shot and six people, including a federal judge, were killed.

Designed by the Los Angeles-based architecture and landscape firm Chee Salette with the visual artist Rebeca Méndez, the memorial uses the language of landscape to create spaces of reflection while also preserving the historic civic axis between the courthouse and city hall. It consists of a mirrored pair of angular reflecting pools protected by rising berms that feature bands of Mt. Moriah stone and native Sonoran plantings. In the spaces created by the berms, which extend toward one another like open arms, curved steel walls tell the story of the shooting through symbols rather than a traditional narrative. From a distance, the tapered landforms frame the entrance to the courthouse. “It’s like a collar, framing the face,” says Tina Chee, ASLA, who runs the firm with her husband, Marc Salette.

The siting of the memorial—just steps from the historic courthouse and centered on the main axis through the building—was controversial but intentional, Salette says. The general location of El Presidio Plaza had been selected by Tucson’s January 8 Memorial Foundation as a way to connect the memorial to the civic life of the city. Ron Barber, a survivor of the attack who worked for Giffords at the time, says the location was important as a reminder that the 2011 attack was an assault on the democratic process, taking place during one of Giffords’s “Congress on Your Corner” events, in which she met constituents in person in their own neighborhoods, a practice Barber continued when he replaced Giffords in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2012.

From a distance, the memorial blends into the park, preserving views of the 19th-century courthouse building. Photo by Tina Chee, ASLA.

The specific site within the plaza was left up to the design teams, and the advice Chee Salette received was to steer clear of the courthouse—advice the designers proceeded to ignore. “People were like, ‘That’s our beloved icon; don’t try to put anything in front of it,’” Chee recalls. “We felt very strongly that the memorial had to have this relationship to the courthouse because of the political relationships, the symbolic nature of it. We said, ‘We’re not going to avoid it.’”

Siting the memorial on an existing civic axis, however, required a careful balance of access and enclosure. Thus, the two spaces were separated by a path and sheltered from the rest of the park by the angled berms. Custom details required extensive 3-D modeling as well as hands-on collaboration with local fabricators, and Chee and Salette moved from Los Angeles to Tucson for two months starting in October 2020 to ensure that the memorial would be completed in time for the 10-year anniversary of the shooting on January 8, 2021.

The form of the memorial is partially inspired by the paper chains made by children in response to the shooting. Drawing by Tina Chee, ASLA.

Then, two days before the virtual dedication, a mob of armed white nationalists invaded the U.S. Capitol with the aim of overturning the results of the 2020 presidential election. Five people were killed. For the designers, it was a tragic bookend to a five-year design process during which they spent hours interviewing survivors and community members about their hopes for the memorial. “It felt as if we didn’t go anywhere, as a culture,” Chee says. “So we felt very sad, but also proud in the sense that we did do something. We created this memorial, and it’s a memorial to remind people what happened and to [think about] how they see themselves in the future.”

Timothy A. Schuler, the editor of Now, can be reached at timothyaschuler@gmail.com and on Twitter @Timothy_Schuler.

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