Sandy Hook memorial carries ‘personal’ meaning for architects
NEWTOWN — The Sandy Hook memorial contract could have been awarded to architects with a national reputation, or to architects who have done good work here before, such as the firm that designed the new Sandy Hook School.
Instead, Newtown chose two unknowns in the architectural world named Ben Waldo and Dan Affleck, whose memorial design of a walk through nature captivated the town.
“When they came to us, they were humble and passionate, and that really impressed us,” said Dan Krauss, chairman of the Sandy Hook Permanent Memorial Commission, the group that has spent five years helping Newtown decide how best to honor 26 first-graders and educators slain in the Sandy Hook massacre. “They obviously thought a lot about this project, and we felt a real connection to them.”
The architects, in an interview with Hearst Connecticut Media, said part of what distinguished them from others whose designs also drew on nature’s connection to life, death and rebirth is that their motivations were not professional.
They were personal.
Both men work for San Francisco-based SWA, and have occasionally been on the same design teams for municipal parks or commercial projects.
“Dan and I had been talking about working on a project together on our own that was meaningful,” said Waldo, 29, who grew up playing music before he could read. “So this is a project we worked on after hours — during weekends and lunches.”
“We wanted to keep this personal,” agreed Affleck, 40, a Hartford native who studied painting before focusing on architecture. “So when they had the big public meetings for the (semifinalist) designers, we wanted our presentation to be just the two of us.”
The result was an interconnected design that inspired Sandy Hook families from the start — a walk through the 5-acre woods of the memorial site to a circular center, where a young sycamore tree is planted in a reflecting pool.
“There is something spiritual about it that is aesthetic and emotional,” said Alan Martin, a member of the memorial commission. “It spoke to us, and we felt good about it.”
Newtown is in the final phase of a deliberate process to build a monument of commemoration and hope on a semi-secluded site near the new Sandy Hook School, which opened in 2016.
First Selectman Dan Rosenthal is negotiating with SWA about a budget that Newtown residents would have to approve, perhaps in a referendum as soon as November.
Although it’s too soon to say how much Newtown is prepared to spend on the monument, Rosenthal has reserved $4 million in the town’s multi-year capital improvement fund to be used for the solemn site.
The town has also paid SWA $250,000 to develop blueprints for the design created by Waldo and Affleck, known as “The Clearing.”
“The words resonate on two levels,” Affleck said. “There is the natural physical clearing of woods on the site itself, and a spiritual clearing in terms of clarity.”
As soon as Affleck and Waldo agreed they wanted to work together on the Sandy Hook memorial, they encountered the overwhelming burden of the task.
“No piece of design is ever going to heal wounds as deep as a tragedy like this leaves,” Waldo said.
Added to that was the burden that somehow the monument had to be more meaningful than the sum of its elements.
With that in mind, the duo handled the weight of the task in three ways: they tried to erase all of their preconceptions, they spoke with people they knew who lost loved ones, and they thought about the project for six weeks before starting to sketch.
Their solution was a walk through nature to a circle with no beginning and no end, animated by a tree planted in water to represent the distance between life and death.
“People can engage in the mystery by placing an object in the water that embodies thoughts, emotions or reflections,” Waldo said. “When you give that away and send it across that space, it is like the culmination of a ritual.”
Affleck agreed, saying a floating object placed at the edge of the reflection pool will be gently carried by fountain hydraulics to the sycamore tree planted in the center.
“The water can be described as the unknown space between the now and the hereafter,” Affleck said. “We cannot cross over it, but we can send a candle over it.”
The hope is construction can begin next spring, and the memorial will be ready to dedicate on Dec. 14, 2020 — the eighth anniversary of the Sandy Hook massacre.
The architects stress they cannot say what someone might feel while walking in that space, except that the memorial will have the ability to ground people.
“It locates you emotionally,” Affleck said. “By bringing people together in a circular nature, the physical form suggests a way to think about what happened.”