After receiving more than 180 submissions from the international design community, the Sandy Hook Permanent Memorial Commission unanimously selected The Clearing by Ben Waldo (B.D.A. ‘12) and Daniel Affleck of SWA Group as the design for the Sandy Hook Permanent Memorial, which will honor the 26 victims of the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
In this interview, Waldo and Affleck discuss their design submission and the process that went into designing this memorial.
Where did you get the inspiration for the design?
Affleck: One of the first inspirations was the site itself. The Sandy Hook Permanent Memorial Commission looked at 17 different sites over four years and they picked this one so we knew it was important. It’s a five-acre, highly wooded area with two distinct ponds and challenging topography, which was the first thing we had to tackle in terms of understanding the site.
Waldo: We also looked at the history of memorials. I would say that 20th-century memorials tend to be very static. They are an object, it might be a statue of an event or a person in a park with perhaps a bench, but ultimately the memorial is an object. The more recent memorials tend to be interactive, like Princess Diane’s or the Heisman Holocaust Memorial. That interactive quality is what we wanted to incorporate into this memorial.
How did you approach the design for this memorial?
Waldo: We felt that one of the differences between this tragedy and others was that it was very intimate. We think that the community and the families have really demonstrated some admirable vulnerability in inviting the international design community to design for their loved ones. This is a community that, for reasons that they can’t control and that are incredibly painful, has been in the media spotlight for almost six years. We wanted to be really sensitive in how we approached the design of this project. We started by trying to put ourselves in the shoes of someone grieving. We looked at the psychological process and that’s what led us to the idea that it’s open-ended and it’s a process that never really ends.
Affleck: Some memorials, especially older ones, are almost heroic or provide a specific narrative that tells you how to feel. We like the idea that healing is different for everybody, so we looked at the memorial as a question rather than an answer or as a process rather than an object and that brought us to the idea of a path. We think of that as a powerful metaphor because a path doesn’t have an end.
Waldo: We really tried to stick to facilitating that process of memory, grieving, and healing in ways that felt universal and not interpretative. We didn’t want to say “this is what it looks like.” You walk that path and feel whatever you need to feel.
Affleck: We kind of knew what we wanted to avoid: too much darkness. There’s obviously a lot of darkness associated with this memorial, but we wanted the focus to be on honoring the lives of the victims.
Why did you decide to use concentric circles and what is the significance of using an American sycamore as the focal point for the memorial?
Affleck: We wanted to use very elemental forms. The circle is something that symbolizes coming together, connectedness between all things, and wholeness. It’s a universal symbol across all cultures.
Waldo: We also thought it would be powerful to see a young tree surrounded by strong, older trees and especially to see the young tree grow. We selected the sycamore itself because we wanted something that was seasonal, durable, long-lived, and native. Dan also pointed out after we had already chosen it that the American sycamore is actually the state tree of Connecticut.
What did you want your final design to communicate to the Newtown community and to the nation?
Affleck: We wanted it to honor the memories of the victims and to create an open-ended experience rather than something that is preaching or didactic or advocates for one feeling over another. We also wanted to provide a place for people to gather as a community. We aren’t trying to make a memorial for all tragedies or all shootings, this is just for them.
Waldo: We also want people to feel like this is a place with a singular purpose. One of the other sites that was a top contender was an open lawn in the middle of Newtown government buildings. It feels a bit like a campus and there was activity happening everywhere. It didn’t feel like the kind of place where you would be able to go and feel everything you might need to feel while processing this tragedy. We admire the choice that the committee made because it feels like a place you can go and know that you are there for a reason.
Why do you think the board selected your design?
Affleck: I think it was because it was simple and it was a singular thing. You see it and you get it right away, there’s something universal about the form and we tried to simplify it down to basic elements: the path, the circles, and the tree. I think the other thing was that it was intentionally sensitive to the context of Newtown and it felt like it was from there. It didn’t feel like an outsider’s design coming in and overlaying a different sensibility.
Waldo: It helped that Dan grew up not terribly far away from Newtown. When we played with forms and ideas Dan certainly had a good sense for what felt natural to that part of the country. One of the commission members actually said that our design “feels like Newtown,” when they presented their recommendation to the town council. That made us feel really proud and we liked that it resonated in that way.
How can designers help families and communities heal and come to terms with tragedies like this? What role do you see designers playing?
Affleck: I think designers can give a forum to complex emotions and ideas. Humans need to have those spaces and designers can provide a space for experiencing things. We can create places where people can have a physical engagement with an emotion or idea as opposed to an abstract one.
Photos courtesy of Ben Waldo, Dan Affleck, and SWA Group.
In March of 2023, Ben Waldo gave a lecture about the design and development of the Sandy Hook Memorial project.