In a closely watched competition to envision an AIDS Memorial at Triangle Park in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, Brooklyn’s studio a+i took first place for their design, Infinite Forest, beating out more than 475 entries. The memorial is intended to replace a depressing garden and garage directly across the street from the former St. Vincent’s Hospital, where thousands of AIDS patients were cared for throughout the height of the epidemic in the 1980s. But while the competition captured the imagination of architects across the city, many Village residents feel the competition ignored their concerns.
The winners were announced just one week after City Planning approved plans for a community park on the 1,600-square-foot site to be built by Rudin Management and designed by M. Paul Friedberg and Partners. Triangle Park fulfills the developer’s open-space requirements in connection with their $800 million multiuse complex across Seventh Avenue on the site of the old hospital. But while the M. Paul Friedberg design included a memorial component, it was not a memorial. When approving the Rudin plan, Commissioner Amanda Burden of City Planning said she was “confident” the developer would find a way to integrate an AIDS memorial into the Triangle Park plan.
While the ULURP was getting underway, media-savvy Queer History Alliance (QHA) joined forces with Architizer.com and Architectural Record to sponsor a competition that would scrap the M. Paul Friedberg design in favor of a site-specific AIDS memorial. The group assembled a star-studded jury that included Whoopi Goldberg alongside architect Michael Arad, to name but two. The competition was announced at a community board meeting last fall but community members complain that they were not involved with the competition that ultimately attracted a huge response from firms near and far, including three runners-up from Singapore, Ohio, and Manhattan.
The five-person team from the Brooklyn firm studio a+i envisioned three walls that would bind the park with mirrors on the interior and slate on the exterior. The mirrors would reflect a grove of white birch trees. Park entrances are slotted into the three corners of the triangle. The space between the mirror and slate walls acts as both light wells and entrances for a museum intended to go beneath the park. There are no markers with names or dates for the 100,000-plus New Yorkers who died of AIDS; instead, visitors are encouraged to write on the slate walls with chalk, “creating an ever-changing mural which is refreshed with every rain,” according to the architect’s submission text.
Studio a+i’s design includes the site’s full 16,000-square-foot footprint as well as a below-grade basement space that has not been officially part of the park. The M. Paul Freidberg plan used 15,000 square feet, leaving 1,000 square feet for the use of the North Shore-Long Island Jewish (LIJ) Medical Center—which the community hoped would become a much smaller memorial. Rudin Management has not yet agreed to cede the 1,000 square feet or the below-grade space. After the vote, Rudin chief executive William Rudin said that original M. Paul Friedberg design incorporated “place holders” for a “commemorative element” and that the company would continue to work with the community. He would not comment on the below-grade space.
Christopher Tepper, a co-founder of QHA, said that the use of the below-grade space was included in the impact study, but that the M. Paul Friedberg plan approved by the commission only used the space for tree roots, and its use as a museum or learning center wasn’t studied. In a statement after the competition winner was announced, Rudin noted that their design had already been approved by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, Community Board 2, the borough president’s office, and the City Planning Commission. It goes before the city council in March.
With the ULURP process complete, residents were miffed by the walled-off design, particularly after months at the community board were spent debating the entrances, number of trees, water fountains, and a short stair needed on the south side of the park. Early on, a representative from QHA reached out to Marilyn Dorato of the Greenwich Village Block Association, but Durato found their assurances shallow. “They were basically deceiving us; the community really wants a park,” said Dorato.
Four out of the five architects from the studio a+i team came from Rafael Viñoly’s office. Co-founder Mateo Paiva said their experience there taught them about the give-and-take process. “I’m not sure what it’s going to become,” he said of the winning design. “What we were trying to do is to communicate a strong idea—and we only had one page. But for every project on a certain scale you have to deal with the community, and that’s what makes it interesting.”
An oft-repeated concern at community board meetings was that a memorial should commemorate the 160 years of St. Vincent’s care that include survivors from the Titanic, as well as patients from the flu pandemic of the 1920s, the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, and the AIDS crisis. But most Villagers are reticent about attacking the plan out of concern for offending their neighbors while under the scrutiny of the media. “I’ve never seen a press push like this. It’s created a bit of antipathy,” said Dorato. “There’s a sense that they’re a group that should be sensitive to bullying, and now they’re doing it.”