Architects Propose an ‘Infinite Forest’ for AIDS Memorial in West Village


Yeah, we know Manhattan is a really, really crowded place. There’s not always a lot of room to build new stuff, but that challenge is not stopping a group of Brooklyn architects from proposing a forest in the West Village. And not just any ole’ forest — but an “infinitely” large one!

Open-space-park-loving New Yorkers rejoice! This morning, the AIDS Memorial Park Campaign announced the winners of its design competition to build a memorial to the AIDS epidemic on the former site of St. Vincent’s Hospital — which shut its doors nearly two years ago in the face of debt.

The redevelopment plan for that site, run by Rudin Management, is working its way through the public review process, last week getting the green light from the City Planning Commission.

The next and final stop is the City Council.

Meanwhile, a group of advocates has been pushing for the redevelopment project to include some kind of memorial to AIDS. Runnin’ Scared spoke last week with the founders of this project, who argued that the time has come for a memorial to AIDS in New York City, where more people have died from the disease than anywhere else in the country.

The memorial concept is not part of Rudin’s current mixed-use plan for the plot of land on Seventh Avenue between 11th and 12th streets. (The buildings, in the development plan, would contain approximately 450 residential units, around 10,000 square feet of ground-floor retail space, 20,000 square feet of medical offices, and 17,000 square feet of public open space on the triangular parcel of land located west of the East Side.)

But the AIDS Memorial campaign hopes to integrate this design into the plan for the triangular parcel of open space. (City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden has spoken out in favor of the concept, and Rudin seems interested in working with the AIDS activists.)

Anyway, enough about the politics and all — let’s get to this forest thang!

Runnin’ Scared chatted this morning with three of the architects behind the winning proposal, from Brooklyn-based Studio a+i. Their design was selected from 475 entries submitted from November to January that represent more than states in the U.S. and 32 countries.

The a+i design is fairly simple, involving a grove of trees with mirrored glass surfaces on the sides of the triangle to create a sense of infinity as the mirrors reflect off each other.

“We thought this was a very unique opportunity to create a new open space that would be a park as well as a memorial and would be used by the community as well as the people that are there to remember,” said Esteban Erlich, one of the architects.

“The idea behind this is to create a space that is a little bit separated from the busy Seventh Avenue, but at the same time, we wanted, with the mirrors, to create this illusion of an infinite space that would have some poetic component,” he added.

John Thurtle, another architect with the Brooklyn team, explained the meaning behind the mirrors: “One of the first things we struggled with is, how do you memorialize something like AIDS, which is an ongoing struggle for many people?” He said they did not want to have a plaque or list of names which might imply some kind of end to the issue, which is always changing. “We tried to go in a more ephemeral direction and create the opportunity [for people]…to bring their own personal relationship to the AIDS epidemic, and have it literally and figuratively reflected back on them.”

“We are trying to take advantage of the site to create a sort of boundless park space,” he added. (Mirrors make small apartments in the city seem bigger — same idea works with parks, folks!)

The location is perfect, Erlich said. “We think it’s a very unique location because of all the history around it. It’s an ideal place for this to happen in New York,” he said, adding, “I’m not familiar with any other project that is like this.”

“We really hope it will actually be built,” he said.

The AIDS Memorial group hopes to see the design completed by December 1, 2014, in time for World AIDS Day (pending City Council approval).