How an architect and an artist designed a memorial to mark a civic catastrophe.
On June 5, 2013, a three-story wall looming over a neighboring Salvation Army thrift shop in downtown Philadelphia collapsed, obliterating the charity’s building and killing six people inside. The crash, which injured 13 additional victims—including a woman forced to undergo a “guillotine amputation” below her hips after her lower body was crushed by the rubble—marked a profound civic failure.
It was the consequence of a hasty demolition job rife with negligence and “a reckless indifference to the interest of others,” in the words of a subsequent jury verdict against multiple parties. Real estate speculator Richard Basciano was found liable, along with his architect and several contractors, of cutting corners when demolishing the building adjacent to the Salvation Army, which was itself heavily sanctioned for ignoring warnings of danger. Compounding the tragedy, the lead inspector responsible for monitoring the site on behalf of the city’s Department of Licensing & Inspections took his own life after the accident, claiming in a video message that he was also to blame.
For many Philadelphians, the accident doubled as an indictment of a culture of recklessness that had long plagued the city’s approach to development, in which some private-sector actors often seemed to stretch the limits amid inadequate government oversight. In the aftermath, then-city treasurer Nancy Winkler G’69, whose 24-year-old daughter lost her life while donating clothes when the wall collapsed, spearheaded a charge to convert the site into a memorial. The product, a pro bono collaboration led by architect and PennDesign lecturer Scott Aker GFA’14 and artist Barbara Fox CW’64, was unveiled in June.
“The June 5 Memorial Park,” states text inscribed in a granite wall, “challenges the residents and leaders of Philadelphia to remember what happened here and to always value human life above development.”
Aker and Fox spoke with Gazette senior editor Trey Popp about the project.
We have a tendency to memorialize heroic successes, but to many people this symbolized a civic failure. How did you see it, and how did that influence your approach to the design?
FOX: I actually thought of it as a sort of terrorism, in a way, because of the threatening series of letters between the Salvation Army and the developer, which were later published in the newspaper. The fact that there was no barrier put up to protect people when they knew there was a demolition coming, it almost seemed like it was meant to happen, not just negligence.
AKER: The design was a collaborative effort. Barb’s the artist, I was the architect, and we led a team of engineers and urban designers—and also worked with the families of the victims—to really think hard about what to do. And Gordon Bermant [a lecturer in Penn’s psychology department] brought me into the project. I had been doing interdisciplinary research with him on the intersection between architecture, trauma, and memory, and how architecture can heal communities.
What kind of space did you want to create?
AKER: We wanted to create two rooms: the sacred area, and then an area for public gathering which could be programmed for advocacy.
FOX: The six people who died were here for different reasons. They were different ages, and they came from different countries, different races, different nationalities. But they all ended up, unfortunately, in this locale. So I wanted to bring them together, in a way. I thought of this sort of house-like shape, which slightly resembles the Greek architecture that you see in Philadelphia, like the Philadelphia Museum of Art, but flattened at the top, like an old ruin. And then I wanted there to be something very private about it. So that’s why we chose colored windows, to let the victims’ families choose something personal to remember their loved one.
AKER: Every color has a story behind it. You could talk to Nancy Winkler and why she picked that yellow-green color, because it related to a poem by Robert Frost that she would read to her daughter. And Barb had this idea of witnessing and leaving a transparency. So you see a color that represents a family, and you see the city beyond that memory.
What guided your design of the public gathering space?
AKER: It is defined by a granite wall inscribed with text that tells the story of what happened. Since another building’s going to be built next door, having a wall allows you to control the destiny of what the atmosphere of the space is going to be like, how it works with Barb’s sculptural piece. There is also a perforated bronze screen, which glows at night, in lighting that also reveals a concrete wall behind it. So that’s another layer of meaning, referencing the wall that tragically collapsed. But this is a strong wall, revealed at night so that you can see the concrete, the formwork holes, the imperfections, but the strength at the same time.
What do you hope the memorial will ultimately accomplish?
AKER: There’s a question about whether we should we start memorializing everything. And my answer to that would be yes. Because as soon as you make a space that’s permanent, people won’t forget. [ Philadelphia Inquirer architecture columnist] Inga Saffron wrote a wonderful piece about the other tragedies that have plagued Philadelphia—some people know about them, but the majority doesn’t. If you have an actual space, people will remember. So for the City of Philadelphia to donate this land to allow for a memorial here says a lot about what the city is looking to work through, and to change.