A Memorial Writ in the Landscape
Reprinted from the “Time” issue of Landscapes | Paysage issue on “time”, vol 20, no 1
Landscape/Paysages Journal is a bilingual Quarterly publication of the Canadian Society of Landscape Architects. Landscapes/Paysages is the professional journal of landscape architecture in Canada. It presents a Canadian perspective on professional practice and provides a forum to discuss and debate matters related to design, culture and environment, as reflected in our landscapes.
ON DECEMBER 6, 2017, Halifax marked the centenary of the Halifax Explosion, with the opening of Fort Needham grounds as a Memorial Park. At 9:04 a.m., hundreds gathered for a minute of silence; ships’ horns sounded; a cannon blasted from Citadel Hill. And around the assembled crowd, even in the drenching rain, the memorial landscape told its story, evoking intimate images of the disaster so long ago.
“WHEN BRITAIN IS AT WAR, Canada is at war. There is no distinction,” stated Sir Wilfrid Laurier in 1910. But the First World War, when it came, churned on, and neither Laurier nor Prime Minister Borden could have predicted the profound consequences at home, or on December 6, 2017, in Halifax.
During the war, military and merchant ships mustered in Halifax’s Bedford Basin, many destined to make the dangerous Atlantic crossing to the European theatres of war. On that tragic December day, two ships in the Narrows collided: the Norwegian SS Imo, a merchant vessel headed to the U.S. to load supplies for Belgian relief, struck the French SS Mont- Blanc laden with the raw goods for the production of explosives bound for Europe. The collision generated the largest non-nuclear explosion of the twentieth-century. In the blink of an eye, the community of Richmond was wiped from the face of the city. One in twenty-five succumbed to the disaster; one in five suffered injury, many with lifelong afflictions, and one in ten were left homeless.
Today, no human witnesses to the tragedy remain. But the Memorial Park on Fort Needham Hill, with its vantage point overlooking ground zero of the explosion, will forever be tied to that devastating event.
Atlantic Planning Institute: Award of Planning Excellence, Physical Plans & Design
Applied Arts Magazine: Community Award
Halifax Urban Design Awards: Award for Excellence in Civic Design
BOCSIes: Premier Award, Unique Signs
Fort Needham gets its name from the fortification that once occupied the area at the top of the hill where the Memorial Bell Tower is now located. It was built in 1778 by military engineer William Spry for the purpose of protecting the naval dockyard and the narrows leading into Bedford Basin.
Halifax historian, Harry Piers described the fort as being comprised of an earthen redoubt of a pentagonal shape approximately 75 by 100 feet housing 50 soldiers in two barracks and mounting four guns. The fort was rebuilt in 1807 before the War of 1812 but was abandoned in 1820.
Year the original Fort Needham was completed
Year the Fort Needham Memorial was completed
The Stories the Hill Could Tell
When our teams began to prepare the hill for the centenary, we launched a joint process in awakening memory. Ekistics Planning & Design had shaped the site’s Master Plan with two clear goals: to significantly enhance Fort Needham’s power as a memorial for the city, the province and the nation, but also to meet the needs of the community for an improved local park. As the design took shape, we asked a single recurring question. Could we let the hill tell the story? We believed we could. This was the shared vision of our two teams—the Ekistics landscape architects and the experiential graphic designers of Form:Media—and the basis of our interdisciplinary approach.
Norwegian researcher Alexander Refsum Jensenius suggests an interdisciplinary approach to design differs from the collaboration of multiple disciplines working together to achieve a single goal. Interdisciplinary suggests a synthesis of approaches where knowledge, methods and process are integrated. The landscape architects of Ekistics Planning & Design looked to integrate thematic content into landforms, while the experiential graphic designers of Form:Media considered swales and retaining walls as much as they did words of interpretation.
Materiality and Form
Through materiality and form, our two teams worked as one. The design features two corten steel retaining walls, each the length of the two ships, the SS Imo (320 ft.) and the SS Mont-Blanc (430 ft.) which are pierced with the ship’s specifications: length, width, and place of origin. Simple wooden benches along the length of the “Mont-Blanc” wall indicate the content on board. Further inspection reveals the weight, volume and cost of these dangerous goods. Another steel wall depicts in morse code Vince Coleman’s last telegraph warning an inbound passenger train of the impending disaster.
On the new Richmond staircase, which leads up the hill to the Memorial Bell Tower built some three decades ago, ballustrades are placed like shards of warped steel as if rained down upon the earth, each punctured with the name of a school, church, or
business lost. Here, interpretation does not consist of verbose, didactic panels of lengthy prose. On one memorial wall of text, the upper half is perforated and light, while the lower half uses rivets of steel to complete the text as if below a waterline, an anamorphic experience. The narrative is further evoked through lighting on the monument.
Interpretation is not education. Visitors will come seeking diverse experiences, and perhaps—while walking a dog or checking out the playground—discover provocative details that pique their historical curiosity. Discovery can be as effective as a history book, perhaps more so.
The Fort Needham Memorial Park invites visitors to freely contemplate the 1917 explosion their own way. The experience, for many, will grow deeper with time. The power of that annual moment of silence lies in the landscape.