Oklahoma City National Memorial Museum
…is a place of terrorism transformed into a commemorative landscape that moves your heart and then your soul.
One of the things that come to mind about Oklahoma City is the bombing of the Alfred Murrah Federal Building on April 19, 1995. The Urban Design Center was in Oklahoma City for CNU30 (Congress for the New Urbanism)I didn’t have plans to visit Oklahoma until this conference was scheduled and I never thought that I’d visit this place — the location of the first terrorist attack in my memory. One of the things that comes to mind about Oklahoma City is the bombing of the Alfred Murrah Federal Building on April 19, 1995.
I knew I’d spend most of my time visiting urban, walkable neighborhoods and great places that represent the strong identity of the City — places that one would always visit at an urban design conference. But I made time for the memorial. I found the most incredible commemorative landscape nestled into a revitalized downtown. This place was larger than a memorial — it was a place that invited reflection about the events that happened there and larger issues in our society.
What a surprise it was. I expected a history lesson but what I received as I walked through the Gates of Time, along the reflection pool, through the symbolic chairs and under the Survivor Tree was deep introspection — unknowingly so needed at that moment.
It was also fascinating to study the urban design of the commemorative landscape and parts of the Murrah building left behind. The Murrah building was built in 1977, during a time of brutalist architecture and design. A large entry plaza that sits almost an entire story off the sidewalk remained after the bombing. It was fascinating to climb its stairs, explore its crevasses, and imagine where the entry doors to the building once stood. Of course, with no building adjacent to it, it was even more uncomfortable and threatening than it would have been when the Murrah building stood. It provided a different perspective and a unique way to interact with the commemorative landscape and site. I applaud Oklahoma City for leaving the plaza, even though it makes no sense as an independent structure in the urban environment that is there today. If it were in any other place, it would have been torn down just for the poor pedestrian conditions it creates.
Juxtaposed to the plaza, which feels like a cold, overbearing tombstone, is a light, airy, and inviting public space that undoubtedly welcomes Oklahomans like any City park would. It beckons you to enter off the street with sidewalks and terraces that lead down to a hole where the building’s foundations once stood. There are two large gates, “The Gates of Time,” that commemorate the time of the bombing but also bring the memorial to street level and create a gateway on what otherwise would be a sparse sidewalk. The foundation of the adjoining plaza, changes in topography, and a neighboring building that is now a museum create a comfortable and safe place full of beautiful trees and elements that invite you to reflect on events and life.
After this transformational experience, it occurred to me that Charlotte doesn’t have a public space that evokes the same emotional reflection as this place did. If it did, I would imagine myself visiting constantly-even if just to reflect after a stressful week. Of course, Charlotte has not suffered from the same tragedy that Oklahoma City has, but there are many things to reflect upon like any part of America.
A visit to the Oklahoma City National Museum makes me wonder: as urban designers, how can we not just create great, vibrant places for our everyday lives — but places that invite us to consider our humanity, justice, equality, pain, and healing — that which makes us human.