On Wednesday evening, a well-dressed crowd of celebrities, government officials and VIPs mingled over cocktails and canapés at the Barneys New York Chelsea store. The occasion: A celebration of the NYC AIDS Memorial Park at St. Vincent’s Triangle, located a few blocks away at the intersection of Greenwich Avenue and West 12th Street. Many know this as the location of the former St. Vincent’s Hospital, considered Ground Zero during the AIDS epidemic of the ’80s and ’90s. St. Vincent’s recorded one of the earliest known AIDS cases in 1981; the city would go on to lose more than 100,000 people to the disease between ’81 and ’96, considered to be the height of the epidemic.
Today, the buildings are being converted into luxury condos and AIDS deaths are in decline due to improved education and medical advances. But the pain in the hearts of those who lost a loved one—including some of the very best in NYC’s deep talent pool of designers, artists, musicians and dancers—lingers on.
That’s why in 2011, two urban planners, Christopher Tepper and Paul Kelterborn, petitioned the city to build a memorial in memory of those lost to the disease. “We wanted a place you could visit—not just a sculpture you pass by but something that felt like a room where you could reflect,” explains Tepper, who recalls touring the Vietnam Memorial with his mother as a teenager and witnessing her shed tears when she found the name of a deceased friend. “Memorials allow people to remember uncomfortable times in history and give us a gateway to share stories and experiences,” he says. “My hope is that this memorial helps us through the same healing process.”
After receiving initial approval from the city, a design contest was held. Of the nearly 500 global architectural firms to enter, the winning design belonged to Mateo Paiva, Esteban Erlich and Lily Lim of Studio Ai architects in Brooklyn. “We wanted a space that would allow people to sit and contemplate their individual loss and at the same time show our collective will to better our circumstances,” explains Paiva. “It also needed be a place not so severe and solemn that children could not run through and play, because ultimately, life goes on.”
Five years and multiple modifications later, the Memorial is opening this fall, and will be officially dedicated to the public on World AIDS Day, December 1. The 18-foot-high metal triangular structure provides shelter without obscuring the light from those who venture inside. In the center, a circular fountain surrounded by benches offers a peaceful spot for reflection. “The materials almost selected themselves once we considered longevity, color and construction methods,” says Paiva. “First and foremost, the open triangular structure and lattice needed to be noticeable without being loud. The dark granite paving and the white structure let the triangle rise, while the water feature is integrated to the ground.” Renowned artist Jenny Holzer inscribed phrases from Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself into the granite floor. Taken together, the Memorial’s strong, clean, minimal lines feel like an oasis amid the bustling West Village neighborhood.
In celebrating the city’s first-ever public space dedicated to AIDS remembrance, the party at Barneys brought things full circle for Creative Ambassador Simon Doonan. “Thirty years ago in 1986, Barneys created an enormous cultural moment when it held a first-of-its-kind benefit at the store for St. Vincent’s and AIDS research,” he remembers. “It had never been done before. Madonna was there. Iman was there. Andy Warhol participated. Barneys’ store was right in the middle of this crisis, and we did our best to respond. It made a huge impact.” Keith Fox, CEO of Phaidon Press and Chairman of the Board of Directors overseeing the memorial, echoed Doonan’s thoughts. “This was the epicenter of the AIDS epidemic. Today, in creating a memorial, it’s an opportunity for people to think about what happened.” In conjunction with the event, Phaidon Press is releasing a limited edition print by artist Kobi Benezri, Remember, Reflect, Renew.
The overwhelmingly positive response is icing on the cake for Tepper, whose main goal was simply to keep the memories alive. “I hope that the AIDS Memorial becomes a beautiful landmark that recognizes something important happened here, in this city, at this site,” says Tepper. “A war was fought here. It took lives, it had heroes, and it deserves to be remembered as an important piece of our history.”
A new limited edition artwork by artist Kobi Benezri, Remember, Reflect, Renew, is now available for purchase at http://www.artspace.com/kobi-benezri. Proceeds will benefit the NYC AIDS Memorial’s educational programs.