Yuan Ye’s earthquake memorial park helps Tangshan heal


 Yuan Ye’s earthquake memorial park helps Tangshan heal


 By Li Yanhui

   At 3:42 am on July 28, 1976, the city of Tangshan in the eastern part of Hebei Province was crushed in 23 seconds while people were still fast asleep. The earthquake, which measured magnitude 7.8 on the Richter scale, was the equivalent of 400 Hiroshima-type atomic bombs. It caused 242,769 deaths and 164,851 injuries and destroyed 80 percent of the city’s factories and 94 percent of its residential buildings.

    More than 30 years later, it’s some­thing that architect Yuan Ye thinks about all the time. “Every time I return to Tangshan, I remember how much I have been touched by people there mourning their dead relatives,” says Yuan, the designer of Tangshan Earth­quake Memorial Park. “Returning to the park, I often see people stop their bicycles by the walls [of the park] and stare at the countless names posted there.”

    Yuan, 33, is a nationally registered architect and current PhD student at Tsinghua University’s School of Archi­tecture. In October 2007, Yuan and his fellow architects Li Jiutai and Nan Xu won the bid to design the Tangshan Earthquake Memorial Park, com­memorating an event that has been listed as one of the 10 most destructive disasters in modern world history.

Social responsibilities

    Before the erection of the memorial wall, it was a common scene to see people burning paper on the streets as sacrificial offerings to the dead. There was no official place to mourn until Tangshan Nanhu Earthquake Science Popularization Memorial Park Company built a memo­rial wall in Nanhu Park in 2006. Even then, however, people had to pay 800 to 1,000 yuan ($151) to in­scribe names on the wall, a policy which attracted fierce criticism. Finally, in April 2007, Tangshan municipal au­thorities launched an international competition to design the Tangshan Earthquake Memorial Park.

    “Architects should take on some social responsibilities,” Yuan says, explaining his rationale for entering the contest, which eventually attracted 1,644 designers or groups from 54 countries and regions.

    Yuan’s concept for the 40-hectare park was to preserve as much as pos­sible the original ruins of the quake. The park was built on the remains of a destroyed locomotive plant, and a 700-meter-long railway track is still there, although the rails were severely twisted during the quake.

    Many memorial projects in China, such as the Monument to the People’s Heroes in Tiananmen Square, while commemorating war deaths, don’t feature names, so Yuan designed a 400-meter-long memorial wall to inlay the victims’ names. Visitors’ shadows are reflected on the black granite, so people moving along the wall create an effect of their shadows moving among the names.

“It’s like we are together with the victims,” Yuan says.

    The names were arranged one by one on the wall, no matter whether they were high-profile or ordinary people. “It’s the first and largest memorial wall around the world to commemorate ordinary people [as opposed to sol­diers or revolutionaries],” Yuan says.

Inspired by Maya Ying Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, Yuan believes that every­one deserves to be remembered equally. “Lin’s design is a labor of love for ordinary soldiers, not heroes. Her monument proved that all the or­dinary dead people’s names should be commemorated,” he says. In contrast with Lin’s memorial, which stretches along one side, like a screen, Yuan designed the high walls with two sides as more in accordance with Chinese aesthetics.

Ordinary people

    So far, Yuan’s architecture career has seen him designing residential compounds such as Dragon Bay House in Beijing and Beauty Leaf in Shanghai. “This is the first large project I’ve ever undertaken,” he says. “The lives of ordinary people are my primary interest. I’d rather put more energy into a single hutong than the entire plan for a city.”

    Indeed, the memorial park may end up a lifelong project for Yuan, as many names aren’t complete – some of them just marked as so-and-so’s neighbor’s son or daughter or somebody who lived on such-and-such street.

    “Though I’m originally from Liaon­ing Province, after all my interactions with the people of Tangshan, I feel I’m one of them,” he says. Indeed, Yuan has received many personal requests from people to add names that had been omitted. As of July 2008, more 23,882 people’s names were added to the memorial wall by the manager of the memorial park, with more than 4,000 names added on July 28 this year alone, according to Yu Chao, an administrator with the Tangshan Earthquake Bureau.

    “I feel pity for the survivors of the Wenchuan earthquake in Sichuan Province, as there is no place for them to memorialize the deaths at present,” says Yuan. He believes, however, that it takes time to cool the heated passions that a disaster like this can stir up, as people search for someone to blame.

“Designed for them”

    Yuan says he feels extremely lucky to have had this opportunity. “I felt lucky not because of my work, but for the ordinary people who got the chance to memorialize their dead rela­tives,” he says.

    Yuan does admit that his design changed a bit between his initial submission and what finally appeared, as a number of residents urged him to build the memorial wall with stone rather than glass. “The glass wall may have better expressed my original ideas, but the local people suggested that granite would be stronger and more significant,” he says. “I adopted their suggestions, as the project was designed for them.”

    Yuan says that, in general, he isn’t interested in commercial projects and now prefers to work for public welfare overall. At present, he is designing a memorial monument for organ donors in the Tangshan Earthquake Memorial Park. “It’s for free, but what I’m earning is more important than money,” he says.