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Paul Gunther

Paul Gunther

Posted: August 24, 2010 02:18 PM

Twenty-five years ago tomorrow, John Lennon's widow, Yoko Ono, joined with Mayor Ed Koch, Parks Commissioner Stern, and an array of musicians to inaugurate Strawberry Fields as a permanent public memorial. The date marked what would have been Lennon's 45th birthday and fell nearly five years after his murder on December 22, 1980. The selected site was a 2.5 acre parcel at 72nd Street and Central Park West, across from Lennon and Ono's home in the Dakota, the apartment building where his murder occurred following a night out in the city they had come to love and exuberantly enliven during one of the darkest stretches in its history.

The proposal for Strawberry Fields coincided auspiciously with the efforts of the still nascent Central Park Conservancy to restore and manage all of its 843 acres. The landscape architect Bruce Kelly won the commission (he died of AIDS just eight years later in 1993) and began working with Ms. Ono as the various bureaucratic approvals fell into place.

The memorial thus took shape from the outset as part of an overall civic enterprise characterized by hopeful rebirth, access, and harmony with the environment. It was an example of green design decades before the term came into use.

As a designated "quiet zone" within the Park's new restorative master plan, Kelly's design incorporated plants from 161 contributing countries in a landscape of glacial schist with contextual deference to Olmsted and Vaux's original design, which had long been eviscerated by muddy neglect. It was conceived for enjoyment of nature with the exception of a small classical mosaic donated by the City of Naples inscribed only with the lyric: Imagine. The forum defined by this mosaic with its circumference of benches and an ever-shifting garden is all that specifically recalls its beloved honoree. As a result, there was never a fixed narrative.

The ultimate success of such public place-making is the fact that its form and function have taken precedence over its precise memorialized subject. As a paradoxical result, Lennon's memory survives and thrives, including evermore in the hearts and imaginations of those born long after his death. Strawberry Fields was a new kind of memorial, one that changes and evolves over time without ever forfeiting its focus on the man himself.

Of course Lennon's music is the greatest memorial of all, but Strawberry Fields plays an important part in his legacy as a place for recollection as well as historic discovery. Its success is demonstrated by its diverse daily use and its reliable popularity as a locus for all manner of celebration and tribute. Lennon's legacy is not constrained by his personal circumstances in either life or death. Instead, he reaps the organic embrace sowed by his example and his survivors' broad good will. A case is point were the candlelit vigils and spontaneous tributes that appeared there in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and which have recurred every anniversary since. The forum works: Imagine a world free of terror; you are not the only one.

It is worth bearing in mind the Strawberry Fields example as New York and the world count down a year from now to the inauguration of the long-awaited World Trade Center Memorial by architect Michael Arad and its formal surrounding Memorial Plaza, defining together a large swath of the benighted Ground Zero (actually within the footprint of the attack) for as far into the future as anyone can foresee. As our memory of 9/11 fades, will its static, event-specific narrative attract and inform future generations? Will it become like America's ubiquitous Civil War monuments, mute landmarks hidden in plain sight and ignored except by a few voluntary stewards? The risk is that the memory of those who perished will not outlast the lives of those who knew them or those who lived through that infamous day and felt its shattering impact face on--that the Memorial's large scale and fixed formality of insistent, mournful specificity might inadvertently arrest future reflection sooner than is required or until some other global tragedy displaces it. At its quarter century mark in 2036, will it still have an audience beyond descendant survivors and first-time tourists? The heated debate regarding the meaning and scope of "Ground Zero," spawned as it has been by the proposed Cordoba House, raises the stakes of enduring impact further still.

We should all hope in any case that future audiences are engaged as a seminal history lesson and the restoration of civic order both call for it. Time will tell. Meanwhile, each year in Strawberry Fields, well over one million New Yorkers and their worldwide visitors continue revealing how successful memorial design can transcend the precise formulative subject with a destination of mutable meaning that in turn sustains the founding impulse. Its existence is one reason why we will celebrate Lennon's 70th birthday on October 9, as the first traces of autumn will show their colors.