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Architecture Heals

By David Hill
October 22, 2012
Photo © Sasha Brück/Wikipedia
Columbine High School’s library was redesigned after the 1999 shootings.

What do you do with a building that's been the site of a mass shooting? Tear it down? Remodel it? Turn it into a memorial for the victims? How do you make a decision?

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Nearly three months after the horrific shooting at an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater, which left 12 people dead and dozens injured, the theater remained closed. A chain-link fence covered with green privacy fabric surrounded the Century 16 theater, located next to a shopping mall. In August the theater owner, Texas-based Cinemark Theatres, asked the city of Aurora to conduct an online survey asking the community what should be done with the multiplex.

“We had well over 6,000 responses,” says Aurora communications director Kim Stuart, “and the majority, over 70 percent, supported reopening the theater.” In September, Aurora Mayor Steve Hogan forwarded the survey results to Cinemark’s president and CEO, Tim Warner, urging him to refurbish and reopen the theater with a “possible facade modification.” Hogan also asked that survivors and victims’ families be able to visit the theater.

In reply, Warner promised to “reconfigure the space and make it better than ever,” and he said he hoped the theater would be ready “by the beginning of the New Year.” What happens next is unclear. Stuart says, “The design and planning will be Cinemark’s.” A Cinemark spokeswoman said the company had no comment.

While at least one shooting survivor has called for the movie theater to be demolished, others have countered that the actions of one person—accused shooter James Holmes—should not have the power to close a popular community-gathering space. If architect J.D. Nelson has one piece of advice for Cinemark officials, it’s this: Don’t do anything without getting input from the survivors and victims’ families. “Allow them to work through their anger by being involved in the redesign,” he says. "It’s part of the healing process."

In 2000, Nelson, now in private practice, was working for the Denver architecture firm Davis Partnership when he was asked to take the lead in redesigning the library at Columbine High School, where the previous year two teens murdered 12 students and one teacher before shooting themselves. Ten of the victims were killed in the second-floor library, which was sealed off after the massacre.

Initially, Nelson says, school officials asked Davis to reconfigure the library to “make it look very different from the original library space.” But as they began working on the project, a coalition made up of families of victims and survivors convinced the district to tear down the library. The group, Healing of People Everywhere, or HOPE, raised $3.1 million to build a new library and convert the old one into a two-story atrium by tearing out the concrete floor.

“The parents felt very strongly that the actual space where their children had died had to go away,” Nelson recalls. “They wanted to completely erase the memory of the library. It was something I struggled to understand at the time. Why would the library space have to go away? But as we worked through the design process, I realized that the parents were dealing with their anger and their grief. Architecture became a kind of therapy.” The atrium, complete with a ceiling mural showing an “ant’s eye” view of aspen and evergreen trees, opened in August 2000.

Is a similar redesign possible at the Century 16 multiplex? Some have urged Cinemark to convert Theater 9, where the shooting took place, into a memorial to the victims. At the very least, Cinemark, with its promise to “reconfigure the space,” seems to grasp the power of design in moving beyond a tragedy.

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