In June 2015, a white supremacist walked into the Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston and murdered nine people.
In the years since, a team has been working behind the scenes on a memorial to the missing. After soliciting not concepts from architects, but essays on forgiveness and design philosophy, a committee selected Michael Arad of Handel Architects—known for his work on the National September 11 Memorial in New York City—as designer. Plans for the site were released in July 2018.
“People come by every day and leave flowers and notes,” he told CNN. “There’s no place for them to go. We need someplace to say ‘We stand with you, we want to honor how the families and the congregation responded.’”
The design of the site encompasses a Memorial Courtyard, at the center of which is a marble fountain with the names of the Emanuel Nine engraved around the edge, with water flowing from a cross. The Survivors’ Garden, with stone benches and five trees, honors the five survivors of the attack, and a path from it leads to the Contemplation Basin, which contains an altar for thought and prayer.
Arad sought Pentagram’s pro bono counsel on the project’s graphic design—especially the lettering that would appear on the actual memorial. Michael Bierut and Jonny Sikov were hesitant to recommend Optima or another standard typeface used for such applications, and instead pursued a custom solution that would honor the church’s character and history. The pair traveled to Charleston to visit the church, and were inspired by the hand-painted inscriptions on the stained glass windows within.
Pentagram subsequently commissioned Morcos Key to create custom lettering for the project. As the team details, “The Morcos Key partners brought important perspectives: Jon Key as a Black designer who grew up in the American South, and the Lebanon-born Wael Morcos as an expert interpreter of calligraphy. The result is an expressive blackletter character set that complements the organic forms of the memorial and evokes the legacy of the Mother Emanuel Church.”
In March, Bank of America donated $250,000 to the Mother Emanuel Memorial Foundation board, and the project is still fundraising to meet its estimated $10 million cost. They’re hoping to have funding in place by the end of the year, which would put the effort on track for completion by the close of 2021.
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Images: Handel Architects / Morcos Key / Pentagram / Mother Emanuel Memorial Foundation