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Counter-Memory of Mass Burials, Hart Island

Columbia University, GSAPP Spring Studio’23;

Instructor: Karla Rothstein;

Team: Lucas Periera


Unique to the general practices of death adopted in New York City, Hart Island has embodied distinctive cycles of grief & decomposition and life & death, both spiritually and materially. Since the 1800s, Hart Island has undertaken the responsibility of naturally burying the unclaimed bodies of the city thereby allowing them to have a unique cycle of reconciliation. 


A similar concept is represented through the agnostic symbol of Ouroboros - which symbolizes an eternal cycle of life and death, destruction and recreation, grief and acceptance. Through natural processes and mass burials , Hart Island offers opportunities for burial to be part of a cycle of collectivity with integration of all living systems. It is a site where the tradition of permanence holds less sway. 


With the change in jurisdiction from the NYC Department of Corrections to the Parks Department, we are transforming Hart Island into a safe haven, where New York City residents and visitors can experience loss, remembrance, and healing through spiritual and physical connections with both landscape and architecture. In addition to engaging with burials, Hart Island is vulnerable to sea-level rise. So, our project reimagines the practice of burials on Hart Island, both ecologically and spiritually. Referencing the ancient technique of burial mounds, we are restructuring/ elevating the exercise of mass burials on the island while prolonging the time that the island takes to reconcile back into the water. Through a spatial performance between delicate space frames and earth, these mounds continuously morph to respond to the change in time/burials, variations of grief, human/non-human loss, and temporality of models of marking life & death of that loss.  And thus, we want to reinterpret Hart island’s new identity as a public sanctuary.

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