Tótem de Unidad: Hurricane Maria Memorial

Jaime Suarez
Sandra A. Garcia-Betancourt
Jon Dreyfous
Victoria Rospond
Sophie Jonson
David Jimenez
Rami Hammour
Zoe Carrington
Kathryn Roberts
Scott Hughes
New York, NY
SARA | NY Design Award of Merit (2020)

On the first anniversary of Hurricane Maria, which struck Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo established the Hurricane Maria Memorial Commission to solicit designs for a memorial honoring the victims and to stand as an international symbol of the resilience of the Puerto Rican community. CDR’s entry was inspired by an existing public art piece located in San Juan: Tótem Telúrico, constructed in 1992 by Puerto Rican artist/architect Jaime Suárez, the exterior of which is made from earth and clay of the Americas in remembrance of history lost. TÓTEM de UNIDAD was a collaboration between architects, artists and a poet to create a place for quiet reflection and to celebrate life. Shadow extends its reach, while light falls within. Born from heavy materiality, it aspires to openness and the world beyond.

One of the unforeseen results of Hurricane Maria has been a sense of unity created among disparate groups of Puerto Ricans: survivors, victims’ families, individuals living in New York and across the world. Tótem de Unidad’s design is a tribute to that “oneness.” Crafted with Puerto Rican clay tiles, Tótem de Unidad is essentially born from the native soil. It also acts as a hinge connecting the two islands: A lattice arm reaches toward Puerto Rico; the shadow cast by the tótem extends back to NYC each sunset.

Tótem de Unidad is meant to be experienced from within. The lattice extending from the base embraces the “sanctuary” of the structure and guides visitors inside. A curved sleeve anchors the tótem to the site and serves as a tablet for inscription. The terra cotta exterior becomes more open as the tótem ascends, allowing natural light to emanate through gaps between the panels and draw a visitor’s eye upward — conceptually uplifting one’s spirit. A bench at the end of the lattice provides a place to pause or leave flowers.

Tótem de Unidad is a place of gathering — a public space for the vibrant events that are part of traditional Puerto Rican culture. The lattice separates the dual functions of the memorial — buffering visitors from other activities or passersby. At the same time, the openness of the structure allows sounds of life to filter through and welcomes one back to the other side.

• The reinforced-concrete sleeve lends structural strength to the tótem at its base.
• Steel rings and rods create a matrix from which the terra cotta is threaded and fastened.

• Terra cotta is a natural, maintenance-free material able to withstand extreme temperatures, as well as resist weathering and corrosion.
• Spacing between the terra cotta panels allows for thermal expansion and contraction.
• Optional low-voltage LED lights embedded between the panels would be solar powered. At night, they appear as a spiraling constellation of lights from within the tótem only and would not contribute to light pollution.