Can Trauma Be Healed With Design?

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Columbine High School principal Frank DeAngelis in the school's cafeteria
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When tragedy strikes someplace as sensitive as a school, what should be done with the building afterward? Destroy it? Make it a memorial to the victims? Or occupy it again, and wait for new generations of students to forget what took place?

A task force in Newtown, Connecticut, has been consulting with architects, design experts, and the community to figure out what to do with the Sandy Hook Elementary School building, and their decision will be announced this month. Studio 360’s Eric Molinsky explored how designers worked with Virginia Tech, Columbine High School, and the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado (site of last summer’s Batman shootings) to overcome the association with tragedies.

Some students at Virginia Tech said they would never set foot in Norris Hall again after the 2007 mass shooting. But tearing down the 70,000 square-foot-building — including offices, classrooms, and unique laboratories and equipment — was unfeasible. “You couldn’t take a 40- to 50-million dollar resource off line like that,” said Larry Hincker, a university spokesperson. The administrators reallocated the space so that classrooms would no longer be located there. Then architects thoroughly renovated the 1960s building. The exposed cinderblocks are now covered by warm details like curved wood, earth tone paints, and frosted glass.

Families in Littleton, Colorado, instead felt determined to reoccupy the building with kids and classrooms, remembers Principal Frank DeAngelis. “We didn’t want the two murderers to win, because they stated in their videos that they would haunt us the rest of their lives.” In the key alteration to the building, the floor of the library — the site of many of the killings — was completely removed, creating a two-story space above the cafeteria. Geometric sculptures representing the victims are suspended from the ceiling, surrounded by a painting of Aspen trees. “One of the parents, Dawn Anna, said ‘We were afraid that people would walk in there with their heads down and be really sad to be in here. But you can't help but look up.’”

DeAngelis has consulted with other schools where killings have taken place, including Sandy Hook. “When I met with the teachers ... I told them, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. I can assure you now as I’m standing here, there is hope. Here we are, approaching fourteen years, and Columbine’s doing alright.”


Slideshow: The New Columbine High School

Architect J.D. Nelson designed these awnings for the outside of Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. One of the memorable images of that day, April 20, 1999, was of a student escaping out the library window, so it became a priority to alter the exterior of the building.

( Eric Molinsky )

Student Rachel Scott was killed outside of the school, but that area is now a hallway leading into the new library designed by Nelson. This design — inspired by a drawing in Scott's journal — was embedded in the floor on the spot where she died.

( Eric Molinsky )

When you look up at the cafeteria ceiling you see a painting of Aspen trees by North Carolina artist Virginia Wright-Frierson. Before the school was remodeled, the school library, where many students died, was located above the cafeteria.

( Eric Molinsky )

Columbine principal Frank DeAngelis in the cafeteria. He originated the chant, "We Are Columbine," when he was a football coach. It became a new kind of rallying cry after the shooting.

( Eric Molinsky )

A memorial honoring the 13 that died was built in a park near the school.

( Eric Molinsky )