U.N. INTERNATIONAL DESIGN COMPETITION AWARDED TO NOTED ARCHITECT RODNEY LEON TO HONOR VICTIMS OF SLAVERY & TRANSATLANTIC SLAVE TRADE
Rodney Leon Architects announced its winning design of the International Competition for the Permanent Memorial at the United Nations as a significant symbol to remember and honor the victims of slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. The United Nations’ theme for the competition, “Acknowledge the Tragedy, Consider the Legacy, Lest We Forget,” formed the inspiration for Rodney Leon’s winning design entitled The Ark of Return. Leon’s winning design expresses the cross-cultural and global impact of the slave trade, while honoring those who have died and those who have shared their struggle.
The international competition garnered 310 entrants from 83 countries. A panel of internationally acclaimed design professionals, artists, and other relevant stakeholders served as jurors. Haitian-American Leon was unanimously chosen from among seven finalists representing countries including China, Columbia, Finland, France, Italy, Portugal and the United States. The competition was launched two years ago by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), with support from the UN Department of Public Information’s Remember Slavery Programme, and Member States from the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and the African Union. Jamaica serves as Chairman of the Permanent Memorial Committee.
A special Unveiling Ceremony was held at United Nations Headquarters in New York on September 23, 2013 to recognize the competition’s finalists and officially announce Leon’s winning design. Notable presenters and guests included: Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon; Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, Peter Launsky-Tieffenthal; Mr. John W. Ashe, President of the 68th session of the General Assembly; Portia Simpson Miller, Prime Minister of Jamaica; Arnold Nicholson, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Jamaica; Pierre Richard Casimir, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Religion of Haiti; UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova; and Mr. Courtenay Rattray, Chair, Permanent Memorial Committee.
Commenting on winning this groundbreaking competition, Leon noted, “It’s a privilege to have been chosen by the International Design Competition Panel of Judges to honor victims of slavery and the transatlantic slave trade. I designed The Ark of Return memorial as a sacred space to psychologically and spiritually transport visitors to the United Nations to a place where acknowledgement, education, reflection and healing can take place.”
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the memorial “will serve as a reminder of the bravery of those slaves, abolitionists and unsung heroes who managed to rise up against an oppressive system, fight for their freedom and end the practice.”
The memorial’s exterior form is constructed in a fashion to reflect the image of a vessel or ship in acknowledgement of the millions of African people transported on slave ships to different parts of the world during the “Middle Passage.” Images of maps depicting the “Triangular Slave Trade” influenced the use of the triangle as a primary element in designing the memorial’s shape. The memorial is conceptually also organized in three parts and visitors are meant to pass through The Ark of Return to intimately experience three primary elements on the interior space.
Native New Yorker Rodney Leon, the founder and principal of Manhattan-based Rodney Leon Architects PLLC, has an architectural background as a designer on a diversity of projects including memorials, housing, churches and cultural institutions in the U.S. and abroad. Leon received his Bachelor of Architecture degree from Pratt Institute School of Architecture and his Masters of Architecture from Yale University. As a graduate student, he served as a teaching assistant for the eminent African art historian professor Robert Farris Thompson and after graduation spent time living and working in the Ivory Coast, West Africa. Among Leon’s various honors and accolades, in 2005 he was awarded the prestigious commission for design and construction of the African Burial Ground Memorial in New York City, which is the only National Monument in the United States dedicated to the contributions of people of African descent.
As a first generation Haitian-American, Leon is also an active supporter of philanthropic causes benefitting Haiti. He is a founding Board Director of The Haitian Roundtable and serves as a lecturer, media expert and presenter on the subject of Haiti’s reconstruction since the January 2010 earthquake.