“Bhopal disaster unlike Minamata, Hiroshima or the Thalidomide scandal has no place in the iconography of industrial disasters. It lacks an identifiable symbol that feeds both memory and resistance.”1

A memorial commemorating the Bhopal gas tragedy and its victims was a long-standing demand of the survivors. In 2005, 20 years after the tragedy, the State Government of Madhya Pradesh floated a national design competition for a memorial. Unlike in many other parts of the world, public projects in India tend to be usually awarded to government empanelled architects and primarily hinge on the financial bidding process. However, architecture commissions in many other countries, especially important memorials such as the much lauded Vietnam War Memorial by Maya Lin, Hiroshima War Memorial by Kenzo Tange, 9/11 Memorial Complex by Daniel Liebeskind etc. have traditionally been awarded through open competitions, between architects with diverse experience and background, that focus on design and encourage fresh ideas. The Bhopal Memorial Competition, therefore, was a departure from the norm. Moreover, the Environmental Planning and Coordination Organisation (EPCO, 2005), which co-ordinated the exercise, provided a remarkably open ended competition brief for the designers. In his analysis of the memorial design, Hans C Bjonness appreciates the open ended premise for the competition provided by EPCO, “which suggested that the memorial complex should first of all be for the victims of the gas tragedy. Secondly, ‘The central issue to the memorial complex, whether to retain the dark side of the event or to suggest recovery from the tragic event towards a new understanding and hope of human endeavours, is totally open to competitors in the presentation of their architectural intentions’ (italics as quoted).”2 The erstwhile Union Carbide Factory site in Bhopal, where the tragedy unfolded on the night of December 1984, was chosen as the memorial site, yet the design brief was non-committal on the role of the factory structures themselves in the proposed memorial, stating that “the participants can integrate them or replace them in any suitable form and function” (italics as quoted).3

The winning entry by SpaceMatters, selected by a jury of eminent Indian architects, exploited the possibilities provided by this brief with an understanding that the ‘dark side of the event’ had to be acknowledged in order to ‘move towards recovery’. Secondly, rather than having a new memorial take centre stage, the entry was unique in identifying the existing factory structures as a powerful icon of the tragedy – a painful yet integral part of the cultural heritage of Bhopal. The proposal stresses that the factory structures remain the truest, most evocative and lasting, physical reminders of the tragedy. This valuable heritage and legacy of the structures is preserved in the proposal as the heart of the memorial complex.

The design team strongly felt that the memorial had to acknowledge the past, contribute to the present and stay relevant in the future. Moreover, it needed to engage a broader audience in a deeper conversation. It must be highlighted here that the memorial complex site is around 77 acres of contaminated brownfield land located in one of the least developed parts of Bhopal, that has been the worst affected by the tragedy. Thus, while the term ‘memorial’ conjectures for many, something smaller in scale like a sculpture for instance, the proposal from the outset saw this project in its urban context. Physically, symbolically and functionally, the SpaceMatters proposal seeks to reconnect the site with the urban fabric of Bhopal and make a positive contribution to it. In the context of the tragedy, it seeks to communicate a meaningful and relevant narrative to its visitors by addressing the aspects of healing, remembrance and deterrence. The formulation of the program was a crucial step towards this goal; it would determine to a large extent, the sphere of influence and continued relevance of the memorial. The program elements which included livelihood generation, public spaces, museums, archives and research facilities would be instruments that engender their own evolution guided by time and process. The memorial design, while being the conclusion of one process is envisioned as a catalyst and evolving point for many more.

Nevatia Shreevatsa, reports in his interview with the architects for Hindustan Times (2005), “There is an obvious semantic connection between memorial and memory and this is why these architects believe that each aspect of the design has a dual responsibility to fulfil. They say it (the design) has to sustain and elicit the memory of the tragedy for the general populace. Twenty years since the tragedy and much longer in the future, the memorial has to stand against the human tendency to forget. Hence, the design has to include time, human activity, and community perceptions as tangible elements in planning stages itself so that the memorial continues to evolve even after it is built.”4

It was part of the pragmatic, inclusive and urban vision of the proposal that it embedded considerable degree of flexibility within a master plan with clearly articulated design principles. These principles include designing the memorial complex in a manner that acknowledges the tragedy, the survivor movement and also the visitor who has come to pay homage to the tragedy. The memorial also needed to contribute to a process of healing. A large part of the site is dedicated to provide social and physical infrastructure to the surrounding areas, which are in dire need of development and house many of the worst affected tragedy survivors. The programme for this is not prescriptive; it rather calls for a participatory planning approach involving survivors and the community to understand what functions are relevant in this area. The site can contribute to awareness and knowledge building; the proposal includes a research facility that can become a centre for research on sustainable development and disaster management. Finally, the site contributes to a sense of revival, of a city and its population triumphing against odds. Landscape is used as an important element in the design, to use the actual and symbolic power of nature to help revive a scarred landscape. Moreover, the landscape design integrates with the built structures to provide for landfill spaces that can be unobtrusively used to contain the tonnes of soil which, while not the most toxic danger on site, are still contaminated. Being too large a quantity to be transported or incinerated, it poses as a brown field challenge. Concrete landfills can be sealed and integrated into the master plan for the Union Carbide site by SpaceMatters.

Yet, as Liv Sevcenko of International Coalition of Sites of Conscience states “There is nothing inherent in a site that guarantees it will play the civic role we envision and nothing that precludes it from doing so.”5 Harnessing the latent potential of a site requires “the commitment of its stewards to play an active role in engaging its audiences in civic dialogue around contemporary issues.”6 The overwhelming context of the tragedy along the scarred and contaminated landscape of the factory site posed critical questions about commemoration and about the political act of building a memorial. The intent of the designers presupposes the supportive structure and stewardship that Sevcenko talks about. Addressing these is integral to the process of placing the memorial in the historic as well as contemporary discourse while creating an appropriate backdrop for the act of commemoration. James E. Young, in The Texture of Memory mentions that the ‘process’ of commemoration is intimately linked to the ‘product’ i.e the memorial, and is integral to the healing that the memorial contributes to.7

It is to this end that SpaceMatters has been working with stakeholders for the past seven years, starting from the survivors and the State Government of Madhya Pradesh, to a network that has today grown to include researchers, universities, other architectural firms, cultural heritage experts, conservation experts, museum designers, media people etc. This was not planned; it has evolved as the design team sought to understand and engage with this highly complex scenario. As architects we can articulate a vision but the practice of architecture is a humbling process with shared responsibilities; it requires the right people to bring the vision to life. In the case of the Bhopal memorial, this involves museum experts, industrial heritage experts along with decontamination agencies. Over and above that, it requires a committed vision from the State and engagement from the people of Bhopal – those directly affected by the tragedy and many more living with its toxic physical and cultural legacy. The site has the possibility to contribute towards reversing the decades long cycle of neglect and failure. After 27 years of the Tragedy, the question is how do we as a society emerge stronger from it? What do we take responsibility for? Healing the site is also an opportunity for reversing the blighted legacy of globalisation that the Gas Tragedy stands for. There is global know-how, experience, goodwill and empathy for Bhopal that can combine with local communities and knowledge to contribute towards positive change in our shared contexts. The people and institutions that have supported SpaceMatters’ initiative are a small testimony to the power of the site and its legacy to inspire action. It was in this light that Bhopal2011 was conceptualized in order to bring together different people, initiatives and expertise as an investment for the transformation of the site into a memorial and resource for Bhopal. The SpaceMatters design proposal for the memorial acted as an important starting point for the participants. The key design principles of the proposal are explained in detail in the following pages.

MEMORIAL WALK: Acknowledgement

The memorial walk is a linear progression. It operates at two levels – an open plaza at the ground level with the memorial walk and museum at the subterranean level. This ensures that the structure remains understated, offering an unobstructed view and foreground to the artefacts of the tragedy rather than taking centre stage itself. The memorial complex brings to focus the factory complex as the primary physical artefact of the tragedy along with grassroots expressions of activism like the Memorial Statue by Ruth Waterman, and contains documents and art work related to Bhopal.

Industrial icon: The factory complex, much like the Genbaku dome in the Hiroshima Memorial is an authentic and powerful physical artefact of the tragedy. Strategic views to the industrial heritage of the site from across it, provide an anchor and context for the visitors’ experience.

Icon for survivors: Ruth Waterman’s memorial sculpture evocatively captures the despair and trauma that Bhopal underwent and is also symbolic of the struggle for justice and spirit of the City. It retains its position at the periphery of the site, moved slightly to be placed diametrically opposite the plant structure.

The public plaza: Ruth Waterman’s sculpture along with the MIC and Sevin plants serve as the two anchors of the memorial complex axis, symbolic of cause and effect. The public plaza spans the distance between the two, placing the visitor in between this narrative. Linking the surrounding community areas and the site, this space for public engagement is a spatial homage to the legacy of the civil struggle of the survivors.

The walk and museum: The subterranean space balances both the need to provide information to the visitor and offer an emotive experience. The memorial walk is a progressive journey below ground where light plays an important role in the heightening the sensory experience of the visitor. The spaces progress from exhibits, interaction spaces to spaces meant for contemplation and homage. The journey culminates at ground zero below the plant structures, which have been hidden from view in the memorial-walk thus far. Commemoration: Art has the power to express the intangible. It is proposed that local indigenous artisans in collaboration with contemporary artists create a permanent art installation of life-size, life-like human figures numbering in thousands in and around the plant structures as homage to those who passed away in the 1984 tragedy. The process of creating the art installation provides another avenue for artists to engage with and contribute to Bhopal.


The urban intervention: Opening the site to the city, developing new vehicular and pedestrian linkages and establishing a visual contact with the surrounding area makes the memorial complex a part of the visual and physical cityscape. Boundaries have to be broken down to allow the site to be part of the city, while the city has to reconnect with the factory to be reminded of the tragedy.

Inclusive and integrated development: The surrounding areas would be the most affected by the developments on site. These areas are also the least developed in Bhopal and house some of the worst affected survivors. As key stakeholders to the land, the proposal has to be geared towards reaffirming their interests. The realignment of the road proposed in the design opens up the site to the settlement and makes a part of the southern side of the site physically merge with the adjacent settlement. The site can offer a public place for the neighbouring communities and space for other facilities such as a school cum youth centre, training halls, community hall and other such initiatives developed in partnership with the community that can contribute to the social and economic revitalization of the area.

RESEARCH FACILITIES: Awareness & redressal

Centre for Research and Development: One of the biggest environmental challenges facing the world today is reclamation of land from toxic dumps and industrial contamination. In the immediate backdrop of one of the world’s worst industrial disasters, the research centre would be devoted to balancing development with ecology. A multidisciplinary R&D centre would also contribute to the revitalization process by enabling artists, scholars of engineering, social sciences, economics, landscape, urban and environmental planning to develop a comprehensive, multi-level understanding of the challenges facing the city as it seeks to manage the aftermath of disaster and return abandoned industrial landscapes to productive use. The space would provide an opportunity to build the revenue base and rejuvenate the decaying infrastructure of the whole site through public-private partnerships.


Converting the open area into a landscaped park pitches the power of nature as a counterpoint against the existing industrial backdrop. Creating smaller sculptures of a more intimate scale, well designed parks and installations as points of interest will be instrumental in drawing a broader base of visitors to the site. Thus, the park can become a powerful tool for creating awareness, especially on issues of industry and ecology. Such a space would need to be committed towards involving the community, instilling a feeling of ownership and generating an ongoing sense of stewardship. It would be a destination for exploration and learning.

Education: Learning is integrated in the landscape though theme based paths that tell the story of the ‘Industry’ and ‘Ecology’– with a pronounced emphasis on decontamination. All the components of the landscape – the onsite labs, testing pits and wells, green houses and bioremediation plantation –come together as a dynamic public laboratory to the research facility which also constitute the recreational area.

Sustainability: An important aspect is the selection of the plant species for landscaping. The plantation scheme includes species used in phytoremediation8 which uses plants for cleaning contaminated site. Once the core contamination has been addressed, this process can help heal the land and also serve as a tool for education. Native species of plants can be used ingenuously as landscape elements, such as bamboo groves or sunflower fields, while signage can inform the visitors of their medicinal and cleaning qualities.

Landfill: The plaza and other structures integrate sealed concrete landfills that contain solid that cannot be transported or incinerated. Rather than hiding them away, they act as visual reminders, inaccessible yet visible, for the sheer enormity of pollution that was left behind for Bhopal to deal with.

The event: The landscape also provides the setting for the cultural revival of the area, especially marking the night of December 3 which brings together people from Bhopal and the world over to mark the grief, challenge and also to celebrate the spirit of the survivors and the city.


Phased development: The memorial for the Bhopal Gas tragedy holds universal significance. However, for the victims, the immediate surrounding settlement and for the city of Bhopal, the site has added relevance. A mixed land use strategy is critical for the regeneration of the site. The new alignment of the road deliberately restructures the site into zones which can be allocated different land uses. These zones can be developed and managed by different stakeholders. This offers opportunity for implementing an incremental development plan.

Participation: This process also provides the flexibility for a participatory planning that involves and provides incentives to the various stakeholders. If the final development reflects the aspirations of the affected parties, it will establish relevance and consequently, financial sustainability of the project in the long run.

The site has been closed to the public for more than 26 years. A flexible regeneration process could help the authorities in the execution of the soil and ground water remediation, restoration of the factory buildings, cultural enterprise and park development in parallel. Specific areas in the site could be let out on a short-term basis for cultural events that spread awareness. An ongoing cultural agenda and a constant flow of activities could raise interest in the space and help change the perception of the people regarding its latent potential.

“Memorials are a means by which societies unceasingly shape their pasts. They provide a focus for public commemoration of individual memories, guiding them into channels that serve changing public purposes. The channels are determined and re-determined through time in often conflicting negotiations between the authority who authorized, designed, and constructed a memorial, the groups who use it for purposes, and the memorial itself, including changes made to it or to its site.”9

To this one might just add, the memorials not just shape our past, but how we approach them also is also an investment into our future.

  • 1. Unknown Author (2005). Bhopal: A Report from the Future, unknown date or place of publication, authenticity unverified, Human Rights Project, Bard College, Annandaleon - Hudson, New York. http://bhopal.bard.edu/search/resources_view.php?id=312290 accessed 12th September 2007
  • 2. Bjonness, Hans Christie (2011). "Bhopal - to Blame or to Blossom? - Addressing the 'continuing disaster' and a 'site of conscience' to bridge the gap between the government and teh civil society". Paper presented in Our common dignity: Towards Rights-Based World Heritage Management, ICOMOS, Oslo, Norway
  • 3. Environmental Planning and Coordination Organisation (EPCO) (2005). Competition Brief by EPCO

    Government of Madhya Pradesh intends to develop a memorial complex for the victims of gas tragedy that occurred on 3 Dec.1984 at Union Carbide premises, Bhopal.

    The Complex in its entirety and content reminds the tragedy that occurred twenty years ago. The central issue to the memorial complex, whether to retain the dark side of the event or to suggest recovery from the tragic event towards a new understanding & hope of human endeavors, is totally open to competitors in the presentation of their architectural intentions.

    Focus of the campus, the Ground Zero (the processing unit structure as point of event of the gas tragedy) is eternal but the relics over it may or may not last long, can either be retained or removed as the design demands. The existing structures in the premises at present are either storage units or administrative blocks or control rooms of past functions. The participants can integrate them or replace them in any suitable form and function .The area shown for secured landfill site on the map can be integrated with the total area in the form of landscaping. Challenge of the competition is to sensitively evolve the concept so that due attention is paid to its significance.

    source: http://bhopalmemorial.blogspot.in/2005/11/competition-brief-by-epco-government.html

  • 4. Shreevastava, Nevatia (2005). "Memorial Walk. Twenty years after the tragedy, Bhopal gets a place for homage and contemplation". Hindustan Times, Bombay Edition, October 16
  • 5. Interview with Liz Sevcenko, Director, Secretariat of International Coalition of Historic Site Museums of Conscience (2006). World Movement for Democracy
  • 6. Ibid
  • 7. E. Young, James (1993). The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning. Yale University Press
  • 8. Phytoremediation is a general term used to describe various mechanisms by which living plants alter the chemical composition of the soil matrix in which they are growing. Essentially, it is the use of green plants to clean-up contaminated soils, sediments or water. Phyto-remedatiation is potential low energy, low maintananace and it has a 'natural' appeal to citizens. Several crops may need to be grown over successive seasons to fully clean up the site.
  • 9. Olin, Margaret Rose (1995). "Art of Memory: Holocaust Memorials in History". Modernism/modernity, vol.2, no. 3, pp. 189-190.