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Exclusive: Engineer Garber talks about the ABGNM

26 October 2007 at 22:20 | 1462 views

Melbourne Garber was born in England, of Sierra Leonean parentage. He spent his entire childhood in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Garber holds a B.Sc (Hons) and M.Sc from Leeds; and he’s a chartered engineer and a member of several professional institutions in England, the United States and Sierra Leone. He’s the chairman of an American Society of Civil Engineers sub-committee in the US, with 25 years work experience under his belt. He is an Associate with Robert Silman Associates in New York.

Vanguard Special Correspondent Roland Bankole Marke recently interviewed Melbourne, who was the structural engineer of the African Burial Ground National Monument in New York City. Excerpts:

Patriotic Vanguard: What is the African Burial Ground National Monument and how did you get involved with it?

Melbourne: The African Burial Ground National Monument is a memorial in New York City that commemorates the African Burial Ground district, where between 15,000 and 20,000 African men, women and children were buried during the 17th and 18th centuries. It is only the fourth such National Monument in New York City, and the only one that memorializes the struggles of Africans who were forcibly brought to America.

I became involved with this project when the design architect, Rodney Leon, a principal and co-founder of the architectural firm Aarris Architects solicited structural engineering services, from the firm Robert Silman Associates where I am an Associate.

PV: Where did you obtain your training and skills that qualify you to undertake this historic project?

M: I am a structural engineer who graduated from Leeds University with a B.Sc (Hons) in Civil Engineering and Mathematics and an M.Sc in Construction Engineering. I worked for world-renowned structural engineering firm Arup (famous for the design of the Sydney Opera House) for 18 years, 9 years in the UK and 9 years here in the US.

I have been working for the well-known New York firm Robert Silman Associates for 7 years. Robert Silman Associates is recognized in the industry for our work in Historic Preservation and for our social engineering projects. The firm was responsible for the restoration of Falling Water, which has been called the finest piece of American architecture, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright who is considered to be the most famous American architect. We are currently working on the Guggenheim Museum, also designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and have been involved in the design of over 10,000 projects since the firm was founded in 1966.

I have been involved in a myriad of projects both large and small from the new British Library in London, the $1.2bn Terminal 4 at JFK Airport to the Irish Hunger Memorial in Battery Park City in New York, and the Macy’s “Shopping Bag” sign at their flagship building at Broadway and 34th Street in New York. My extensive experience thus made me ideally suited to undertake this project.

PV: What is the cost of the project: who financed it, and what were the challenges and objectives of the project?

M: The actual construction cost for the Monument is around $5M and it was primarily funded by the Federal Government through its General Services Administration (GSA) and also by the National Parks Services (NPS), who have been entrusted with the care of it.

A major challenge for the project was actually the construction of the monument itself, as there was quite a bit of public opposition to any construction on the site, because it was considered hallowed ground. And people felt we would disturb or uncover some of the remains as had been done in 1991: when excavation for the building adjacent to the site was under construction, which ironically led to the discovery of the burial ground.

Another major consideration for the project was that, since this had already been designated a National Monument, the design and construction had to be such that it could potentially exist for a very long time. Another major challenge to the construction of the monument was the proximity of the project to the surrounding federal building. And its location in downtown Manhattan, in a post 9/11 world, security was exceedingly arduous.

The primary objective of this monument was, to create a memorial that would not only be a place of solace and contemplation for people of African descent: but for all to come and reflect and be reminded of what Africans had to endure after being forcibly removed from their homeland: and to recognize their significant contribution to even this great metropolis of the United States.

PV: Why is this project personally near and dear to your heart?

M: It is easy for me to say that because I am an African, working on this project is obviously personal to me and was a no-brainer; there is a whole lot more to it than that. I have been fortunate to work on some very interesting and rewarding projects that have been dear to me. I was the project engineer for the $130 million Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center in Connecticut.

The Mashantucket Pequot’s are the Native Americans who own Foxwoods, the single most successful gaming establishment in the country. I learnt about their history and their need to tell it and I was grateful to have been involved in it. I was the project engineer for the Irish Hunger Memorial in New York, memorializing and recognizing the Irish Potato famine in the 19th century that killed tens of thousands of Irish and precipitated the migration of the Irish to America.

This too enlightened me about the history of the Irish in America, and I was proud to have been involved in creating this memorial. I was part of the first set of structural engineers to go to Ground Zero, two days after the attacks to provide structural engineering support to the emergency and rescue squads. I saw the destruction up close and was humbled and profoundly moved by it. But this project, the African Burial Ground Monument is about us, our ancestors, their forgotten history, their suffering and their contribution to the making of this nation.

For me, not just as an African, but as a Creole from Sierra Leone, given our history and strong association with the Africans forcibly brought to America. I definitely felt it was more than just coincidence that my involvement on this project came to reality. The history of our forefathers has been neglected and ignored for so long, and this was too significant an opportunity to pass me. It is also very near and dear to me because as the project progressed, I could almost feel myself communing with those buried in that area. And because of the paucity of Africans and African-Americans in the structural engineering field, it felt good and rewarding to help the architect achieve the fruition of his design.

PV: How will this project help to bridge the gap between Africans and African Americans?

M: It is hoped that this monument will encourage and inform African-Americans about the necessity of understanding their history, and to reconnect with their African roots. It is also hoped that Africans both resident in the US and visiting the US, will appreciate the struggle of not only their forefathers, but their descendants. Ultimately, a closer relationship between Africans and African Americans is the goal because of their shared history.

PV: You are an accomplished or top-notch engineer. How will Sierra Leone also benefit from your expertise?

M: I do not consider myself to be a “top-notch engineer”, I do consider myself a very accomplished professional engineer, and I hope that in the not too distant future I will be able to use my skills for the benefit of Sierra Leone. I have always said that I was fortunate to have been involved in the design of some very interesting and significant structures, but unless I have the opportunity to give back to Sierra Leone I will not feel fulfilled.

Sometime, I hope in the not too distant future, to get involved in the preservation of the Bunce Island Slave Fort and maybe, the Old Fourah Bay College building. These two landmark structures have been classified as endangered world heritage sites.

On the other hand, I would consider my older brother a top notch architect in Sierra Leone. And some of his projects in Sierra Leone have been received with significant acclaim. I hope that I will have an opportunity to work with him on a project or projects in Sierra Leone.

PV: Are there other projects that are currently in the works?

M: I am currently working on the Frank Sinatra School for the Arts in New York City, the Pennsylvania Academy of Music in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and a host of other public and private projects. As stated above, my hope is to get involved in the Bunce Island Slave Fort restoration, as I feel this is a very important project that will be beneficial to both Sierra Leoneans and African Americans.

PV:It was wonderful talking to you. Thank you for your time.

Photos: Melbourne at the ABGNM in New York.

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