At the north edge of Ray Miller Park, a small 15-acre park in the Energy Corridor District of Houston, is a small memorial to one of the greatest philosophers of modern times. The Tagore Grove Memorial was commissioned by the Tagore Society of Houston and designed by Alvaro Espinal, AIA, of Espinal Architects. The rust-colored monument stands surrounded by weeping willows and magnolia trees and details the legacy of the Bengali humanitarian Rabindranath Tagore.
Tagore was a Bengali poet, composer, playwright, painter, philosopher, and social reformer. During his life, he wrote thousands of poems, plays, and songs, touching on all aspects of human existence. His immense collection of writings allows virtually everyone to understand and feel a connection to his work. “Tagore is like an ocean,” says Surajit Dasgupta, a Tagore Society member. “His work is endless.”
In 1913, Tagore gained worldwide recognition as the first non-European to receive a Nobel Prize in Literature for his collection of poems titled “Gitanjali.” Most important, he was a universalist and a humanitarian, advocating for a harmonious oneness among nature, the divine, and people. Tagore dedicated his life to service and encouraged unity among cultures through his teachings and writings. During the 1920s, he traveled the world to share his beliefs and raise funds for his school in Shantiniketan. Tagore traveled throughout Europe and to large metropolitan areas in North America. Eventually, in 1921, the philosopher found himself in Houston, lecturing at Rice University.
Decades later, in 1974, a small group of Bengali Houstonians established the Tagore Society of Houston to promote Tagore’s universal ideas and philosophies. In time, the organization came to feel that a memorial honoring Tagore’s ideals of unity and borderless thinking would befit the international city of Houston. The first phase of the memorial was unveiled in 2013 and included a full-size statue of Tagore, three small plaques with a short biography, a dedication, the poem “Where the Mind is Without Fear,” and a fenced enclosure lined with rose bushes. While the memorial created a permanent residence for the statue, more was needed to detail Tagore’s legacy and culture.
The second phase of the memorial, launched this past February in honor of the 100th anniversary of Tagore’s visit to Houston, was to create a space that celebrated the life of Tagore and fostered a sense of oneness of the human spirit.
The design was inspired by the ancient South Asian symbol of the universe: the mandala. “I thought this would be a good pattern to follow, but do it in a very modern way,” explains Espinal. The mandala is commonly found in ancient Indian temple architecture and used to aid introspection and meditation to reach enlightenment. It symbolizes the universe, which is represented by a circle enclosed by a square with four gates at the cardinal points. At the memorial, four post and lintel entrances are oriented according to the cardinal points of the site and lack any ornamentation. Waist-tall planters connect each entrance, forming the boundary of the mandala. Within this square structure, eight freestanding prefabricated steel-structured walls surround the statue of Tagore but do not touch each other, allowing constant visual access to the memorial’s interior. A circular alpana, a Bengali folk art symbol, is painted at the statue’s base. The modern, geometric structure gives the memorial a monumental presence, such that many Tagore Society members now endearingly refer to it as Houston’s Stonehenge.
The walls, gates, and planters are all clad in Corten steel. Because Tagore was a naturalist, the designer and the Tagore Society wanted a material that evoked a natural quality. “I like the idea of Corten because it’s a very modern material, but at the same time, it is very natural,” says Espinal. “It weathers; it ages; it changes. It’s sort of a living thing.” Additionally, the red copper hue of the material represents the color of the soil in West Bengal, India, where the school of Tagore, Santiniketan, is located.
The interior sides of the walls are inscribed with Tagore’s poetry, with each poem conveying a different experience or emotion. Various Tagore songs and poems were chosen so that each visitor can find at least one piece to connect with. These perforations are underlain with stainless steel and can only be distinguished when looking straight on, encouraging visitors to wander from poem to poem, circling Tagore and the alpana. Inscriptions are also placed at the exterior of each entrance. The southern, main entrance is inscribed with the words “Welcome you, O Spring, come… The southern door is open,” inviting visitors to enter. The exterior sides of the walls have inlaid stainless steel sheets detailing Tagore’s life and accomplishments. These panels include his impact on other visionaries including Albert Einstein and Mahatma Gandhi. “The inside is the heart of Tagore. Outside is how people saw him,” says Dasgupta.
While the memorial celebrates the legacy of Tagore and his culture, its primary purpose is to create a space that enables introspection and evokes a sense of peace, regardless of visitors’ race or background. In a city full of diversity, there is scarcely a place where all people, regardless of their denomination, can go to find inspiration and spiritual upliftment. The grove acts as a space to incite unity in a climate where the general public is more divided and isolated than ever. Kajal Roy, a founding member of the Tagore Society, explains: “When people come in here, they feel they’re a part of the universe. They’re not Bengali; they’re not anybody. They are humans.” Dasgupta adds: “This is a holy space where you can come in and simply dissolve yourself into higher thoughts. This is really a gift to the city of Houston, not just a memorial to Tagore. We want Houston to be proud that there is something here that represents the diversity of people. Somewhere that everybody can come without feeling that this is not for [their] use.”
Natalie Armstrong is a recent graduate of the Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture and Design at the University of Houston and is a designer at Protolab Architects and the Community Design and Resource Center at the University of Houston.