LONDONDERRY, Northern Ireland – Northern Ireland may never again see a bonfire so graceful or heartfelt.
More than 5,000 people a day have been visiting a hand-crafted wooden tower designed by American sculptor David Best in the Northern Ireland city of Londonderry. The 72-foot-tall (22-meter-tall) structure, reminiscent of a Buddhist temple or an arabesque palace, is to be burned to the ground Saturday night in front of 15,000 ticket-holders.
Best, a Californian famous for building wooden temples that are set ablaze during the Burning Man festival in Nevada, was invited by public art promoters to Northern Ireland partly because bonfires here are normally burned in acts of sectarian division. The British Protestant majority each summer burns hundreds of bonfires bedecked with anti-Irish symbols and the Catholic minority loathes them.
But in Londonderry, a city divided into a mostly Catholic west and Protestant east, Best's tower in a hilltop field on the east side is attracting Catholics and Protestants alike in an atmosphere of harmony. Visitors are encouraged to decorate every nook and cranny of the tower with hand-written messages to their community and their loved ones, both the living and the dead.
Best says his goal was to make the structure "so beautiful that you give up the thing that has been troubling you your whole life."
Some visitors wrote their messages by flashlight at night, when subtle lighting inside the tower brings its scrolling and interlacing woodcut patterns into vivid relief.
"May the people of Derry be united," read one of the many hundreds of messages written on a central wooden pillar. Others messages nearby include "Oh my papa," ''Best granny in the world," and "We all will never be as we were."
The project attracted apprentice carpenters from both sides of the communal divide and took a month to construct. It wouldn't be Northern Ireland, though, if church leaders didn't argue over its religious merit.
While many Catholic and Protestant figures welcomed the tower as a graceful way to promote cross-community prayer and contemplation, some have condemned it as spiritually corrupt.
"The idea that flames would bring healing or restoration is not an idea found in the Bible," said Presbyterian minister Rev. Graeme Orr, who warned that the mass burning of people's prayers could represent a dangerous flirtation with "the occult or Satanism."