When Memory Fails

  • Soaring. That was the word Rudy Giuliani used a few months after the fall of the World Trade Center to describe his vision for a memorial at the site. Like many people, New York City's ex-mayor hoped for something proud, powerful and passionate. But when the winning design for the 9/11 memorial was announced last week, what we all got instead was subdued, spare and gentle. Reflecting Absence was submitted by Michael Arad, an assistant architect for the city's Housing Authority. Its chief feature is a pair of square excavations, each 30 ft. deep and nearly an acre in size, that mark the footprints of the fallen towers. Both will be filled with water that cascades down their walls. The names of Trade Center victims will be inscribed along their sides.

    Arad's design was chosen in a competition that attracted 5,201 entrants. The 13-member jury included Maya Lin, the designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. Lin is said to have been one of Arad's strongest supporters on a divided panel that asked for a number of changes to his plan, including more trees. A revised version to be unveiled this week will have greenery added by Peter Walker, a well-known landscape architect. But from the moment eight finalists in the competition were announced in November, public response has been lukewarm at best. All came from what might be called the therapeutic school of memorial design. They spoke a language of serenity and simplicity, consoling but minor key, inadequate to the power of the event they were marking. Every one of them sought to heal the pain of 9/11. None of them evoked the horror that brought it on.

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    Should a memorial expose the scars of 9/11, or should it heal them? Can it do both? Arad may have hoped that the serenity of his design would appeal to the families of victims, who have pressed for a place to quietly mourn their dead. But when his plan was chosen last week, the Coalition of 9-11 Families, an umbrella group, declared it "uninspiring" and called for a new competition. Some family groups have actually been pressing for a more anguished memorial that would incorporate twisted remnants of the towers that are currently in storage. They look to places like the U.S.S. Arizona memorial at Pearl Harbor, built atop the scarred hulk of the sunken warship. When he first conceived his master plan for the Trade Center site, the architect Daniel Libeskind intended to preserve the concrete containing walls, 70 ft. deep, that once held the underground foundations of the Twin Towers. Battered, fire-blasted but still standing, they told of both horror and strength. But to ensure their stability, new concrete now mostly covers over those walls.

    New York Governor George Pataki has been pressing for progress at the Trade Center site. He wants the cornerstone of the new Freedom Tower, co-designed for the site by Libeskind and David Childs, to be laid by the third anniversary of 9/11--right around the time the Republican National Convention will be held in New York City. Progress in the restoration of an office tower is a good thing, but rushing the memorial is another matter. The memorial at Pearl Harbor, for instance, was completed in 1961, two decades after the attack.

    Giuliani recently proposed that the memorial selection process be suspended, to allow more time for the meaning of 9/11 to clarify. Though he has no real power in the matter, he's right. The best design might indeed turn out to be built around two profound holes, grave sites filled with calm waters. But should we try to arrive at that design in the midst of a war that we are still fighting? The meanings of that day — who can even name them all? Before we choose how to embody those meanings, what we need is more time to learn them.