Open message for memorial jury and would-be designers

As the deadline to submit designs for the World Trade Center memorial approaches, it is becoming increasingly clear that both the 13-member jury and the 13,000 or so possible designers have a formidable task. Everyone knew going in that designing a fitting and inspiring tribute to the 3,016 people murdered Sept. 11, 2001 and the six killed at the W.T.C. Feb. 26, 1993 would be difficult. But over the last few weeks, differences between relatives of the victims and residents over the memorial continue to bubble to the surface. It will be up to the designers and the jury to identify the plan that best meets the needs and hopes for all of the groups – the same groups that now have contradictory opinions.

It should go without saying that the primary goal is to design a beautiful memorial that fits in perfectly at the only place it could rightfully be — the World Trade Center site.

Many residents and business leaders have called on improving access through the memorial area. Some have proposed bringing the memorial up to street level rather than have it 30 feet below ground as designed by architect Daniel Libeskind.

Argued in the abstract, it is understandable why some family members see these calls as a threat. But just as few of us could have imagined Libeskind’s design for the site prior to its unveiling last year, few of us can imagine the sheer creative brilliance that we are certain will be in some of the memorial submissions when the deadline comes June 30.

  Some designs may rely on a walkway over the memorial area to improve access and to see the memorial or its reflections at various angles. Others may require something akin to a ceiling in order to pay fitting tribute to the precious lives that were ended too soon. If so, it may mean that building the perfect memorial to the fallen can also mean meeting residents’ concerns about being able to traverse the site quickly.

A fundamental element of Libeskind’s design clearly is keeping much of the “bathtub” slurry wall visible. But there may be creative ways to this without lowering the memorial area 30 feet below the surface that need to be explored.

Listening to the families, it has also been clear to us that somewhere on the site it is important, if at all possible, to allow relatives to go down to the bedrock, 70 feet below ground, so they can touch the last place that many of their loved ones touched before their remains disappeared.

Over the last few weeks, we have heard jurors and officials with the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., which is overseeing the memorial selection process, say they want designers not to be afraid to break the rules, to be bold and unconventional.

They are absolutely right.

The L.M.D.C. has discouraged designers from straying too far from the Libeskind design, but leaders have also said the ultimate decision will be up to the jury, which is expected to narrow the designs to less than five by this September. The public will have a chance to comment on the designs before a choice is made in October.  It is important that all of the designers and the jurors be open to all possibilities. Not just a memorial that is 30 feet below ground, which may turn out to be the best option, but also memorials that soar into the sky.

It is crucial that designers and jurors be conscious of the memorial’s neighborhood where hundreds of thousands of people live and work. If thousands of people a day look down at a place that forces them to regularly circumvent a large area to get to their workplace or homes, they will not see beauty and inspiration when they look down, they will see inconvenience and terrible urban planning.

Similarly, if the memorial turns out to be something Downtowners can walk by quickly and conveniently without ever really noticing, it will mean that the designers had failed in their primary mission.

We urge these designers not to be bound by any limits they have been told exist on the site. We urge the jury – which is made up of accomplished people in a variety of fields – to be open to all of the possibilities and to pick a design that let’s all of us remember and heal and understand and carry on a little bit better as we move further and further from that terrible day 21 months ago.


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