How the memorial designs fail and succeed
By David Stanke
Downtown Express photo by Elisabeth Robert
A visitor looks at a World Trade Center memorial design at the Winter Garden.
Taken as a whole, the World Trade Center memorial finalists successfully achieve a number of their common objectives. And yet, they also dramatically fail, in surprisingly common ways. We can be relieved that most (although alarmingly, not all) have made strides toward integrating the memorial with the surrounding areas while providing sacred spaces sheltered from what will be a vibrant city. But how could a process entitled the W.T.C. Site Memorial Competition fail to produce one finalist who incorporated the single visual item which resonates in all of our memories when we recall the history of the site that ended by noon on 9/11/01: the facade of the Twin Towers. An encyclopedia of words could never match the visual power and symbolism of this simple architectural element. The finalists and the panel also chose to focus downward and inward, and left us without a venue to complete our journey upward and outward; also remarkable, since the attack destroyed two 110-story buildings.
The publicly-accepted mission of this memorial space is to provide a secular sacred space (if this is possible) and a burial memorial space within a four-to-six-acre plot of land that must also integrate into the city and communities encompassing it. In our western traditions these two objectives do coexist, as with the nearby churches that combine both church and burial ground adjacent to residences and businesses.
The size of the memorial space demands that it support trans-commuting as well as casual uses typically supported by urban parks. A design that extracts the expanse of the memorial space from the neighborhood will be a curse to both the community and the memorial. On this criterion, the memorial jury has made exceptional improvements from the Daniel Libeskind vision. Gardens of Light, Reflecting Absence and Inversion of Light are the best, essentially allowing at grade movement across the site. The Memorial Cloud allows movement across the site, but the space is not inviting, it does not encourage people to linger or activity to take hold. Three plans completely fail this criterion and require modification. Votives in Suspension and Dual Memory keep the entire area below grade. Suspending Memorys expansive lake appears calm and healing but establishes an impassible barrier across the entire site.
All of the plans demonstrate somewhat heavy-handed attempts at symbolism and excessive statements, some with little real purpose. In the same way as the Libeskind design, it appears that every element must have a name and identified symbolism. The contestants strained to create ways of expressing sympathy and the viewer is lost in the resulting jumble. Most designs lack a unifying theme or expression, verging in some cases on randomness. The worst of these is Dual Memories, with disconnected themes for each footprint. Another example, Suspending Memory, has tombstone like glass columns, a wailing wall and underground reflection space, but no un-programmed space. Lower Waters has a footprint pool, a footprint park, a wall of names, underground memorial space, the slurry wall, a bedrock level, and a museum; which the designer reasonably integrates. The final selection should work to remove the unnecessary programmed clutter and thus enhance the strongest ideas in the design.
It is challenging to create a memorial so soon after the event while still enmeshed in the larger war the W.T.C. was just one battle. Soldiers and civilians of many nationalities are still being killed. A nation lost a vital symbol and lives with the possibility of future attacks. A community lost its center and is fighting to rebuild. These memorial designs do not give voice to that full picture. As the war will evolve and end, our perceptions will evolve. The memorial should aim for simplicity and generality to achieve timelessness. All plans focus rightfully on the lives lost, but fail on almost all of the broader perspectives.
Suspending Memory and Garden of Lights create virtual graveyards. Dual Memories goes even further, placing pictures of each individual on glass panels. There is a reason that pictures are seldom placed on tombstones. They draw attention to the picture rather than the individual and limit our broader memories of the person. Histories and pictures of individuals can be available electronically in a museum and should not be in the memorial. Votives in Suspension, the Memorial Cloud, and Dual Memory contain the names and symbolic representation of those lost, to greater affect than a graveyard.
The memorial must span the dimension of time, recalling the past, supporting the present, and opening up into the future. The items recalling the past in these plans are the footprints and bedrock. Neither of these components was ever visible to anyone. We saw the Twin Towers, not the footprints. The bedrock was exposed only after months of digging post 9/11. The memorials fail to reflect any past prior to 9/11/01 or the symbols that made the area the target of the attack. While today, it might be painful, in time, a piece of the W.T.C. facade in some form would deepen the feeling of the memorial.
One disappointment in all of these designs is their singular downward focus. In place of two of the tallest buildings in the world, we can only go down from ground level. Some designer must have considered an area where people can ascend to gain a more distant perspective and, hopefully, to find peace by reaching above the site. An area this large and an event of the 9/11 magnitude demands the possibility of an upward journey.
I was relieved that there was little focus on preserving the footprints to the bedrock. This was a concept introduced when it became apparent that all 16 acres would not become a park. Even the footprints themselves were not a foregone conclusion until Gov. George Pataki promised them. The bedrock theme was introduced, it seems, as a means to try and prevent other uses for the site, even restoration of the PATH station. The footprint theme is a dogmatic and literal expression of the event and the bedrock is the most unyielding specification. It is also extraordinarily expensive. It is enlightening that the Coalition of 9/11 Families gave an F to every design because they did not preserve the footprints at bedrock. The footprints are an architectural artifact of little significance. At bedrock, they are even less important. Reflection of and respect for the lives lost should not be encumbered with this artifact.
The names on the memorial should reflect the importance of the individual one of the key principles that Al Qaeda attacked. The Memorial Cloud has a creative way of displaying rescue workers names as a ribbon running through the field of names, but I dont think it successfully resolves the issue. Individual families should have a say in the representation of their loved ones names. Perhaps each person should have the option of adding up to 10 characters to their name. Those 10 characters could be used however the families decide. Firemen, policemen, and workers in any company could be recognized.
Understanding the memorial mission statement and the factional approach through which it was created, there was little reason to expect a radical and enlightening result from the competition. The statement over-programmed the designers, forcing them to address too many specifics literally. To create something simple and stunning, an artist would have had to step out of the guideline and hope that the jury panel would be willing to do the same. The results presented to us demonstrate a remarkable similarity. Their focus is completely inward and downward. From a distance, they are the same photograph with variations in coloring, texture and shading. The complex symbolism described verbally in the memorial statements is not fully manifested by the physical memorials.
Overall, these designs present a major step in the right direction for the W.T.C. memorial. Anyone who feels that all visions fail completely is looking for something that cannot be achieved.
The panel has clearly heard a variety of voices, perhaps even more voices than we in the public generally hear. Lets hope that the final design can continue to evolve. The true memorial is the full 16 acres of rebuilding in balance with the results of this memorial competition. Right now, Gardens of Lights, Reflecting Absence, and Memorial Cloud provide the most broadly successful concepts. With modifications, any of them could work. It is only when a final plan is locked in stone, glass, water, trees, and grass that many people will begin to be freed from the emotional pain emanating from the W.T.C. site.
David Stanke owns a condominium across from the W.T.C. site and is one of the founders of BPC United.