Volume 16 • Issue 29 | December 16 - 22, 2003

A W.T.C. juror speaks

By Josh Rogers

Downtown Express photo by Ramin Talaie

One of the jurors who will pick the W.T.C. memorial design, James Young, seen here at a public hearing earlier this year, said last week that he thinks the public will accept the selected plan as it changes over time.

One of the 13 people who will select the design for the World Trade Center memorial broke the group’s public silence last week and responded to some of the criticism that has been leveled at the eight proposed plans he and his fellow jurors picked in November.

The juror, James Young, an English and Judaic studies professor at the University of Massachusetts, also said he is looking for a design that will be able to evolve over generations.

Young said he thinks part of the public’s negative reaction is because people have a hard time accepting that anything would be a suitable way to recognize the horror of 9/11.

“People are responding from the heart,” Young said during a panel discussion about memorials at the 92nd St. Y on Dec. 9. “The magnitude is so large in some people’s minds that nothing in their view would ever come close to capturing the enormity of the event.”

Young said the jurors have not shielded themselves from the press criticism. “Of course we read all that’s printed like everyone else,” he said.

Young, who has written books on other memorials, said the first W.T.C. memorials began with vigils in Union Square Park and other places hours after the event, and that the selection of a design will be a continuation of an ongoing process of remembering the Sept. 11 attack. Officials with the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., which assembled the jury, have said the jury should make a decision on a plan before the New Year.

Perhaps no one knows as much about the process of selecting memorials as Young. In addition to his writings, he played a key role in resolving the contentious fight to build a memorial in Berlin for the six million Jews killed by the Nazis. After the first competition for a German memorial failed in 1995, Young, in his most famous quote, said “better a thousand years of Holocaust memorial competitions in Germany than a final solution to your Holocaust memory competition.”

He was one of the critics of the 1995 plan, which called for a giant concrete memorial with 4.2 million names of known victims. German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who thought the selected design was too stark, vetoed it. When the design was shelved, Young said Germany should not view the process as a failure, but as part of an important national debate to figure out how best to remember people Germany had victimized.

Young then joined a second jury to pick a Holocaust memorial design in 1997. They used the eight finalists in the first competition and invited 12 architects and designers, including W.T.C. architect Daniel Libeskind, to come up with new plans. Young was the only American and the only Jew on the five-member jury, which picked the winning design completed earlier this year. The design by Peter Eisenmann has 2,700 pillars of differing heights in a sunken field.

According to news reports, the number of pillars in the original design and their height were reduced in part to allow better walking paths through the memorial, which has also been a concern about the W.T.C. memorial designs.

Young said just as there were negotiations over the design in Berlin, he expects the same thing with the W.T.C. designers.

He said the W.T.C. jury has a lot of freedom to make changes. “The nice thing is that everything is in play,” he said. “There is not a stone unturned.”

He said the job of this jury is harder because they had to narrow the field from 5,200 designs rather than talking with 20 design teams as in Berlin. But he praised the L.M.D.C. for setting up a democratic process, allowing people to enter the memorial competition.

“They didn’t shy away from the argument,” he said. “They don’t shy away from the criticism.”

Joanna Rose, an L.M.D.C. spokesperson, said the jurors are prohibited from commenting about where they are in the process. Young’s comments last week have received little press coverage and it is unclear whether he violated his confidentiality agreement, since Rose was not more specific on the restrictions.

Young said toward the beginning of the discussion that he was limited in what he could say, but he appeared to have difficulty resisting after hearing several questions and comments from the panel.

He seemed to squirm uncomfortably when moderator Amei Wallach, an art critic, quoted press accounts describing the W.T.C. plans as “banal,” “uninteresting” and “uninspiring.”

Young came closest to commenting on a specific plan when Wallach said she liked the Memorial Cloud design, which includes views of the sky through a cloud-like sculpture. Wallach said she had second thoughts about the design when she read that the empty street-level plaza might draw skateboarders to the memorial. She asked Young if such uses would bother him.

“Any time there’s a violation of decorum, it would bother me,” said Young. “I think it would bother the families.”

Robert Ivy, the editor-in-chief of Architectural Record, asked Young, “Why do we feel let down? Are we unable to read this larger truth that’s there?” Ivy also asked whether the 4.5-acre memorial area was too large and whether a memorial was being built too soon.

Young, at one point, said, “I think people need to give it time to sink in and see how it will evolve over time.”

He said when he visited the site with his fellow jurors earlier this year, he was surprised at how large it is, but when he began to think of the needs of creating enough space for public ceremonies and to remember the thousands who were killed, it didn’t seem too big.

Libeskind, who designed the W.T.C. master site plan, was the fourth panelist, but he was more circumspect about his views on the memorial. He agreed with Young that the area was not too big and said the challenge for designers was, “how do you make it intimate and human.”

Libeskind mentioned two aspects of his memorial setting that some of the designers have changed, although he did not say whether or not he disagreed with the changes. A few of the eight designs altar the configurations of the cultural buildings Libeskind proposed to surround the memorial, and several include a plaza or park at or close to street level, rather than the open-air, memorial area 30-foot below the street in his plan.

“How do you feel when you descend into the depths of the site?” said Libeskind describing what he thought about creating the space to remember. “When you’re in the memorial you can look up to the sky and see the buildings,” he added later. “You’re not cut off.”

“I surrounded the memorial with cultural buildings to provide a filter in order to make the streets vital,” said Libeskind.

He and Young appeared to get along well during the discussion, even though Libeskind was one of five finalists for Berlin’s Holocaust memorial before Young and his fellow jurors picked Eisenmann.

Both panelists said that although it may not be possible to comprehend the events of 9/11 now, it is also important to proceed.

“We don’t have the luxury to wait,” Libeskind said. “There is an urgency to make this site live again.”

“It is too soon to know the meaning of 9/11 it’s true,” Young told Ivy, but “families need and demand a place to mourn.”

This is why he repeatedly came back to the importance of picking a memorial that changes. He said once a design team is selected, there will be a continual discussion with Libeskind, or “a dance if you will between the site and the memorial…It’s going to go on for sometime.”

Young also agreed with Ivy that it was not necessary to have a physical symbol of each particular person who was killed on Sept. 11 and in the 1993 W.T.C. bombing.

“There was nothing mandating that every individual had to be marked by a rock or a tree, only the names,” he said.

He is sure that the debates about the memorial will not stop once a plan is selected; he doesn’t want them to either.

“No matter what is chosen it will be controversial,” he said. “No matter how it is chosen it will be controversial and the criticism will be part of the memorial of what we are doing.”



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