Wait. That single word may be one of the most difficult to achieve in our frenetic age, but concerning the memorial at the World Trade Center site, the best advice is to slow down, allow time to pass and our perspective to clear, and then to build: We are simply too close to events to commit to such a seminal urban monument. Despite the fact that a winner may have been selected at the writing of this editorial, until construction has already begun, it is not too late to defer the decision and to consider alternatives.
This is not to undervalue the work of a distinguished jury that has labored through an unimaginable, Herculean process, sifting through 5,201 entries submitted in an outpouring of feeling and creative energy. We owe them all—designers and jurists—a debt of gratitude. Nor is it to categorically deny the value of the eight projects that rose to finalist status: Each, in its own way, answered the specific programmatic demands, occasionally artfully or poetically.
However, having examined the models and drawings and visited the Web site, the viewer remains unconvinced and curiously unmoved by the results, which seem to pose the memorials as chilly destinations; correspondingly, the critical response has been almost universally cool. Why do these abstracted designs fail to convince us? The answers coalesce around the role of monuments and memorials historically and suggest why we should wait.
As this magazine has noted, monuments and memorials evolve, as the memories and emotions of succeeding generations shift through time. Unfortunately, the eight solutions offered thus far have been too heavily burdened with the present. Implicitly or explicitly, they have been asked to serve as immediate mnemonic aids for the individual lives lost (on 9/11 and in the 1993 incident); as reminders of the significance of horrific events; as placemakers, sanctifying and segregating holy ground; as mediators, offering points for reflection and transcendence; and as destinations in a vibrant city. Art can only do so much.
Faced with such gravitas, the designers of the eight final solutions understandably resorted to metaphor, employing falling water to conjure a sense of loss or pain, an immense light-filled cloud, which suggests cosmic transcendence, hanging lamps or cenotaphs or engraved glazing or trees to recollect individual lives. All honor and mourn abstractly, standing in and representing events without recreating them, an infinitely preferable treatment to a more literal, figurative one. All speak to this moment but leave lingering questions for future visitors: specifically, what really occurred here?
None would serve as an effective destination, now or in the future. Large subterranean spaces, even those punctuated by light, would provide a gloomy, funereal setting in the heart of Manhattan. Falling water below grade is inevitably dank and uncomfortable; in cold weather, temperature and humidity combine into an inhospitable, damp environment. And what happens to the exposed, undifferentiated ground plane we see in almost all the plans? Amei Wallach, an arts commentator, suggested skateboarders might find the large open spaces tempting. Otherwise, the building footprints have been left largely unresolved.
Scale poses a fundamental problem for the competition. Consider that the footprint of each original tower consumed almost 45,000 square feet of space. The site is simply too large for a single, concentrated memorial, an issue that becomes quickly apparent in viewing the disjuncture between the original submissions and the later models. Whereas the first submission boards bristled with ideas, compact and contained, those ideas dissipate when splayed against the multiple acreage of the proposed site. As rendered, the human figure seems antlike and overwhelmed.
For all their artfulness, none of the proposed memorial schemes captures one shred of the immediacy present in the foundation wall left exposed in the Daniel Libeskind plan. The sheer scale of the remaining slurry wall, with its pock-marked gigantism, uniquely relates to the scale of what had gone before—twin towers that had been the world’s tallest structures with a 1,368-foot peak. The wall’s authenticity, as witness to an obliterated real world, supercedes art and provokes strong feelings in a way no constructed, mediating object could.
Additionally, Libeskind’s master plan for the site constitutes memorial making, employing the realities of the place itself, and building up a framework of new structures for contemporary New York in a dizzying way that few monuments could compete with. The entire design relies on rhetorical underpinnings, with its spiraling array of ascending towers, culminating in the recently announced Freedom Tower, excavated foundations, and walkways, including the debated “Wedge of Light.” While Libeskind intentionally left space for the memorial to come, as did each architectural team, his own design, entitled Memory Foundations, satisfies much of what we might expect any monument to do: allow us to recollect and move on.
Instead of competing with his strong design, or creating a vacant field of dreams, other suggestions are in order. Here is one, of many to follow. First, provide legal safeguards for the property. Legislation may be necessary to secure the highly valuable property from future development. Then construct a temporary destination within the footprints as a locus of grief, tapping into the strong need for the public and the families of the victims to visit and express their thoughts and feelings. September 11, 2001, prompted a flood of individual expression, from poems and music to candles and flowers, which continues. A wall of remembrance, meant to accept these offerings, could be beautifully and simply built and serve a generation of survivors.
Ultimately, an interpretative museum that houses the history of events at the World Trade Center site should occupy part of this ground, to include the story of the making of the entire complex and the shards of the towers’ destruction. Actual steel from the towers, the Yamasaki models, artifacts from the offices, films produced, and biographies of the heroes and the lost—all need a permanent home and a narrative to accompany them, as a recent show at the New York Historical Society demonstrated. The museum could be located, if need be, below grade.
Passage to the museum could then proceed through a transitional zone, a significant processional way allowing visitors to alter perceptions and change gears psychologically from the city’s pace. The passageway could descend from the open air to a darkened space below ground, much as these memorial makers have suggested—a walkway shrouded in a translucent cloud of remembrance, or perhaps one punctuated by hanging lanterns or trees. Its ultimate goal, however, would no longer be darkness or the void, but a real place, enlivened by human activity, that explains events and offers a search
for meaning. To arrive at that understanding, to more fully comprehend the aftermath, we all need time before we build.