New York, New York

Too Little, Too Soon

The plan for the Sept. 11 memorial at the World Trade Center site is nearly finished, but what good is a design competition when we’re still trying to decipher the meaning of the event?

And so we have it. While the Sept. 11 memorial isn’t the final piece in the Ground Zero redevelopment puzzle—there are still several skyscrapers to be designed—last week’s selection of Michael Arad and Peter Walker’s ‘Reflecting Absence,’ along with last month’s unveiling of the Freedom Tower design, gives New Yorkers a pretty good idea of what the area will look like upon completion, still almost a decade in the future.

And it is the memorial, much more than anything else built on the site, which will guide our collective memory of Sept. 11. The Freedom Tower is, of course, inextricable from the site’s overall meaning, but it is what it is—an office tower, and while it may inspire awe it won’t and shouldn’t be built as a memorial element. Nor will the other towers do much more than provide backdrop (though, in and of themselves, they will likely be masterful buildings, given that Jean Nouvel, Norman Foster, and Fumiko Maki are on board to design them). So, New Yorkers, as the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation unveils its revised plan for Arad’s memorial this week, get a good look—this is how we have chosen to remember Sept. 11.

But what, exactly, have we chosen? For critics, the design represents the low point in minimalist design: generic land art that could just as easily find itself in a Dallas office park. It neither speaks to the event nor draws a distinction between the memorial space and the day-to-day flow of workers who will march across the site once it is fully redeveloped.

For its supporters, though, the site is exactly the opposite: As 30-foot-deep negative spaces placed directly into the towers’ footprints, the twin ‘inverse fountains’ (for lack of a better term) represent the absence of height, and they visually recall the pancaking action of the buildings’ collapse.

As in most debates about aesthetics and memorialization, both sides have valid points; ultimately, it would be impossible to design a memorial that pleased every point of view and yet retained a universal symbolic integrity. And yet, reading through the critics’ starkly contrasting arguments, one can’t help but be reminded—ironically, given the site’s design—of a glass-half-full, glass-half-empty struggle.

This differs greatly from previous debates over memorial designs. The fight that followed the public release of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans memorial was certainly vicious, but it was hardly as starkly drawn—almost everyone agreed that the design, a polished-granite wall dug into the earth, represented the still-unhealed wound of the war; the debate was over whether that was at all an appropriate way to remember the conflict.

The difference today is that for a large number of people—indeed, if an informal count of the critics is any representation, for the majority—the Sept. 11 memorial means nothing at all. Some have attacked Arad’s use of submerged waterfalls as an inappropriate metaphor for memory (think the River Lethe) as well as an unfortunate symbol for the rushing waters of the Hudson which the World Trade Center’s ‘bathtub’ wall held back and which, in the months following the attack, almost came pouring into the site. But by far the main critique of the design—and for that matter, of the seven other final designs—is that the designers have not successfully conveyed an idea about what the site means for New York.

The response, of course, is that it would be foolish to expect a memorial to reach its symbolic maturity instantly. Again, take the Vietnam Veterans memorial. Originally a divisive selection, over its 20-plus years it has gained wide acceptance precisely because it allows a variety of interpretations and interactions.

The problem with that position, however, is that there is a big difference between Vietnam and Sept. 11—a difference that highlights why, although minimalism was appropriate along the Mall, it is much less so at Ground Zero. Put frankly, Lin’s genius was to recognize that no style except minimalism could work, precisely because there were so many varied interpretations of the war—and that such divisions would likely continue today (and do, if the positive reception of Errol Morris’s film The Fog of War is any indication). Because Americans were unlikely to ever agree on what Vietnam meant for the country and how it should be remembered, it was best to create a memorial that accommodated a spectrum of emotion and opinion.

But while there are many different ideas about what Sept. 11 meant and how it should be remembered, it’s not at all clear that such divisions will persist. In fact, the entire rebuilding process is predicated upon the idea that we can reach a consensus (though some would argue that, by completely replacing the commercial space, the LMD.C. has imposed a consensus upon us). While in a historical sense we may always have disputes about the political and social causes and ramifications of Sept. 11, it’s a good bet that, like the Oklahoma City bombing, we will someday be able to reach an agreement on its meaning.

That day, however, is not here yet. Nor, given the sheer size of the event, is it likely to arrive soon. Until then, we can run design competitions as much as we want, and though the processes themselves could help us move toward a common understanding, they wouldn’t produce a satisfactory design. And, thus, while Arad and Walker’s design is not particularly brave or aesthetically noteworthy, it is the best choice of the bunch—because, of all of them, it says the least.

Instead, it leaves the hard part up to us. We must imbue it with meaning, through continued discussion, but also through the sorts of day-to-day, unpredictable uses and misuses of the site that define any public space. It’s a cop-out, to be sure, but given the LMD.C. and Gov. Pataki’s ridiculously accelerated time frame for rebuilding, it may be the best we could hope for. If we have to have a memorial now, it’s probably best that we have as little memorial as possible.


TMN Contributing Writer Clay Risen’s first attempt to build a website fell apart after he learned that had been bought by a hardcore Christian rock band. Clay is a senior staff editor at the New York Times and the author, most recently, of The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act. He lives in Brooklyn. More by Clay Risen