Constructing a 9/11 Memorial in New York

By Cressida Smart

Sunday 11 September 2011 will see the opening of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York. The Memorial is located at the World Trade Centre site, on the former location of the Twin Towers destroyed during the September 11 attacks in 2001.

In 2003, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation launched an international competition to design a memorial at the World Trade Center site to commemorate the lives lost in the September 11 terrorist attacks. Individuals and teams from around the world contributed design proposals. On November 19, 2003, the thirteen-member jury, which included Maya Lin, designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, selected eight finalists.

“Reflecting Absence” was chosen as the winning design. The winner of the World Trade Center Site Memorial Competition was Israeli-American architect Michael Arad of Handel Architects, a New York and San Francisco-based firm. Arad worked with landscape architecture firm Peter Walker and Partners on the design, which proposed a forest of trees with two square pools in the center, where the Twin Towers once stood.

While the memorial design received good reviews from the public and victims’ families, it has had its share of critics who were concerned with the cost and believed the design to be too complicated and aesthetically weak. In May 2006, it was revealed that the estimated construction costs for the Memorial had risen to over US$1 billion. Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the costs of building the memorial are increasing rapidly and must be capped at $500million.

In 2005, two centres were proposed and then withdrawn from the World Trade Center Memorial plan. The first was the International Freedom Center, a think tank which was intended to draw attention to the battles for freedom through the
ages. Critics questioned having a centre with a mission that had nothing to do directly with the events of September 11
and could potentially criticise American policies. It received heavy criticism and eventually Governor George Pataki withdrew support for it. The second was the Drawing Center Art Gallery at the World Trade Center. Plans called for the Freedom Center to share its space with the Drawing Center in a building called the “Cultural Center.” It was debated as to whether its exhibits would be appropriate at Ground Zero based on the gallery’s previous exhibits in its SoHo quarters.

The chosen design, “Reflecting Absence”, is intended to be a space that resonates with the feelings of loss and absence that were generated by the destruction of the World Trade Center. It is located in a field of trees that is disrupted by two large voids, which will be the largest man-made waterfalls, containing recessed pools. The pools and the ramps that surround them encompass the footprints of the Twin Towers. A cascade of water that surrounds the perimeter of each square feeds the pools with a continuous stream. They are large empty spaces, open and visible reminders of absence.

The surface of the memorial plaza is interposed by the rhythms of rows of deciduous trees, forming informal clusters, clearings and groves. Through its annual cycle of rebirth, the living park aims to deepen the experience of the memorial. Bordering each pool is a pair of ramps that lead down to the memorial spaces. As visitors move further into the memorial, they will find themselves removed from the sights and sounds of the city and immersed in a cool darkness. Proceeding onwards, the sound of water will increase as more daylight filters in from below. At the bottom of their descent appears a thin curtain of water, staring out at an enormous pool. Surrounding this pool is a continuous ribbon of names. The enormity of this space and the multitude of names that form this endless band will accentuate the vast scope of the destruction.

The names of the deceased are arranged in no particular order around the pools. It was decided that any arrangement that tried to impose meaning through physical adjacency will cause grief and anguish to people who might be excluded from that process, furthering the sense of loss that they are already suffering. The haphazard brutality of the attacks is reflected in the arrangement of name, with no attempt made to impose order upon this suffering. Rescue workers too are acknowledged with their agency’s insignia next to their names. For those whose deceased were never physically identified, the location of the name marks a spot that is their own. The memorial will also contain a single alcove with a small platform where visitors can light a candle or leave an artifact in memory of loved ones.

Along the western edge of the site, a deep crack exposes the wall from plaza level to bedrock and provides access via a stairway; visitors will witness the massive expanse of the original foundations. The entrance to the underground interpretive centre is located at bedrock. Here visitors can view many preserved artifacts from the twin towers: twisted steel beams, a crushed fire truck, and personal effects. The underground centre will contain exhibition areas including lecture halls and a research library.

In contrast with the public mandate of the underground interpretive centre is the very private nature of the room for unidentified remains. Here a large stone vessel forms a centrepiece for the unidentified remains. Family members can gather here for moments of private contemplation. It is a personal space for remembrance.

The memorial plaza is designed to be a mediating space; it belongs both to the city and to the memorial. Located at street level to allow for its integration into the structure of the city, the plaza will encourage the use of this space by New Yorkers on a daily basis. The memorial grounds will not be isolated from the rest of the city, they will be a living part of it.

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