I wept, but about what precisely I cannot say. Much to my amazement, after having done everything possible to shut out the ubiquitous maudlin press coverage that engulfed the tenth anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks, I visited Michael Arad’s National September 11 Memorial in New York City—which was dedicated exactly a decade after the disaster—to find that it impressed me at once as a sobering, disturbing, heartbreaking, and overwhelming masterpiece.
Arad’s inexorably powerful, enigmatically abstract pair of abyss-like pools, which demarcate the foundations of the lost Twin Towers, comes as a surprise to those of us who doubted that the chaotic and desultory reconstruction of Ground Zero could yield anything of lasting value. It is generally held that great architecture requires the participation of a great client, but just how this stunning result emerged from such a fraught and contentious process will take some time for critics and historians to sort out.
Against all odds and despite tremendous opposition from all quarters, the Israeli-American Arad—an obscure thirty-four-year-old New York City Housing Authority architect when his starkly Minimalist proposal, Reflecting Absence, won the memorial competition in 2004—has created the most powerful example of commemorative design since Maya Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial of 1981–1982 in Washington, D.C. It is not accidental that Arad’s scheme derives so directly in several respects from Lin’s epochal monument (she was a decisive voice on the jury that selected the September 11 memorial design, a commission that could have been hers for the asking but for which she did not compete), yet the congruities between the two do not in any way lessen Arad’s stupendous achievement.
As things now stand, the eight-hundred-foot-long arrival sequence at the memorial is a dismal prologue that so closely replicates the security checks of a post–September 11 airport—replete with metal detectors, jacket removals, pat-downs, and conveyor belts for personal property scans—as to verge on black comedy. Because Ground Zero is still an active construction site, visitors are then channeled around the rising buildings through a series of fences and barriers that lead them toward the south pool, an emphasis that will likely change when the surroundings are completed and the public is free to approach the memorial from any direction at will.
After this entry maze is negotiated, one comes upon the pleasant park designed by Peter Walker, the Berkeley, California–based landscape architect enlisted by Arad on the instruction of the competition jury, which felt that his scheme needed the softening touch of greenery and the technical expertise of a collaborator more experienced than he. Walker planted a grid of some four hundred swamp white oak trees that seem either randomly positioned or formally aligned, depending on one’s vantage point. The low-hanging branches of these vigorous-looking specimens, many of which sport acorns at this time of year, have …