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A Masterpiece at Ground Zero

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Steven Rosenbaum/Getty Images
The National September 11 Memorial, New York City, designed by Michael Arad

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 been clipped upward to about half of their approximately twenty-five-foot height, presumably to keep them from touching the heads of visitors, and though those proportions now look somewhat artificial, the trees will ultimately form a handsome grove.

As one nears the pools, walking across the light-gray granite paving stones installed by Walker, the murmur of rushing water rises from the cascades that pour Niagara-like down all four sides of the sunken fountains. The sound becomes louder and louder, until it reaches such a steady crescendo that the noise of the surrounding city, even from the construction going on very close by, is drowned out completely.

The veil-like flow of water down the dark-gray granite-clad sides of the recirculating pools is a feat of hydraulic engineering achieved by the installation of weirs—downward-curving comb-like spillways—set all around the upper perimeter of the giant squares. Looking down into the equilateral thirty-foot-deep pits, one sees yet another, far smaller square recessed even more deeply at the midpoint, bringing to mind a simplified, monochromatic version of Josef Albers’s Homage to the Square series. With that last, centered quadrangle, the water vanishes into nothingness.

The propulsive aural and visual excitement of the three-story-deep waterfall and its mysterious disappearance captures and holds your attention in a way most unusual for the static medium of conventional architecture. That distraction makes one’s next perception all the more shocking, as you focus on the names of the victims, incised into the continuous tilted rim of bronze tablets that surround each pool.

The initial perspective provided by the cascades mimics a technique employed in classical Japanese gardens, through which one’s gaze is briefly diverted by a change in paving, screening, or some other element to dramatize a coming transition. Here, after you take in the diaphanous waterfalls, you discover spread out before you at waist level the names, the names, the names. Nearly three thousand victims—not only those lost at the World Trade Center, but also those who died at the Pentagon and near Shanksville, Pennsylvania—are memorialized with their names inscribed in Hermann Zapf’s classic Optima typeface of 1952–1955 (an elegant, slightly flaring sans-serif font), with the letters cut through the bronze so they can be backlit after dark. This is a typographic tour de force.

Phalanxes of firemen are listed, ladder company by ladder company, and cops precinct by precinct; hundreds upon hundreds of Cantor Fitzgerald traders; teams of Windows on the World busboys; an entire family on one plane; and on two of the hijacked flights women with “unborn child.” The names are grouped in “meaningful adjacencies” to suggest comradeship among those who died together at work, as first responders in the line of duty, or as travelers who would never reach their destinations. The ecumenical indifference of fate cannot have been more plainly put.

At times this relentless roll call becomes too much to bear, and your eyes rise up to the buildings that surround the memorial. But in purely architectural terms it is a sorry sight: not a single building of any distinction is to be seen in any direction.

Looming over the northwest corner of the site is the still-unfinished, 104-story behemoth once called the Freedom Tower but now given the more market-friendly moniker of One World Trade Center, the original name of one of the Twin Towers. Scheduled for completion in 2013, this slick mirror-glass office tower—which retains the symbolic 1,776-foot height first decreed by the site’s master planner, Daniel Libeskind—is the work of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s David Childs, who had been hired to renovate the Twin Towers shortly before they fell. His banal design has attracted less comment than the building’s astronomical $3.1 billion price tag, by far the most expensive high-rise ever erected in the US. As a newly entered class-action lawsuit alleges, the office tower is being illegally financed by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey through steep increases in tolls and commuter fares that can rightfully be applied only to infrastructural improvements, not real estate speculations.

No less flagrant in its huge budget overruns is Santiago Calatrava’s Transportation Hub, a train station and underground shopping mall linking the trans-Hudson PATH system with New York City’s subways. Now estimated to cost $3.44 billion—a billion more than initial projections—it is sited directly to the east of the north pool, across Greenwich Street. Calatrava likened his design in its original form to doves of peace in flight. After costs began to skyrocket, its wings were clipped, and when it opens in 2014 the hub seems more likely to resemble a skeletal dinosaur carcass.

Although much has been made in the press of Arad’s manifold struggles to preserve the integrity of his scheme, one must also sympathize with Local Projects, a New York–based design firm that performed the daunting task of placing the victims’ names in arrangements that would satisfy a seemingly infinite number of demands from many constituencies. An algorithm devised by the software programmer Jen Thorp sped this complex process, but further tinkering was needed to sort out many individual requests from the bereaved.

This component of the September 11 Memorial got as close to the heart of the matter for the survivors as the decision to leave the foundations of the Twin Towers inviolate. Because about 40 percent of the victims left no identifiable remains, their survivors look upon the site as an actual graveyard, and thus the site’s afterlife became a source of constant contention among the Families (as the next of kin were invariably called).

Perhaps the most vociferous of those mourners was Monica Iken Murphy, a September 11 widow who at one public hearing memorably if bathetically asked, “How can we build on top of their souls that are crying?” Doubtless to the relief of those responsible for the memorial, she spoke favorably to the New York Daily News about the results: “My Michael is home finally. They’re all home. This is his final resting place. When I come here, I feel him.”

Predictably, not all among the Families felt the same. One survivor complained to a WINS radio reporter that the memorial was “cool”—as in cold, not hip—and said that “there should have been flowers or pictures or something.” But of course it is precisely the abstract nature of Arad’s design, which eschews all representational imagery, that will allow visitors to project onto it thoughts and interpretations of a much more individual nature than if the memorial had been laden with pre-packaged symbols of grief.

Although the locations and proportions of the square pools, which measure 176 feet on each side, were determined by the footprints of the Twin Towers, the overall dimensions—especially the relation of width to depth, and the juxtaposition of the two bodies of water to each other—somehow seem so ideally balanced that they might have been determined not by the disaster but by an environmental sculptor of uncommon talent.

The only discordant note at the memorial is struck by the freestanding two-story pavilion that will serve as the entry point to the subterranean September 11 Museum slated to open a year from now. Standing next to but fortunately not between the twin pools, it is the work of the Oslo-based partnership Snøhetta (which has a branch office not far from Ground Zero to oversee this and several other American projects, including a revamping of Manhattan’s Times Square). In an odd division of labor, the below-ground exhibition galleries are being designed by another consortium, the New York firm Aedas. (The entire cost of the Arad memorial and September 11 Museum is $700 million.)

The exterior of Snøhetta’s wedge-shaped visitors’ center is rendered in the sharply angular, diagonally striated Deconstructivist mode originally proposed for the site by Libeskind, who won the competition for the World Trade Center reconstruction master plan but was sidelined from any serious implementation of his ideas by the property’s leaseholder, the real estate developer Larry Silverstein. Apart from the 1990s Deconstructivist aesthetic already looking quite dated, the pavilion’s nervously off-kilter, exaggeratedly slant-roofed form imparts the deeply disquieting appearance of a building in collapse, which under these circumstances seems not merely unfortunate but downright tactless.

Furthermore, the perforated portions of its metal panel cladding give the museum entry structure the mechanistic feel of a thinly camouflaged ventilation equipment housing. One can easily imagine that in due course this will be the first part of the memorial ensemble to be redesigned.

Whatever one’s feelings about the events of September 11, 2001, or their baneful political aftereffects, it seems impossible not to be moved in some way by Arad’s memorial. I came away with the same feeling that overtakes one after a funeral or memorial service for a relative or close friend, even though I knew no one who perished at the World Trade Center, or even someone who knew anyone who did.

In creating something at once so monumentally simple and yet so evocatively complex, Arad reconfirms the radical reconception of public memorial design that Maya Lin set in motion with her Vietnam War Memorial three decades ago. Lin herself was accused at the time by some critics of basing her work too closely on the ideas of Michael Heizer, Richard Serra, and other Earth Art or Minimalist sculptors. But the test of time has proven the validity of her insights into the wellsprings of mourning in the modern age, and with his profound variations on her themes, Michael Arad has become one of the signal placemakers of our time.

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