Commemorating 9/11 USA

Out of the ashes: the legacy of 9/11

Ten years after the devastating attacks on New York, does the reconstruction do justice to the site, and to the victims?

Repairing the hole: the new One World Trade Center building rises in Lower Manhattan (Photo: 31 August 2011, REUTERS/Lucas Jackson)

This weekend, on the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, President Obama will make the official dedication of the National September 11 Memorial plaza at Ground Zero with water pools in the footprints of the felled twin towers. Beneath the pools, the associated 11,000 sq. m museum is taking shape and is scheduled to open in 2012. It includes a facility to house some of the body fragments while further testing takes place, hidden behind the concrete wall of the museum’s seven-storey-high subterranean chambers. On the wall is a quotation from Virgil’s Aeneid: “No day shall erase you from the memory of time.”

Part tomb, part science lab, part shrine, part exhibition space and part public park, the many purposes of the 20-hectare site reflect the Byzantine negotiations behind the rebuilding and commemoration process. Within the plaza, the museum’s angular entrance pavilion, by Norwegian architects Snøhetta, has had five major iterations and four dozen minor ones as it morphed from its original purpose as a proposed human rights and arts centre—a purpose blocked by politicians wary of the way American actions in Iraq and at Guantanamo Bay could be scrutinised after the events. The museum below the pavilion is being designed separately by Aedas architects.

Many New Yorkers expect the final result to be hopelessly compromised by politics and high finance. A first glimpse suggests that the memorial designed by architect Michael Arad and landscape designer Peter Walker has the potential to dignify the human loss, if rather conventionally. The same cannot be said of the new skyscrapers surrounding the plaza, where Daniel Libeskind’s “Memory Foundations” masterplan is utterly compromised. Libeskind’s defunct Freedom Tower has been replaced by the fast-rising One World Trade Center designed by corporate architecture practice Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM).

Arad and Walker’s memorial is a mild-mannered, European piazza with slate-grey paving and 416 white swamp oaks planted in grids and groves. Some nine metres below plaza level, the one-acre pools fill the square foundations of the old twin towers. Surrounding them are waist-high walls, lit from below, and with the names of all who died laser-cut into their bronze parapets. Waterfalls tumble inwards, down into the pools. At the centre of each pool is another, smaller square pit, down which the waters plunge again, out of sight. Arad and Walker have called their work Reflecting Absence. It is about making a void present. The memorial recalls German artist Horst Hoheisel’s 1980s anti-monument in Kassel. Hoheisel used the site of a fountain destroyed by the Nazis (it had been built with Jewish money) to create a funnel deep into the ground, down which water flowed into darkness—a mirror image of the previous fountain.

Hoheisel’s work reflected a concern that conventional memorials become a “remembrance full stop” as memories fade, and are replaced by a fixed object in the cityscape. He was inviting people to “search for the memorial in their own heads”. Of course, an anti-monument is in itself a structure, as is Reflecting Absence. Will it eventually become just another city square with the pools full of dimes tossed in for a wish? Is the void as presence in danger of becoming a new convention?

In nearby Battery Park, a series of much smaller war memorials mark tens of thousands of deaths. Some, such as the recently erected, shiny silhouette of a soldier that commemorates the Korean War dead, have minimal emotional resonance. Yet on the Hudson waterfront, the Irish Hunger Memorial, 2002 (by artist Brian Tolle, landscape architect Gail Wittwer-Laird and architects 1100), an elevated half-acre of planted Irish heath approached by a ramp from below and incorporating a tumbled-down cottage, has an elegiac quality. Enduring meaning is a consequence of artistic skill and continued relevance to wider society: in London, Lutyens’s Whitehall Cenotaph, while ostensibly the epitome of the traditional memorial, has its own continuing subtlety, with its vertical lines shooting upwards towards an infinity point.

In its original version (stymied by security concerns), the 9/11 memorial had ramps that allowed visitors to descend to pool level behind a curtain of water, with a direct link through a deep fissure to an underground centre with artefacts from 9/11. This connection has now been lost. Instead, a year from now, 1,500, time-ticketed, visitors per hour are expected to enter the Snøhetta pavilion and zig-zag their way down ramps to the bedrock several storeys below, where builders in high-visibility vests have carved out two exhibition cubes below each pool. One is a box within a box on the outside of which the name of each victim will be endlessly projected in sequence, the other a historical exhibition describing the attack on the twin towers and subsequent events up to the death of Osama bin Laden.

As artefacts—a crushed fire truck and the steel from a point of plane impact—are lowered in by crane through a temporary hole in the ceiling, rays of sunlight stream into the chamber. In the middle stands, obelisk-like, the last 11-metre-high section of a concrete pillar from the towers, covered with graffiti by pilgrims to the site.

First, however, the visitors, expected to number two million a year, will pass down a staircase in the pavilion to the sound of voices relating their experience of watching the 9/11 attacks. To one side of the stair stand two massive “tridents”, the fork-shaped vertical steel elements that made up the ground-level façade of the old World Trade Center. One initial idea for a suitable memorial was to maintain the multi-storey section of the south tower façade that remained standing as a twisted ruin. These tridents, each approximately 27 metres tall, are a fragment of that façade.

US journalist Eric Fredericksen wrote at the time that the idea of retaining the façade as ruin “flirts with the aestheticisation of murder”. Others argued for its retention: architecture critic Herbert Muschamp said the perforated metallic ruin recalled Frank Gehry and Issey Miyake’s work. The former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Philippe de Montebello, reminded us of the role that ruins have played in the cultural geography of the West: “It could become a testament to renewal. As a symbol of survival, it is already, in its own way, a masterpiece—and should remain.”

The museum’s acting director of education and senior programme advisor, Clifford Chanin, acknowledges the potential pitfalls of aestheticising documentary evidence, but points to the essay by Francesc Torres, “The Museum of Unnatural History: Hangar 17 and the Physical Sediment of 9/11”, in the catalogue of Torres’s photographic exhibition of 9/11 artefacts running in rough parallel at London’s Imperial War Museum (until 26 February 2012), the International Centre for Photography in New York (9 September-8 January 2012) and the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona (9 September-3 November).

“We have grown accustomed,” writes Torres, “to perceiving bent steel (Richard Serra) and crushed cars as sculpture (John Chamberlain), and charred and eroded surfaces as painting (Jasper Johns, Antoni Tàpies, Anselm Kiefer). All these and more—discarded clothes, personal belongings, papers and documents—are now fully assimilated into the history and tradition of modern western art, making very difficult a strict distinction between documentary and aesthetic qualities.”

Nevertheless, every aspect of the proposed display remains contentious. Almost 2,800 people died in the attack on the World Trade Center. A decade on, there is still no trace of some 40% of those killed—although DNA testing may eventually attach names to some of the 9,000 human fragments still stored in refrigerated trucks at the office of the New York City medical examiner. The body parts are not meant to be understood as a tomb for unknown civilians—a placement which has angered some 9/11 families. Chanin says firmly: “It is not a mausoleum. It is a repository, not a grave. The medical examiner is still conducting an active investigation. The memorial [plaza] is a place of mourning. The museum is the story behind the mourning.”

The Virgil quote has also come under fire, with author Caroline Alexander arguing furiously in a New York Times op-ed (where many of these arguments are getting an airing) that the original context celebrated warriors Nisus and Euryalus and the privilege of dying together, rather than the involuntary victims of indiscriminate terrorism.

Craig Dykers, director of Snøhetta, was on a plane approaching New York on 9/11 and saw the plumes rising from the World Trade Center. He says he was reluctant to engage in the architecture competition, wary of “ambulance chasing”, but was persuaded by the original innovative and progressive brief for the combined museum and freedom centre. Now his focus is on the museum entrance pavilion.

“Our building,” Dykers says, is “a threshold from the everyday life of the street to the life of the museum, a transitory space.” The bolted structural steel web of the atrium provides, he says, “a kind of anger” to juxtapose with the serene glass and matt steel façades, inspired by old photos of the clouds reflected fleetingly on the metal skin of the twin towers.

While Chanin, Snøhetta and Aedas are striving for something poetic and dignified, it remains to be seen if they can balance the potential sentiment­ality of the exhibits themselves. Chanin’s team looked at the museums at Gettysburg, Yad Vashem and the slave house on Gorée Island, Senegal, when developing the 9/11 memorial. But, for now at least, there is the pressure from families of the victims and everyday New Yorkers who were also affected by the tragedy to contend with.

The aim is to personalise rather than collectivise memories of the dead. The holy of holies in the memorial museum is inside “the box within a box”, where images of the dead and the commentary of friends and family will play in a continual loop. Relatives can request specific times for showings, for example on birthdays. Chanin calls this “a portrait of mass murder”. But the sheer practicalities of channelling 1,500 people an hour through this living room-sized space are daunting.

Although the memorial and museum are deemed to be secular spaces, there is an insistence by all players that, at the very least, the plaza is “sacred” ground. But developer and bureaucratic pressure has chipped away at much of the symbolic context.

The decision to rename the Freedom Tower as One World Trade Center is emblematic of the departure from Libeskind’s original masterplan. The tower’s antennae remain 1,776 feet high (embodying the date of the declaration of independence) and its habitable floors will be the same height as the original twin towers, but otherwise, amid lawsuits and public spats, the placement and design of the other three towers under construction (two further buildings are on hold) has changed radically. The simplified facets of the main tower’s spire no longer echo the Statue of Liberty’s torch, nor the disposition of the buildings the swirl of her verdigris skirts (if they ever effectively did).

The plan at the outset was that each year, a wedge of light hitting the plaza between the new buildings would mark the exact time that the two planes crashed into the twin towers. Libeskind argues that this concept is still in place, with the path of the sun marked between a building and the spine of the low-rise roof of the Port Authority station. “It is the formation of a memorial in the light of New York,” he says. “I’d say it is even more powerful than my original idea.

“There was, of course, a lot of struggle at the beginning—there were so many lawyers—but at the end, somehow people pulled together.

I created a safer tower with a spire and [observation] platforms for the public, which is exactly what is getting built.” This is not convincing. Libeskind is not designing any of the buildings, or the memorial, or the museum. The use of water remains, but is now reimagined by others.

The pools will still dutifully reflect and the museum’s massive cavern will no doubt inspire awe, but without some in-situ touchstone remaining from what was there before, neither the memorial nor the museum is likely to invoke a powerful sense of place. Arad is on record saying: “As soon as you step onto the memorial plaza, you will feel this sort of energy travelling up right through the soles of your feet.” However, this kind of hyperbole will not conjure into reality the emotional blitz of the kind experienced at, say, Sachsenhausen, or Phnom Penh’s Tuol Sleng.

Taking 9/11 objects into the museum decontextualises them and reduces their power. Whatever the dangers of aestheticising murder, the several storeys-high ruined façades of the south tower had, where they originally stood, a twisted, gothic potency that will be hard to replicate.

The 9/11 memorial is no Coventry Cathedral, no Hiroshima A-bomb Dome. The promise has been broken. The memorial strategy at work could effectively help us forget—at least outside the controlled confines of a museum’s walls.


Aftermath: Ground Zero on 26 September 2001
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