A fitting memorial?

Posted on November 30, 2003 by Gene

As I look in more detail at the finalists for a World Trade Center Memorial, I keep finding reasons not to like them.
The first, and perhaps most instinctual, is that all the designs are light and uplifting — it’s like they were designed by the architects of malls. I feel as if they don’t adequately portray what happened there. Instead, they create a stylish park, none of which imparts a feeling of timelessness, as if it will be torn down and replaced later.
There were some dictates in this competition, not the least daunting of which was to preserve the footprints of the towers. I can certainly understand the emotional reaction of the families and friends of those killed, they wanted to keep that ground hallowed. Fair enough. But then on top of that, the designs must list all those killed; it must preserve and display the slurry wall that formed part of the WTC foundation, etc. This has resulted in memorials that are far too complex. The beauty of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial — which has become the new standard on which other memorials are designed and judged — is powerful in it’s simplicity. The Oklahoma City National Memorial really toes right up to the line separating effective memorial and bizarre tourist attraction. And I’m afraid that what they’re building here in Arlington beside the Pentagon has crossed that line.
I just believe that the downfall of these memorials is that since the Vietnam Wall, they’ve all been designed to be a massive collection of individual memorials — listing the names of each victim in such a huge catastrophe is unwieldy, but can be done. But when you do more: give each victim a chair, a bench, a votive, a projected image — it becomes more about the memorial than the victims. The presentation of the names detracts from the names themselves. And since the death toll is still fluctuating, and there are doubtless some people that may have died there who were not accounted for, how can they use a specific number in all of these designs? What happens if the memorial is built, and they discover that someone is listed who was not killed? Or worse yet, someone fraudulently claimed as dead is listed?
One reaction I had to the WTC designs was fear — when I viewed the animations, I got a scared feeling in the pit of my stomach because most of them have underground chambers with votives, lights, etc. All I could think of was the slab above me pancaking down and crushing me. I don’t know, perhaps that was the empathic feeling the designers wanted me to have.
I just think that what needs to be done is simple. Put back some of the twisted steel that was carted away for use in a future memorial. Plant grass in the footprints of the towers, and build a low wall around them, with the names engraved. Simple, to the point, and will last for centuries.