9/11 Place and Memory

 When the twin towers of the World Trade Center (WTC) were built they were almost universally maligned – they were out of scale and ruined the lower Manhattan skyline, the inhuman scale was inhospitable, and the forced eviction and demolition of Radio Row was unpopular. When the towers were completed in 1973, no one  could have imagined that their presence in the skyline would only be temporary and that less than 30 years later they would be sorely missed – their absence a reminder of a national tragedy.

WTC, September 11, 2001

Anyone old enough to remember September 11, 2001 remembers exactly where they were eleven years ago today, when the WTC dominated the skyline for the last time, crowned in a plume of acrid smoke before collapsing one at a time leaving behind twisted metal, ash, and a nation in mourning.  Discussions and arguments about how best to memorialize the event and its victims (including those in Pennsylvania and at the Pentagon) erupted almost immediately.  Inevitably, place and memory are entwined.  Ground Zero, valuable acreage in the heart of New York’s financial district, became a sacred location that day.  The battle between commercialism and commemoration was hard won.

Historic preservation is about the preservation and interpretation of place within an historical context.  Though historic preservation doesn’t generally bring to mind places of the recent past like Ground Zero, a place doesn’t have to be old to be historically significant.  No one could argue that the terrorists attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001 were not of historic importance.   Therefore, the fight to maintain the site as a memorial was, in many ways, a fight for historic preservation.  The memorial and museum that were eventually constructed on the site use place and memory as key design elements.  So linked are place and memory, this memorial complex  could not exist anywhere but at Ground Zero.

Lower Manhattan Skyline Before 9/11/01

Immediate Aftermath – Loss of Place

Before September 11th, you could emerge from nearly any subway station in the city and instantly orient yourself by noting whether the towers were south, west,  or north of you (or east if you were in New Jersey). In the months after the terrorist attack, New Yorkers were disoriented by their absence and the place the towers stood became a makeshift memorial where people pilgrimaged to leave mementos, to pray, to remember. The attack on the WTC effected the entire “feeling” of the city by changing it’s skyline, and the lower Manhattan streetscape.

Commercialization vs Commemoration

While many considered Ground Zero hallowed ground after the attack, the fact was and is that land in lower Manhattan is incredibly valuable.   It was never a possibility that the entire site would be left undeveloped after the debris and wreckage of the towers was removed.  Likewise, it was never a possibility that at least some portion of the site not remain dedicated to the event.  Thus, the debate between commercialization and commemoration ran hotly.  Dozens of proposals hoped to balance the commercial needs of lower Manhattan while also fulfilling the need to interpret the site, and provide people with a place to gather and to remember – a common preservation dilemma.  A design competition was devised to develop a single memorial that honored “all loss of life” on September 11th, as well as February 26,  1993 (when a truck bomb was detonated under the North Tower).  The competition committee received 5,201 submissions from 63 countries.   The winning design by Michael Arad features two water falls with reflecting pools, the names of the victims,  hundreds of trees,  a gathering place, a museum space, a train station, and six commercial buildings.

The National September 11th Memorial & Museum

Rendering of 8 acre quadrant Memorial Plaza

The Memorial Plaza, which opened on the tenth anniversary of 9/11,  is located at Ground Zero on one half of the full sixteen acre site.  Two one acre square reflecting pools are located within the foot prints of the WTC towers.  They feature the two largest man-made waterfalls in North America- the spray sent up by the waterfalls often reflects small rainbows, a symbol of hope.  The water cascades into the pools then drops into square voids at the center.  The bottom of the voids can only be glimpsed.  According to the architect, this is meant to “evoke a persistent absence, one that isn’t erased by the passage of time.”

Names of the victims are cut into bronze parapets around the pools.

The name of every man, woman, and child who died on September 11th and February 26th are inscribed on bronze panels around the perimeter of the reflecting pools.  The names are stencil cut so that visitors can view the waterfalls through the letters.  Light is shown through the letters at night, illuminating the almost 3,000 names.  The names are arranged to reflect the proximity of the victims to the towers. Those who perished in the North Tower, the crew and passengers of Flight 11 (which hit the North Tower), and the victims of the 1993 bombing  are memorialized along the north pool.   Those who perished in the South Tower, the first responders, the victims who perished at the Pentagon, and the crew and passengers of Flight 175 (which hit the South Tower), Flight 77 (the Pentagon), and Flight 93 (Shakersville, Pennsylvania) are memorialized along the south pool.

Rendering of the 9/11 Memorial Plaza at night.

Over 400 Swamp White Oak trees are set at intervals filling in the plaza.  They provide a rustling canopy overhead, shade for the scattered benches beneath, and ever-changing color.  The Memorial Glade within the Swamp White Oak trees is designated for gatherings and special events.

Iconic cross shaped wreckage salvaged from Ground Zero is installed at the Memorial Museum

The museum, which has yet to open,  is housed in a structure 70 feet below ground (along with a train station and other facilities).  It hopes to commemorate the lives of every victim from 2001 and 1993.  Plans include multimedia displays, archives, narratives,  a collection of monumental and authentic artifacts, as well as oral histories.  According to the museum, “The monumental artifacts of the Museum provide a link to the events of 9/11, while presenting intimate stories of loss, compassion, reckoning, and recovery that are central to telling the story of the attacks and the aftermath.”

The National September 11th Memorial and Museum has been criticized for being unoriginal (water features and name lists have been done, some say overdone). It has also been criticized for it’s abstract nature – there is no human representation like the Iwo Jima Memorial or even the empty chairs of the Oklahoma City National Memorial. There are only names, trees,  and water rushing downward into the former footprint of buildings that no longer exist.

Blair Kamin of The Chicago Tribune sums it up much better than I ever could:

“There is something distinctly nonabstract [sic] about a ring of trees around the reflecting pools: The trees precisely replicate the footprints of the twin towers, 212 feet by 212 feet each, as surely as the pools evoke the towers’ absence. This isn’t slavish nostalgia or pandering to the families of the victims. Rooting the memorial in the particular qualities of its site sends a clear message: This is where people were murdered, where the towers pancaked downward in an apocalyptic vision of smoke, fire and ash. This is not a memorial that could be anywhere; it could only have been built here.”

Where were you 11 years ago today?


  1. Pingback: Remembering 9/11 | Falling in Dead Level

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s