9/11 memorial stirring - but backdrop fails to impress

The twin granite pools mark where the World Trade Center towers stood, forming the core of the somber memorial park that is to open on Sept. 11.
The twin granite pools mark where the World Trade Center towers stood, forming the core of the somber memorial park that is to open on Sept. 11. (DAVID SWANSONStaff Photographer)
Posted: August 28, 2011

NEW YORK - If Americans were certain about anything in the terrible days after the World Trade Center towers were flattened before our eyes, it was this: There would be a memorial here to the dead, and it would acknowledge the footprints of the two vanished skyscrapers that dominated the skyline for 28 years.

So many of our initial expectations for ground zero and the world have been proved wrong in the last decade. Even the site itself, a place of unfathomable suffering, became a titanic battleground, fought over by politicians, developers, architects, and grieving families. Yet the simple concept for the memorial, which took hold as smoke rose from the rubble, has survived intact.

Two granite pools, which appear almost bottomless in their stygian depths, now mark the ground where twin towers stood and form the core of a somber memorial park that will open next month on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. Given the tumult over its design, the eight-acre memorial is a surprisingly effective emotional prompt for our feelings about that day's quartet of hijackings, which claimed 2,977 lives.

As the first fragment of the devastated site to be repaired, the National September 11 Memorial - which honors everyone who died in the 2001 attacks and the 1993 car bombing - bears an immense burden. With other catastrophes, the commemorations were merely expected to help mend wounded hearts. This one, on the very spot where tragedy occurred, must also mend the broken cityscape of lower Manhattan, once the world's premier financial center, now a place in search of a new identity.

The memorial, however, is but half of ground zero's 16 acres. The rest remains a churning landscape of half-finished buildings. In many places, the guts of the underground metropolis are still exposed, and the noise of construction makes normal conversation difficult. Because the area is a work zone, access to the memorial will be controlled and visitors will need reservations to enter. Let's hope security-mad officials don't make that system permanent.

The process of designing the memorial wasn't pretty, either. The collaboration between Michael Arad, an unknown New York architect who emerged as winner of a 2003 competition, and the California landscape architect Peter Walker was essentially a shotgun marriage. Rising costs and other practical concerns forced Arad to scale back his original ambitions for the memorial, titled Reflecting Absence.

As a concept, the idea of making the fallen buildings' footprints the centerpiece of the memorial was obvious, yet it is hard not to be moved by the simplest details.

Arad installed 30-foot-deep basins, clad in dark granite, in the towers' foundations. A wide bronze railing runs around the edges at chest height, with the names of the victims stencil-cut into the surface. After much controversy, it was agreed the names should be grouped by the victims' locations in the attack and relationship to others who perished. The names of husbands and wives, for instance, are placed together.

Visitors are quickly drawn through Walker's regimented rows of swamp white oaks to the pools. As you lean over the railing, you see water cascading down the walls. It runs into a square opening in the center of the void, as though swirling down a giant bathtub drain, before dropping a further 20 feet. The water will be pumped ceaselessly into those pools, yet the immense emptiness will never be filled - just as the void in the nation's history from 9/11 can never be adequately filled.

I found the inky deepness of the pools and the sight of water being sucked into the earth, like the hopes and dreams of the dead, almost too much to bear, and had to turn away. Arad accentuates the horror by making the dimensions of the basins slightly smaller than the original tower footprints, which were 212 feet on a side. So, when you peer into the void, you are standing on the site of the collapsed towers.

There were moments when I wondered whether the pools were too dominating for the space. Eventually, office workers will come to the memorial park on their lunch breaks to enjoy one of the few shady clearings in the financial district. How will they feel when their path is blocked? Could the pools end up as annoying obstacles, much like Richard Serra's enormous Tilted Arc sculpture, which was removed from nearby Federal Plaza after a bitter controversy in 1989? Yet, ultimately, the design forces us into a confrontation with the physical evidence of history.

The issue that split Arad and Walker centered primarily on the trees. Arad felt they distracted from the main show, the basins. Walker felt the eight-acre site would have been unbearable without their sheltering shade. Walker was right. Without them, the memorial, and the surrounding office development, could not have a secondary use as a park and the damaged site could never be knitted back into the life of the city. Better a flawed composition than a granite desert.

The 416 oaks, chosen for their longevity, appear to be arranged as a pure grid. It soon becomes clear that they're staggered. Those around the pools replicate the placement of the steel columns that held up the towers. Now pruned in the shape of elegant pyramids, the oak canopies will ultimately merge into one.

In this rigorously minimalist aesthetic of straight lines, Walker throws one curve, and it's a doozy. The so-called survivor tree, a Callery pear that was found alive in the rubble and nursed back to health, has been installed just west of the pools. Its limbs were burned off on 9/11, but they have grown back to form a living candelabra. You see evidence of the trauma: Smooth branches emerge from the rough scars of the 9/11 bark.

It's hard to experience the stripped-down aesthetic of the September 11 Memorial and not make comparisons to Maya Lin's tribute to the Vietnam War on the National Mall. In both cases, the minimalist design serves as a plain backdrop against which visitors can project their feelings.

Artifacts from the tragedy, including a steel trident from the towers, will be housed underground in a museum that will open on Sept. 11, 2012. A long ramp will take visitors below the pools, down to bedrock, terminating at the foundation wall that stood strong and held back the Hudson River after the towers collapsed.

That event is often read as a metaphor for America's democracy. But the 9/11 memorial doesn't have a chance of achieving the greatness of the Vietnam tribute unless it becomes a gathering place for parades and protests. Unfortunately, it's not clear whether such normal democratic activities will be allowed at this shrine to our nation's democracy.

For a long time, it seemed nothing would get built on the remaining eight acres because of bickering. It is still early to judge the results, but in this, too, they offer reasons to hope.

The new towers already appear to be little more than sleek monuments to corporate power, especially the tallest of the group, Tower One, formerly known as Freedom Tower. Designed by SOM, the 1,776-foot skyscraper went through unfortunate design changes to please the security folks, and the bottom 200 feet is now a windowless bunker.

But the reconfiguration of the overall site should be a victory for urban values. The vast 16-acre platform, created by architect Minoru Yamasaki as a pedestal for his twin towers, has been removed, so people no longer have to confront its massive blank walls. Several historic streets destroyed by the platform have been reinstated.

When the last towers are finished, in about five years, a mostly flat surface will extend from Church Street down to West Street, allowing pedestrians to flow naturally into the memorial. One superblock will become four distinct city blocks.

Lynne Sagalyn, a Columbia University professor who is writing a history of the reconstruction, said she saw the site emerging as the downtown core of the invigorated residential districts of Tribeca and nearby Brooklyn. The big architectural attraction would be the arcing steel ribs of Santiago Calatrava's PATH station, which recalls both the wings of a bird and great European train stations.

Those are the positives.

The original calls to make ground zero a mixed-use development, with housing and offices, were rejected. Developer Larry Silverstein was allowed to replace the full 11 million square feet of lost office space. The hugely dense twin towers have essentially been replicated in a more urban way.

Worst of all, the promised cultural venues have been dropped, one by one, from the plan, making it even more of a monoculture. No one knows when the Frank Gehry-designed performing arts center will be built.

Why should we be surprised? In so many ways, the results reflect the narrative of the last decade, when corporate greed took precedence over civic good.

Rebuilding ground zero has been as much about exploiting real estate as memorializing the dead. In that way, it represents the culture of New York at its most elemental, with building as a way of forgetting the past. At least for now, this memorial should help us remember.

Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at isaffron@phillynews.com or @ingasaffron on Twitter.

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