Raw Ground

The Pentagon Memorial is the first completed site to honor the victims of September 11, 2001, where they died. Dedicated on the seventh anniversary of the terrorist attacks, this two-acre park strives to make the tragedy intimately tangible through 184 sculptural stone-and-steel benches, one for each casualty on this battleground. The seats are cantilevered over reflecting pools and aligned in rows across a field of gray gravel. By day, the hovering 14-foot-long structures resemble birds lifting off from a pond. By night, with their undersides lit, they slash through the dark like shooting stars. The impact is elegant, almost otherworldly. But what does the imagery mean? “We wanted to defy interpretation,” says Keith Kaseman, who codesigned the memorial with Julie Beckman. (The two, both in their midthirties, are the partners of the Philadelphia-based firm KBAS.) “The ambiguity is intentional.”

The $22 million memorial places abstract ambition on raw ground. It sits directly opposite the west facade of the Pentagon, where five hijackers crashed American Airlines Flight 77, killing 184 people in a fireball that rose 200 feet. The repaired facade rises stoically at the scale of a small mountain. In the opposite direction, beyond a truck checkpoint and a parking lot, a highway serves as a noisy embankment. Overhead, planes rumble to and from nearby Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, a constant reminder of the disastrously diverted plane and the utter normalcy of daily life since.

Into this difficult setting, the designers have inserted a place primarily for families to seek solace. Since the victims ranged from 3 to 71 years old, Kaseman and Beckman took age as their spatial logic, organizing the benches on a grid of birth years defined by stainless-steel bands in the gravel. In the memorial’s most powerful understatement, these “time lines” slice diagonally across the ground in the precise trajectory of the plane’s flight.

That minimalist hardscape is softened by humanizing elements: burbling reflecting pools counter the din of Virginia traffic, paperbark-maple saplings will eventually provide shade, and the gravel records the comforting rhythm of visitors’ footsteps. From the beginning, the design was intended to be a place to sit and contemplate loss. The sculptural “memorial units” do offer loved ones that option. But using a monument as furniture may be asking too much. Jim Laychak, president of the Pentagon Memorial Fund, believes that the memorial is successful as a “marker for a point in our history,” but he prefers to view the bench inscribed to his younger brother, David, who died in the Pentagon, while sitting on a low perimeter wall. On a recent day, children freely climbed on the cantilevered wings, but no adults sat.

“We’re looking forward to the time when the memorial simply exists for people to use however they please,” Kaseman says. In the meantime, “the public is invited to stand within 200 feet of the Pentagon. The context is outside of your usual experience. That, coupled with the memorial, sets a certain tone.”

Since 1982, when Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial cut its dynamic gash in the National Mall, memorial designers have toyed with abstraction but not again achieved that degree of purity or power. Kaseman and Beckman, who admire Lin, honor each victim with a meticulously crafted monument owing more to the chairs and plaques of Oklahoma City and Columbine than to the Vietnam monument in D.C. But in placing emphasis on the individual rather than the collective, the Pentagon Memorial designers have created a place of remembrance that is more cemetery than memorial.

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