This Westchester Memorial Is Everything the WTC, Regrettably, Won’t Be

Those seeking succor in architectural monuments—hopeless optimists, surely—might want to skip Ground Zero and take the train upstate.

Quick: think of a good contemporary memorial. No, not that one we’ve all heard quite enough about: Maya Lin’s shrine to the Vietnam War—a wonderful thing, a bolt from the blue, a one-in-a-million shot—a modern design that people actually respond to, but clearly neither a reproducible scheme nor useful as precedent, as the attempts of Lin’s imitators and her own subsequent work has shown. Try again. Maybe the new World War II memorial on the National Mall is to your taste? No, I didn’t think so. Perhaps then you count yourself among the handful of people who don’t hate the winning design for the September 11 memorial at Ground Zero? If so, I regret to inform you, you’ve been spun. So much is still unresolved there that we don’t know what it will be like—the designers don’t know what it will be like—though we can be sure it won’t do all the things it promises.

Earlier this year the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC) released images of every design submitted to the memorial competition in 2003. Among the 5,201 proposals there was the usual range of responses, from the pretentious to the naive to the absurd, but nearly all of them—the winner, “Reflecting Absence,” included—had a few things in common: they were offensively grandiose, fatally compromised, and communicated nothing.

Part of the problem was the setting; entries had been hog-tied by the requirement to fit within—or rebel against—the 16-sided socket that Daniel Libeskind’s now irrelevant master plan had provided. The most successful contestants (the winner, again, included) just ignored all those tortured angles and did their thing, starting from a blank slate. It is just too much to ask designers—today’s certainly, but probably also yesterday’s and tomorrow’s—to create an architectural object or environment that can do all the things the memorial was being asked to do, while also jumping through the hoop of Libeskind’s formalism. But even with that framework long gone—apart from the height of the “Freedom Tower,” not a single trace of its symbolism remains in the “refined” master plan approved by the LMDC last September—the deck is stacked against the realization of anything but a fussy histrionic memorial at Ground Zero. A quick list of tricky demands on the thing might include: signaling defiance (as still befits the political moment), demonstrating respect for the dead (complicated by the fact that the memorial is also a graveyard), incorporating a repository for unidentified remains (across the street from theaters and stores), and managing the expected onslaught of tourists that may very well make Ground Zero into what the New York Post has referred to as a “Disneyland of Death.”

Whether the preliminary design that was selected last year and tinkered with constantly since—two vast splashing pools in the tower footprints—can overcome any of these things is an open question, of course; it won’t be complete until 2008. But there is very little reason to hope that it will speak to people. What modern memorial (except that one lucky strike in D.C.) does? No one—not even the designer himself—argues that “Reflecting Absences” is a similar stroke of genius. And on top of the difficulties built into the competition brief, it has already been thoroughly compromised; an LMDC advisory committee recommended earlier this year that a representative piece of the World Trade Center wreckage should be included in the plaza—the one the designer originally proposed as an uninterrupted plain, later turned into a park at the whim of the jury and political forces with an unerring eye for the path of least resistance.

The story is very different in Westchester County, where a design was recently unveiled for a memorial to the 109 local victims of the attack. The county executive announced in 2003 that a memorial would be selected within a year, and after a small open competition, it was. The winner was Fred Schwartz, who has become something of an unofficial watchdog of the redevelopment process in the year and a half since his Think team’s demanding “World Cultural Center” plan was snubbed by Governor Pataki in favor of Libeskind’s more malleable “Memory Foundations.” For the parkland site chosen for the memorial (appropriately enough in the town of Valhalla), Schwartz proposed a meditation on “e pluribus unum”: from a stone ring—carved with the names, and birth and death dates of the victims—109 stainless-steel rods spring toward the center, weaving as they spiral upward to form an 80-foot-tall pylon. “It’s magic,” Schwartz says.

The memorial is scheduled to be dedicated next year on September 11, and until then we’ll have to take Schwartz’s word on its effects. But in its simplicity there is a powerful reminder of what we have to look forward to at Ground Zero: compromised contexts beget compromised architecture. The respectful, modest thing that Schwartz is attempting to raise in Westchester—to mark a place, hit one or two emotional notes, get in and get out before committing any grotesque architectural sins—is precisely what is needed downtown, and precisely what the very nature of the site there makes impossible. So those seeking succor in architectural monuments—hopeless optimists, surely—might want to skip Ground Zero and take the train up to see Schwartz’s steel spindle. Maybe they’ll find what they’re looking for in Valhalla.

Categories: Cities, Cultural Architecture