The Impossible Burden of the WTC Memorial

Since their unveiling last week, the eight designs chosen as finalists in the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation’s [LMDC’s] World Trade Center Memorial competition haven’t elicited much public enthusiasm. Initial reactions to them have ranged from tepid praise to harsh criticism: Lee Ilipi, father of a fallen firefighter, even told the New York Post that he “gave [the proposals] all F’s.”

It was at the LMDC’s press conference that I had my first glimpse of the finalists: I found the designs difficult to comprehend, even when standing in front of their models, media kit in hand. Later I logged onto the LMDC’s web site—which had fly-throughs, further images, artists’ statements, and bios—and concluded that additional time would not necessarily improve my understanding of the schemes.

Unfortunately, the more I studied the designs, the less promising I found them. None are fully realized. They all feel provisional, like ambitious first drafts. Still I am reluctant to condemn them, because the designers were handed a near-impossible brief.

On an unconscious level, I think we were all hoping that a brilliant idea might help reconcile conflicts between the families and their grief, the Port Authority and Larry Silverstein, the city and state, even master site planner Daniel Libeskind and Freedom Tower architect David Childs. Our expectations were also captive to the huge aesthetic shadow created by the Vietnam Memorial, to the naïve idea that a lone creator could step out of the shadows, recreate the miracle of Maya Lin (a juror here), and produce the perfect solution. That hasn’t happened.

Judging from the demographics of the finalists, it seems likely that more experienced architects and designers were put off by the competition’s 5000 to 1 odds. Although there was something refreshing about the youth of the designers involved, the practical result was a group of less experienced practitioners working on a large, complicated, and highly charged site.

The buildings’ footprints, for instance, are big and have a peculiar relationship to one another: this creates a set of design challenges every bit as daunting as the site’s political and psychological ones. None of the proposed ideas successfully articulates a strong relationship between the footprints. Two schemes (Michael Arad’s “Reflecting Absence” and Norman Lee and Michael Lewis’s “Votives in Suspension”) don’t even address the issue: these designers merely repeat the same idea in each space.

All of the competition’s challenges are compounded by the memorial’s questionable timing. By their nature, memorials should be timeless: yet political pressures have dictated that we develop a memorial design two years after Sept. 11th’s catastrophic morning. This is an invitation for aesthetic disaster. Even if all of the site’s complications could be magically swept away, a powerful design would be difficult to achieve this soon. We don’t know yet what the event or site means.

Maya Lin’s masterpiece could not have been created in 1976, two years after the fall of South Vietnam. As a culture, we needed time to reflect. The same holds true at the World Trade Center site.

At the press event, jury member and former Brown University president Dr. Vartan Gregorian read an eloquent statement from his fellow jurors. “[We feel] that if the memorial alone cannot address all the issues put forth in the mission statement,” he said, “then together with the planned interpretive museum, all parts of the mission statement can be realized over time [italics mine].”

To me the implication was clear: none of these designs by themselves are good enough.

Prior to the announcement of the finalists, the jury asked that all 5,201 entries be publicly exhibited. Another message: If you don’t like these, take a look at what we had to choose from. Until it was disqualified for breaking the rule on dual submissions, Fred Bernstein’s “Twin Piers,” which envisions a pair of walkways projecting into New York Harbor, had also been anointed a finalist. “What possible message was the jury trying to give by considering a design completely off-site?” asked a close observer of the process.

I am surprised that no one has directly challenged the LMDC’s unhealthy relationship to time. So I offer an alternative vision, a ninth plan: for now, stop the memorial process. Designate an area on the WTC site for the memorial, wait at least five years, and then conduct another competition for a permanent tribute. Between now and then, have temporary, changing memorials. Perhaps, after more time has passed, all of us will have a clearer idea exactly what we’re memorializing.

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