Closer view of Michaels Arad’s model for Reflecting Absence.

Forum: Absence Versus Presence: The 9/11 Memorial Design

Perhaps it was doomed from the start. The open competition to design a memorial for 9/11 was launched amid unclear and shifting parameters. Daniel Libeskind’s winning design for the rebuilding of the World Trade Center site, ostensibly selected for its respect of the space and its relics, embraced the memorial concept. Many felt it already provided as much of a memorial as was needed. Centered around a void framed by an array of buildings, including a symbolic tower and a cultural center intended to serve as a memorial museum, Libeskind’s design was being reworked even as the memorial committee met. Today the Freedom Tower, an awkward soaring shape rising to a symbolic 1,776 feet, marks one end of the complex and the winning memorial design has replaced Libeskind’s intended museum with one of its own. Undoubtedly the “refining process” will continue.

Speculation about an appropriate memorial to 9/11 began almost immediately after the terrorist attack on New York City, set against the endlessly recycled tapes of the planes hitting the Twin Towers and the seemingly omnipresent spontaneous memorials placed at Union Square and numerous sites throughout the region. On September 23, 2001, the cover of the New York Times magazine featured an image of two towers of light (later to become the Tribute of Light), a much-acclaimed temporary work that seemed to offer the symbolic gesture everyone needed. The following year (September 8, 2002), the magazine published a number of memorial proposals, including Maya Lin’s sketch for a site defined by two voids. The winning design by New York City Housing Authority architect Michael Arad is remarkably similar.

Lin, one of the 13-member jury, is believed to have exercised a strong influence.1 Certainly echoes of her much admired and imitated Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, were apparent in the designs of the eight finalists. I overheard many who viewed the models at the World Financial Center observe that they could barely tell them apart. Not only did they somehow look similar, they also shared a disappointing level of mediocrity. Theodore Pavelescu, a freshman in an honors art seminar I was teaching at City College, blamed the uniformity of the proposals on “the speed with which the competition was launched” and concluded that “the proposals sought either to impress the viewer through engineering marvels or to materialize rigid philosophical statements into symbolic structural ensembles.”2 Eric Fischl, whose commemorative sculpture Tumbling Woman was removed from Rockefeller Center after complaints that it was too distressing, observed that “these sanitized designs could be memorials to anything almost anywhere.”3 Variations of these views abounded. Indeed, responses to the finalist designs were as negative as reaction to the Towers of Light had been positive.

Michaels Arad’s original model for Reflecting Absence.

Former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani as well as New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman suggested that the committee should declare a failed search and begin again.4 Why they didn’t start over continues to perplex and dismay. Given the freedom to conduct the search away from public and press scrutiny, the committee was spared every constraint except the most important one—sufficient time. The panel had the daunting task of reviewing some 5,201 entries in a matter of months and picking a winner in time for the cornerstone to be laid by the 2004 anniversary. This rush to judgment was, according to many, predicated on political and economic concerns. Rebuilding lower Manhattan would continue apace, with ground-breaking scheduled in time for the fall Republican convention in New York, with Governor George Pataki, who would still be in office, presiding.

Micheal Arad and Peter Walker, Reflecting Absence, view of winning design.

Michael Arad’s design, Reflecting Absence, at ground level consists of two sunken reflecting pools covering the footprints of the Twin Towers, 30 feet below grade, bounded by walls of water. These gaping chasms, together with the descending ramps and various underground spaces, are intended to symbolize absence, all that was lost. However, this design seems more like a conceptual starting point than a realized vision. Clearly, the selection committee must have felt this way too. They brought in established landscape architect Peter Walker to fill in the empty spaces at ground level with greenery. Jury chair Vartan Gregorian went so far as to remark, “Without Walker, there would not be Arad.”5 But this add-on was just that. Like so much public art brought in to humanize modern architecture, this was an ornament after the fact, albeit a pleasant green one. If the jury wanted a memorial park, they should have selected a design with this focus to begin with.

Reflecting Absence is invisible beyond the boundaries of its immediate site. (This is evident in the model on display at the World Financial Center as part of the “Recovery to Renewal” exhibition.) With its below-ground place for family members to mourn and relics to be displayed, it fulfills the traditional role of a crypt. Implicitly this suggests that the land above is a church. However, there are plans for an underground “interpretive center” with “exhibition areas as well as lecture halls and a research library”—all attributes that suggest a museum.6

Conceptual problems abound. Most glaring is the placement of the names, which will be listed randomly around the perimeters of the pools. Without a directory, those searching for someone specific are doomed to relive the traumatic experience of the first awful hours and days after 9/11 when the missing were hoped to be just that. And here perhaps lies the crux of what is most wrong with this design. It lacks a vision not only of historical significance, but also of personal experience. Mourning is not anchored in individual deaths (since the names are randomly scattered about, like so much decorative detail on a frame); instead, visually and symbolically, mourning focuses only on the Trade Center towers—icons after the fact of the terrorist attacks.

Micheal Arad and Peter Walker, Reflecting Absence, view of winning design.

By contrast, the names listed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (presumably the model that prompted the inclusion of names as part of the design concept) are listed chronologically in order of death, with readily available directories making it easy to find individual listings by numbered panel. Then too the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which provides a clear path with narrative implications, is precisely defined by its site on the Washington Mall, visually framed by the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. At this point, the only thing that appears to frame the Arad/Walker design is Libeskind’s Tower of Freedom, which will become the above-ground focal point.

There are technical and engineering problems too: critical issues of freezing water in the pools, splashing water obliterating names and possibly soaking spectators, crowd access, and structural support of the so-called bathtub wall, a relic of the Trade Center site.7 The infrastructural requirements of the underground transit systems may obviate the possibility of the reflecting pools being the same size as the footprints.8 Even the designers readily admit that adjustments to the design may be necessary. So what it will finally look like may not be predictable at this point.9 Nevertheless, it is possible to take issue with some of the design decisions. Why evoke clearly only the buildings, not the victims who inhabited them? Why not list their names according to where they worked, making it possible to locate them in a way that reflects something of the lives they led? And why not list the firefighters and police in the same way? This would not make some lives more important than others. Rather, it would indicate something of the history of 9/11 and the specifics of the loss.

Why give up all ambition for a visually and conceptually compelling memorial? At the removal of the final relic from the World Trade Center site, Governor Pataki read from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address as if there were no new words for this very different tragedy. The Arad/Walker hybrid, a muted echo of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and its many offshoots, suggests that there were no artists or architects with vision who might have created something more than a reflection of absence. Based on what I have seen even from student responses and certainly from the work of New York’s rich artistic community, it defies reason to believe that this design reflects what was possible. We need a memorial defined by presence, not absence, conveying the specifics of the event, inspiring thoughtfulness and mourning, clear in its form and message. The memorial we need and history deserves isn’t there. And now, apparently, there is no time to find or even imagine it.

1 Other panel members were Paula Grant Berry, Susan K. Freedman, Vartan Gregorian, Patricia Harries, Michael McKeon, Julie Menin, Enrique Norten, Martin Puryear, Nancy Rosen, Lowery Stokes Sims, Michael Van Valkenburgh, and James E. Young. For a summary of their positions, see “13 Who Will Do Choosing: Jurors for the Memorial Competition,” New York Times (November 19, 2003): B4.
2 We began the fall 2003 semester with the assignment to design a fitting memorial for 9/11 in any form. After the finalists were announced, I asked the 15 class members to select their favorite model; only two chose the Arad proposal.
3 Eric Fischl, “A Memorial That’s True to 9/11,” New York Times (December 19, 2003): A19. Fischl lamented the absence of narrative content or “true artistic expression.” See also David Rakoff, “Questions for Eric Fischl: Post-9/11 Modernism,” New York Times (October 27, 2002): 15.
4 See Joyce Purnick, “For Giuliani, Memorial Plans Fall Far Short,” New York Times (December 22, 2003): B1; and Michael Kimmelman, “Ground Zero’s Only Hope: Elitism,” New York Times (December 7, 2003): AR2, 1, 47. Kimmelman suggested a limited competition with entrants chosen by the jury.
5 Gregorian is quoted in Glenn Collins and David W. Dunlap, “The 9/11 Memorial: How Pluribus Became Unum,” New York Times (January 19, 2004): B4. See also David W. Dunlap and Glenn Collins, “How Greening of Design Swayed Memorial Jury,” New York Times (January 8, 2004): B1. For a critique of the addition of greenery, see Joseph Giovannini, “Roots of Memory,” New York Magazine (January 19–26, 2004), p. 28–29. Greatly admiring of Arad’s design, he observes, “Too much green could look like a visual apology for an idea that needs none.”
6 See the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC) Web site: <>. Accessed January 15, 2004.
7 See, for example, Eric Lipton, “Nuts and Bolts (and Water) Challenge 9/11 Shrine,” New York Times (January 24, 2004): A1, B2. In an earlier article, “Behind Beauty of 9/11 Designs, Devil May Be in Nuts and Bolts,” New York Times (November 30, 2003): A1, 44, Lipton suggested that none of the eight finalists were actually buildable.
8 David W. Dunlap, “At 9/11 Memorial, Actual Sizes May Vary,” New York Times (February 12, 2004): B1.
9 Eva Hagberg, “Reflecting Absence Unveiled,” The Architect’s Newspaper (February 3, 2004): 1, 2. She observes that Arad’s design was the one that changed Libeskind’s plan most directly, suggested that “someone may come along and do to Michael what Michael just did to Daniel.”