10 Years After
When the WTC Memorial competition winner was announced I, like so many others, thought Michael Arad's solution was elegant, bold, expressive and perfectly captured the emotions of 9/11.
10 years later it seems the opposite.
This perfectly conceived and impeccably constructed memorial now seems so utterly bloodless, dark and despairing that it can only conjure the most hopeless and fatalistic feelings. I am shocked to be writing this, but the perspective of a decade has rendered the result both futile and entirely without the optimism that otherwise surrounds the site. How can what seemed so right in the freshness of time now seem so wrong?
Part of the problem will go away when the site is finally finished. We won't have to march through metal detectors and lines filled with tourists and will be able to just wander across the landscape from the city streets surrounding the site. The security, ostensibly because the site is still a construction area, is proof that the terrorists have won. We are herded through the 'experience' and finally exit through the (yes, you guessed it) gift shop in a kind of high security Disney ride. Someday that part will be history. The more the site merges with the city the better.
The gift shop now contains the only real artifacts on the site, and they are enormously moving. One man's wallet and ID card along with a (sic) lucky $2 bill; a firefighter's helmet; exquisitely crumpled aluminum from the building's skin; a steel fragment; these are the most powerful and moving items to be found on the site. They remind us just how personal and individual the victims and their possessions really were, and just how much force the event unleashed. This is real evidence, loaded with immense meaning and the power to remind us of that day. Though what they are doing sitting next to a pimped out chopper from the Orange County dudes I can't really fathom.
In addition to the two gigantic water voids there are a few badly conceived buildings dotting the plaza. One is the entrance to the incomplete museum and two are enclosing air conditioning equipment or some other piece that simply had to be on the plaza (really? was there no better place for those items?). All of them are of the fractured, angled, skewed and non-orthogonal variety that simply scream for attention when a more recessive and deferential set of buildings would have struck the right tone. The fact that they look like fragments of the original buildings after the collapse seems as inescapable as it is inappropriate. Did no one at any of the myriad agencies over-regulating the project suspect that 'train wreck chic' was a very bad choice of formal language?
The Vietnam Memorial, which began the spate of modern memorials, buries us in the sheer quantity of war deaths. The Lincoln Memorial awes us with the gargantuan Lincoln and the towering beauty of his words. The Irish Hunger Memorial gives us a piece of landscape art to remember the 1M lost souls. To be fair, none of these are on the site of their respective tragedies, but all bring a powerful sense of place.
Gettysburg, a tragedy of at least the scale of the WTC, ended with nearly 8,000 dead and some 50,000 casualties. Yet the ground there is so lightly rendered and marked; so delicately tended that it seems to be essentially untouched. This virginal apparition amplifies the horror and it is one of the eeriest landscapes imaginable. Yet the WTC is so carefully staged to evoke emotions that it has the feeling of a manipulative movie; you can get emotional but never lose the feeling of being tricked into it.
Because most of the real architecture at the WTC Memorial is below grade the few building fragments above grade take on an inordinate amount of importance. And that below grade portion, which promised to be the most powerful part of the experience, is now being curtailed by budget concerns in reaction to the jaw-dropping $14B cost estimate recently announced. And while that is a lot of money, it is only about 2 months worth of the Iraq war. We, as a nation, are willing to waste, with no permanent mark of success, 6 or 7 WTC projects every year, but are 'value-engineering' the memorial marking the seminal event.
Now that is jaw-dropping.