The Power of Inadvertent Design

If it’s ‘Historic Authenticity’ you want, don’t call in the designers.

On September 10, 2002, I was driving east from San Francisco to New York and decided to acknowledge the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks by stopping at the Oklahoma City National Memorial, built on the site of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. Here at least, I figured, I could pay my respects to another set of victims to terrorism.

Under the glare of the dust-bowl sun—no breezes, no shadows—I meandered around the memorial designed by Butzer Design Partnership, the winners of a competition. The centerpiece is the “field of Empty Chairs”: 168 symbolic chairs—big ones representing adult victims, small ones representing children—lined up in nine rows, one for each floor of the building that was destroyed by a truck bomb on April 19, 1995. The memorial site is framed by the “Gates of Time,” unadorned arches symbolically bookending the minute in which the building was destroyed.

The memorial was simple, tasteful, and well done. In person it looked very much as it appears in pictures, a pristine place where a carefully constructed system codifies the violence of a terrible event. But there was another part to the memorial, one that I had never seen photographed or mentioned in published descriptions. At the south end of the site, the Murrah Building’s front steps and entry plaza remain standing. It is a classic 1970s government-issued place: the wood-grain poured-concrete walls, the simple backless wooden benches, the concrete garbage cans that say “litter” in lowercase Helvetica. Compared with the cool 1990s style of the memorial, this relic of the original building was lost in time.

I stood on those leftover steps, where federal employees used to come and go, and gazed out over the empty chairs. The only other person up there was a maintenance man with a leaf blower. Slowly I turned my attention from the memorial below to the architectural remnant around me. The mundane trappings of the steps were to me so much more eloquent than the careful symbolism of the memorial because they spoke of ordinary people going about their daily business. What better indictment of terrorism?

I began thinking about this experience in November, when I saw the eight finalists for the World Trade Center Memorial. I looked at the images and was, at first glance, pleased with their tasteful designs, their minimalist élan. If this were merely an exercise in aesthetics, I would have been enthusiastic about the selection. But pretty was not supposed to be the end product here.

What the memorial finalists speak of is a consensus of how we—those of us in the more sophisticated precincts—address the topic of tragedy. We do it with a tasteful restraint that, apparently, we have learned less from thinking about issues of life and death and more from visiting fashionable spots such as John Pawson’s Calvin Klein store.

Okay, maybe this is unfair. The real precursors to these attempts to fashion a 9/11 memorial are obviously WTC Memorial jury member Maya Lin’s 1982 Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial, and Daniel Libeskind’s 1999 Jewish Museum, in Berlin. Both introduced new language to emotionally loaded situations. Lin’s black marble V engendered controversy; the nonrepresentational nature of her memorial was alien to some veterans’ groups, but the real problem was that her memorial spoke so plainly of death. It was one long tombstone that made no allowances for glory or patriotism. With its two wings stretching toward the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument and its path leading visitors deeper and deeper into the earth, the 21-year-old Lin managed to synthesize the story of Vietnam in one clear gesture.

Libeskind’s Jewish Museum used physical space to tell the story of the persecution and massacre of Europe’s Jews. The corridor leading to space that represents the Holocaust has a ceiling that keeps getting lower. The Holocaust itself is a tall, dark tower separated from the hallway by a heavy door; the only light comes from a tiny window way up high, a small ray of hope completely out of reach.

In both cases the designers were able to distill complex historical events into minimalist gestures. The key word here is historical. Both designs came long after the events themselves. Lin’s design was completed nearly a decade after the United States withdrew from Vietnam (and more than 20 years after we started sending troops), and Libeskind’s museum opened more than half a century after the end of World War II.

However, the WTC commemorations for those who died on 9/11 come two years after the fact, while we are still immersed in the events that began on that day. I am always uneasy when I hear Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC) officials or elected representatives speak of the events of 9/11 as if they were a one-time occurrence that we are successfully putting behind us with this fine public-spirited process.

Even assuming that we are safe from physical harm, that a terrorist attack of this magnitude will never happen on our shores again, the events of that day were so monumental, so devastating, that no one thoroughly understands them. We may have some notion about what happened, the how if not the why, but we don’t have much perspective.

Some critics have suggested that the would-be memorial designers are hamstrung by their inability to use more representational or classical approaches. And it does seem odd that the finalists chosen by the jury all speak one aesthetic language. But I don’t think figurative sculpture is the answer. (It is curious, though, that none of the schemes include some kind of representation of the towers themselves.)

A memorial to the World Trade Center, the ultimate Modernist gesture, shouldn’t stray too far from the language of the buildings (although fealty to the original intent of the architecture might dictate overstatement rather than understatement). What’s needed here could be someone as audacious as Richard Serra, not a revival of Augustus Saint-Gaudens.

In any case, minimalism is a hard language to use effectively. And the event being commemorated is so complex and weighty that any designer would have a tremendous challenge translating the events of that day into something meaningful and aesthetically tolerable. Profundity is what’s called for, and profundity is always in short supply. Part of the problem may be that the program elements, as stipulated by the LMDC, may have impeded the mission they mandated.

The mission statement is full of universal goals: “May the lives remembered, the deeds recognized, and the spirit reawakened be eternal beacons, which reaffirm respect for life, strengthen our resolve to preserve freedom, and inspire an end to hatred, ignorance, and intolerance.”

The guiding principles are equally demanding: “Convey the magnitude of personal and physical loss at this location…. Evoke the historical significance and worldwide impact of September 11, 2001. Create an original and powerful statement of enduring and universal symbolism.”

But the program elements, a laundry list of what a successful memorial will contain, are smaller and more practical: “Recognize each individual who was a victim of the attacks…. Provide space for contemplation…. Create a unique and powerful setting that will: -be distinct from other memorial structures… -make visible the footprints of the original World Trade Center towers, -include appropriate transitions or approaches to, or within, the memorial. Convey historic authenticity.”

Naturally the young designers of the final eight haven’t a clue how to “evoke the historical significance and worldwide impact” of 9/11. No one does. It will be decades before the significance and impact will be clear.

What these designs do best is recognize individuals. Each memorial has a well-thought-out device for displaying the names of the victims and enumerating the dead. One design, “Garden of Lights” by Pierre David, Sean Corriel, and Jessica Kmetovic, provides rows of “altars,” each with a handwritten name inscribed. Others list the names on walls of glass or stone. Perhaps the most ambitious counting device is the one called “Votives in Suspension,” by Norman Lee and Michael Lewis of Houston, that provides more than 3,000 votive candles divided between north and south sanctuaries. There is something lovely and emotive in the image of all those candles aglow. The trouble, of course, would be keeping them all lit. But the bigger issue—how to convey the enormity of the event—seems beyond the reach of these designers. Or any designer, for that matter.

One thing I’ve learned in watching the WTC rebuilding effort is that designers and architects don’t really have the necessary emotional intelligence to interpret these events and transform them into powerful symbols. In late 2002, when the finalists for the site-design competition, a much older, more seasoned group, made their presentations, I found myself wishing that the teams onstage included poets, priests, rabbis, and philosophers—anyone with a working conscience.

Even architects whose schemes I liked seemed to be handicapped by a fundamental inability to make architectural form that was powerful enough to suit the occasion. Height was not enough. Geometry was not enough. There was nothing in the current architectural vocabulary capable of inspiring awe. And as we search for the perfect redemptive gesture, we need to keep reminding ourselves that what the original World Trade Center inspired—mostly—was contempt.

While wrestling with my lack of enthusiasm for the memorial finalists, I attended one of the small group discussions on the designs sponsored by Imagine New York, an offshoot of the Municipal Art Society. There I encountered a man named Charles who had lost his wife in the attacks. The only person I’ve met who felt positive about the results of the competition, he said that he was looking for a design that had the power of a cathedral, a place where “you don’t have to think.” His strongest response was to the “Votives in Suspension.” The thousands of floating candles “just bowled me over,” he said. “I was gravitating toward light. Light versus dark, good versus evil.”

Sitting in a room with about ten people, we started talking about the memorials we’d visited, the ones we’d found affecting. The places that came up included the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington Cemetery, the Lincoln Memorial, Gettysburg, and the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial.

On past trips to Washington, D.C., I’ve watched how visitors behave at the monuments, trying to see whether there is an innate connection to the ideals they represent. I’ve watched families at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the kids restless and bored, staring blankly at the ritualized movements of the honor guard.

The architect of the Lincoln Memorial, Henry Bacon, believed that his temple—with 36 columns representing the states that existed when Lincoln died, and 48 eagles representing the number of states when the memorial was completed—would speak eloquently of the sanctity of the Union. He wrote that his memorial “will strengthen in the hearts of beholders the feelings of reverence and honor for the memory of Abraham Lincoln.” Still I’ve observed tour groups drifting aimlessly through the Lincoln Memorial less moved by the giant seated Lincoln then they would be by a department-store Santa. I tend to blame the visitors for their disinterest, but the real problem is that symbolic language—as universal and powerful as it seems to the architects and planners who speak it, as powerful as it can sometimes be in the short run—doesn’t resonate over time.

While Lin’s Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial has a compelling form, a deep, sullen, brooding presence, the reason people respond so strongly to it is that it remains a part of living experience. There are still enough people standing at the wall touching the name of a lost loved one that their grief is contagious. It sets the tone for all visitors, making the place compelling to those who were born after Vietnam ended. What happens 50 or 100 years hence, I don’t know. On the other hand, I’ve noticed that visitors to Gettysburg are actually drawn into the story of the place, of Pickett’s charge, of Lincoln’s speech—a speech so compelling that it keeps on getting used in place of the words that no one seems able to write about 9/11. The persistence of Civil War mania aside, the power of Gettysburg has a great deal to do with the fact that this is where a monumental event occurred. Place is the strongest conveyer of “historic authenticity,” and place is the precise element that the eight WTC memorial designs erase.

Granted, many of the designs pay homage to the Libeskind site plan, but only a few include more than a passing mention of the most powerful aspect of his scheme: the slurry wall, the one coherent remnant of the old site. What these designs speak to is a very human impulse to take the chaos of that day and transform it into something clean and rational: trees representing the 92 nations of the victims, illuminated columns arranged by each victim’s birth date, candles hung at levels determined by each victim’s age. Chaos into order.

The week the memorial finalists were announced, there was an uproar from one of the survivors’ organizations, the Coalition of 9/11 Families, demanding a “preservation of the WTC Tower footprints at bedrock.” When I heard about this, I wasn’t especially sympathetic. It took a field trip to Jersey City to make me understand.

In late November, four days after the memorial designs were put on display, the World Trade Center PATH Station, where 67,000 commuters once arrived every day from New Jersey, reopened. I visited the temporary station (a placeholder for a $2 billion transit hub designed by Santiago Calatrava) and took the train to Jersey City. In doing so, I discovered that the Port Authority—an agency that has been painted by any number of civic organizations as insensitive, that some survivors’ groups have assailed for impinging on the towers’ footprints—has unintentionally created a place with uncanny emotional power.

The Port Authority spent $323 million on the most rudimentary station, a textbook example of functionalism, where no one had the time to think about the niceties of design. Someone hung big photos of Lower Manhattan buildings and fashioned translucent white scrims that soften but do not completely obstruct waiting passengers’ view of what’s left of the WTC. The scrims are printed with upbeat quotes about New York City. One afternoon I found myself staring at the slurry wall through a big piece of white mesh emblazoned with a quote from Myrna Loy: “Something’s always happening here. If you’re bored in New York, it’s your own fault.”

What this PATH station provides is entrée to the hole. For $1.50, the price of a ticket to New Jersey, anyone can commune with the remnants of the World Trade Center. Anyone can have access to sacred ground.

Two days after the trains started running again, many of the people waiting on the platform seemed to be on a pilgrimage. Middle-aged men stood quietly, their eyes hollow. As the train pulled away from the station, the view of what remains of the World Trade Center was unmediated and raw. The power of that view is overwhelming. A well-dressed couple on the train clasped each other’s hands. I felt nauseated, as if riding a roller coaster. And suddenly I had a much clearer idea of what the families arguing for the preservation of the bedrock are fighting for.

In their pragmatic way, like ants relentlessly marching toward a goal, the Port Authority has upstaged the LMDC. The engineers have constructed a memorial with all the emotional resonance that the officially sanctioned designs lack.

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