The Contentious Ten-Year Saga of Michael Arad’s 9/11 Memorial Design

New book examines the work and character of those who shape our built environment

A sequel, Volume II, to the 2007 book, Makers of Modern Architecture, is now published by NYRB. It continues critic Martin Filler’s thoughtful, deeply informed, and memorable analysis of the work, and the people behind that work, at the forefront of the 20th and early 21st century dialog on architecture. Beginning with Charles McKim, William Mead, and Stamford White, and concluding with Michael Arad, the critic examines the cultural, economic, political setting in which architects have always worked. Filler is a master at integrating each person’s unique biography and distinctive character into the architectural discussion. Here is his revealing profile of Michael Arad, the young architect whose design for the National September 11 Memorial at Ground Zero brought him into the national spotlight.–SSS

Makers of Modern Architecture, Volume II: From Le Corbusier to Rem Koolhaas

More from Metropolis

 I wept but about what precisely I cannot say. When I first visited Michael Arad’s newly completed National September 11 Memorial of 2003–2011 at Ground Zero, which was dedicated on the tenth anniversary of the disaster—the ubiquitous maudlin press coverage of which I had done everything possible to ignore—it impressed me at once as a sobering, disturbing, heartbreaking, and overwhelming masterpiece. Arad’s inexorably powerful, enigmatically abstract pair of abyss-like pools, which demarcate the foundations of the lost Twin Towers, came as an immense surprise to those of us who doubted that the chaotic and desultory reconstruction of the World Trade Center site could yield anything of lasting value.

Yet against all odds and despite tremendous opposition from all quarters, the design by the Israeli-American Arad—an obscure thirty-four-year-old architect working for a New York City municipal agency when his starkly Minimalist proposal, Reflecting Absence, was chosen as the winner from among the 5,201 entries to the Ground Zero competition—became the most powerful example of commemorative architecture since Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial of 1981–1982 in Washington, D.C. It is by no means accidental that Arad’s scheme derives so directly in several respects from Lin’s epochal monument. As a member of the National September 11 Memorial jury, she was a decisive voice in determining who would receive a commission that could have been hers for the asking had she wanted it. However, the congruities between these two magnificent designs do not in any way lessen Arad’s achievement.

It is generally held that great architecture requires the participation of a great client, but just how this stunning result emerged from such a fraught and contentious process, which at several points during its ten-year saga seemed to stall indefinitely or unravel completely, will take quite some time for critics and historians to sort out and properly assess. It is not even easy in this instance to determine who precisely the client was, apart from the American people, an uncertainty raised by the several overlapping municipal and state agencies directly involved in the decision-making process in its early phases, to say nothing of the even larger number of special-interest or pressure groups (“stakeholders,” as they came to be called) whose often unsolicited and frequently contentious opinions were brought to bear on every aspect of the complicated undertaking.

When the definitive account of the struggle to bring the September 11 Memorial into existence is written, it seems clear that a good deal of the credit for rescuing the foundering enterprise from further delay, indecision, and dissent will go to New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and three women whom Arad has described as Bloomberg’s “eyes and ears on the ground”: First Deputy Mayor Patricia Harris (who had earlier headed public relations and philanthropic affairs for Bloomberg LP, the billionaire mogul’s multinational mass media company); Amanda M. Burden, the director of the New York City Planning Commission (whom the architect credits for her dogged attentiveness to small design details that can be of cumulatively huge importance to a scheme); and Kate D. Levin, the commissioner of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.

It was only in 2006, when Bloomberg became head of the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation (replacing Gretchen Dykstra) and control of the project passed to it from the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC, the joint state-city authority created in the aftermath of the 2001 attack to supervise the reconstruction of Ground Zero), that the project began to gather momentum, in no small part because of the mayor’s personal enthusiasm for Arad’s design. Though Bloomberg’s leadership tactics could often appear peremptory, elitist, and micromanagerial, his forceful takeover of the September 11 Memorial—the city’s chief executive essentially made himself the client—was precisely what that organizational mess needed, proof again that one strong architectural patron will get more accomplished more quickly than any building committee, no matter how informed or well intentioned.

During his three terms in office, Bloomberg was widely criticized for city planning decisions that favored commercial property interests at the expense of average citizens, none more so than the Atlantic Yards redevelopment scheme of 2003–2012 in Brooklyn, a vast mixed-use sports arena, residential, and retail complex that critics castigated as socially destructive and a form of corporate welfare for the politically well-connected real estate developer Bruce Ratner. The mayor’s unsuccessful bid to win the 2012 Olympic Games for New York City was also perceived as a plutocratic boondoggle, despite his claims that both initiatives would enhance the city’s economy by creating jobs and increasing tourism. On the other hand, his backing for the redevelopment of large portions of the city’s 578-mile-long shoreline into public parkland, along with his crucial support for the enormously successful High Line and especially the September 11 Memorial, will count heavily in his favor when his urban-design balance sheet is tallied.

Michael Sahar Arad was born in London in 1969, the son of Moshe Arad, a Romanian-born diplomat who emigrated to Israel in 1950 and served as Israeli ambassador to Mexico from 1983 to 1987 and to the United States from 1987 to 1990. The young Arad lived in Jerusalem for nine years, attended high school in Mexico City, entered Dartmouth in 1987, but took a break after his freshman year to serve in an Israeli commando unit for his obligatory three-year military service. He then returned to college, received a BA in 1994, and went on to study architecture at Georgia Tech. At the age of thirty he moved to Manhattan to work for the large architectural firm Kohn Pedersen Fox, but became disillusioned with corporate practice and after three years took a job in the design department of the New York City Housing Authority, where he worked on neighborhood police stations.

Arad experienced the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in a very immediate and personal way—from the roof of his East Village apartment building he watched in horror as United Airlines Flight 175, the second of the hijacked jets, slammed into the South Tower. He participated in one of the many public vigils held in the aftermath of the buildings’ fall, and well before it was announced that plans would be solicited for an open memorial competition, felt the urge to create a commemorative design, which from the outset featured two square black voids set amid a reflecting pool of water. In due course Arad fleshed out his initial conceptual sketch and proposed a more spatially complex version that expanded the squares into subterranean cubic memorial chambers open to the sky and enhanced with curtain-like vertical fountains. Visitors would have been able to proceed down to the bottom of the pools, which were to have been ringed by walkways, the walls behind them inscribed with the names of the dead, with the central square pools shrouded by cascades of water pouring down steadily from above.

For a variety of insuperable reasons—budgetary, infrastructural, and security concerns high among them—Arad was forced to abandon his initial idea of the below-ground memorial chambers accessible to the public, which he compared to Orpheus’s descent into the Underworld, “a vast emptiness that you cannot enter but can only contemplate as you look into the void.” From the outset, Arad, who had never had a commission of this magnitude, was wary of making the countless small, bureaucratically imposed compromises—“death by a thousand papers cuts,” as he put it—that can sap all the life from a design. But the elimination of the subterranean spaces struck at the very heart of his conception.

Here he was forced to consider either resigning this incomparably prestigious and high-profile commission or coming up with an alternative solution that retained the spiritual essence of his initial idea. “I was incredibly upset,” Arad later admitted, “but I had to go from holding onto an idea to finding a way of articulating the same set of ideas in other ways.” This he managed to do so well that when one experiences the memorial as it was finally realized, his revised design conveys the same sense of inevitability that one senses with all great art—that it had to be like this, and no other way.

When the memorial first opened to the public, the eight-hundred-foot-long arrival sequence presented a dismal prologue that so closely replicated the security checks of a post–September 11 airport check-in—replete with metal detectors, jacket removals, pat-downs, and conveyor belts for personal property scans—as to verge on black comedy.  Because Ground Zero at that time was (and for several years thereafter would remain) an active construction site, visitors were channeled around the rising buildings through a series of fences and barriers that led them toward the south pool, an emphasis that will change when the surroundings are fully completed and the public is free to approach the memorial from any direction at will. After this ad hoc entry maze was negotiated, one came upon the pleasant park designed by Peter Walker, the Berkeley, California–based landscape architect with whom Arad was directed to work by the LMDC, which fretted about the young architect’s lack of experience and felt that his scheme needed the softening touch of greenery to make it more palatable to the general public. (The other member in the uneasy troika insisted upon by the LMDC was the architect J. Max

Bond Jr., a partner in the large New York firm Davis Brody Bond, who was deemed necessary to supervise the untested young competition winner but died in 2009. The extreme animosity among the three principals, none of whom was shy about speaking to the press, was well documented, and Arad came off for the most part as petulant and abrasive rather than tenacious and principled.)

On the plaza adjacent to the pools, Walker planted a grid of some four hundred swamp white oaks in an intriguing staccato pattern that makes them seem either randomly positioned or formally aligned, depending on one’s vantage point. The low-hanging branches of these vigorous-looking specimens have been clipped upward to about half of their approximately twenty-five-foot height, presumably to keep them from touching the heads of visitors, and though those proportions looked somewhat artificial when the memorial first opened, the trees will ultimately form a handsome grove. As one nears the pools, walking across the light-gray granite paving stones installed by Walker, the murmur of rushing water rises from the cascades that pour Niagara-like down all four sides of the sunken fountains. The sound becomes louder and louder, until it reaches such a steady crescendo that the noise of the surrounding city, even heavy construction going on very close by, is drowned out completely.

The veil-like flow of water down the dark-gray granite-clad sides of the recirculating pools is a feat of hydraulic engineering achieved by the installation of weirs (downward-curving comb-like spillways) set all around the upper perimeter of the giant squares. Looking down into the equilateral thirty-foot-deep pits, one sees yet another, far smaller square that extends another fifteen feet below the pool’s surface, bringing to mind a simplified, monochromatic grisaille version of Josef Albers’s Homage to the Square series. With that last, centered quadrangle, the water vanishes into nothingness. The propulsive aural and visual excitement of the three-story-deep waterfall and its mysterious disappearance captures and holds your attention in a way most unusual for the static medium of conventional architecture. That distraction makes one’s next perception all the more shocking, as you focus on the names of the victims, incised into the continuous tilted rim of bronze tablets that surround each pool. The initial perspective provided by the cascades mimics a technique employed in classical Japanese gardens, through which one’s gaze is briefly diverted by a change in paving, screening, or some other element to dramatize a coming transition.

Here, after you take in the diaphanous waterfalls, you discover spread out before you at waist level the names, the names, the names. Nearly three thousand victims—not only those lost at the World Trade Center, but also those who died at the Pentagon and near Shanksville, Pennsylvania—are memorialized with their names inscribed in Hermann Zapf’s classic Optima typeface of 1952–1955 (an elegant, slightly flaring sans-serif font), with the letters cut through the bronze so they can be backlit after dark. This is a typographic tour de force. Phalanxes of firemen are listed, ladder company by ladder company, and cops precinct by precinct; hundreds upon hundreds of Cantor Fitzgerald traders; teams of Windows on the World busboys; an entire family on one plane; and on two of the hijacked flights women with “unborn child.” The names are grouped in what Arad termed “meaningful adjacencies” to suggest comradeship among those who died together at work, as first responders in the line of duty, or as travelers who would never reach their destinations.

This was a deeply meaningful concept that Arad came up with in 2004 but that was shelved until Bloomberg took charge in 2006, with letters soliciting information about such interrelationships sent out to the victims’ survivors only in 2009. The ecumenical indifference of fate cannot have been more plainly or more movingly put. At times this relentless roll call becomes too much to bear, and your eyes rise up to the buildings that surround the memorial. But in purely architectural terms it is a sorry sight: not a single building of any distinction is to be seen in any direction (one reason why Arad wanted the memorial chambers he first envisioned to be positioned below ground).

Looming over the northwest corner of the site is the 104-story One World Trade Center of 2003–2013, once called the Freedom Tower but later given its current, more market-friendly moniker, which was the original name of one of the Twin Towers. This slick mirror-glass-skinned office building—which retains the symbolic 1,776-foot height first decreed by the site’s master planner, Daniel Libeskind—is the work of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s David Childs, who had been hired to renovate the Twin Towers shortly before they fell. His banal design has attracted less comment than the building’s astronomical $3.1 billion price tag, making it by far the most expensive high-rise ever erected in the US. (A class-action lawsuit alleged that One World Trade Center was illegally financed by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey through steep increases in tolls and commuter fares that could lawfully be applied only to infrastructural improvements, not to real estate speculations.)

No less flagrant in its huge budget overruns is Santiago Calatrava’s Transportation Hub, a train station and underground shopping mall linking the trans-Hudson PATH system with New York City’s subways. Estimated to cost nearly $4 billion—twice initial projections—it is sited directly to the east of the north pool, across Greenwich Street. Calatrava likened his design in its original form to doves of peace in flight. After costs began to skyrocket, its wings were clipped, and when it finally opens, years behind schedule, the hub seems more likely to resemble a skeletal dinosaur carcass.

Although much has been made in the press of Arad’s manifold battles to preserve the integrity of his scheme, one must also sympathize with Local Projects, a New York–based design firm that performed the daunting task of placing the victims’ names in arrangements that would satisfy a seemingly infinite number of demands from many constituencies. An algorithm devised by the software programmer Jen Thorp sped this complex process, but further tinkering was needed to sort out many individual requests from the bereaved. This component of the September 11 Memorial got as close to the heart of the matter for the survivors as the decision to leave the foundations of the Twin Towers inviolate. Because about 40 percent of the victims left no identifiable remains, their survivors look upon the site as an actual graveyard, and thus the site’s afterlife became a source of constant contention among the Families (as the next of kin were invariably called). Unidentified remains are to be placed at bedrock level, rendering the site an actual rather than a virtual burial ground.

Perhaps the most vociferous of the mourners was Monica Iken Murphy, a September 11 widow who at one public hearing memorably if bathetically asked, “How can we build on top of their souls that are crying?” Doubtless to the relief of those responsible for the memorial, she spoke favorably to the New York Daily News about the results: “My Michael is home finally. They’re all home. This is his final resting place. When I come here, I feel him.” Predictably, not all among the families felt the same. One survivor complained to a WINS radio reporter that the memorial was “cool”—as in cold, not hip—and said that “there should have been flowers or pictures or something.” But of course it is precisely the abstract nature of Arad’s design, which eschews all representational imagery, that allows visitors to project onto it thoughts and interpretations of a much more individual nature than if the memorial had been laden with prepackaged symbols of grief.

Although the locations and proportions of the square pools, which measure 176 feet on each side, were determined by the footprints of the Twin Towers, the overall dimensions—especially the relation of width to depth, and the juxtaposition of the two bodies of water to each other—somehow seem so ideally balanced that they might have been determined not by the disaster but by an environmental sculptor of uncommon talent. The only discordant note at the memorial is struck by the freestanding two-story pavilion that will serve as the entry point to the subterranean September 11 Museum. Standing next to but fortunately not between the twin pools, it is the work of Snøhetta. However, in an odd division of labor, the below-ground exhibition galleries were designed by another consortium, the multinational architectural firm Aedas working in association with Davis Brody Bond, a pairing that Arad saw as a conflict of interest because of priorities he believes were given to the museum by his nominal collaborator Bond. (The entire cost of the memorial and September 11 Museum was at least $700 million.)

Whatever one’s opinions about the events of September 11, 2001, or their baneful political aftereffects, it seems impossible not to be moved in some way by Arad’s memorial. The first time I saw it, I came away with the same devastated feeling that overtakes one after a funeral or memorial service for a relative or close friend, even though I knew no one who perished at the World Trade Center. In creating something at once so monumentally simple and yet so evocatively complex, Arad reconfirmed the radical reconception of public memorial design that Maya Lin set in motion with her Vietnam Veterans Memorial three decades ago. Lin herself was accused at the time by some critics of basing her work too closely on the ideas of Michael Heizer, Richard Serra, and other Earth Art or Minimalist sculptors. The inevitable, and unenviable, question that weighs upon Arad is what can he ever do to top or even equal the precocious triumph of his September 11 Memorial, completed when he was just forty-two, an age when most of his fellow architects are just beginning to find their professional footing.

Daunting as it must be for him to face the possibility of having peaked at such a relatively young age, Arad ought to take another example from Lin, who was a mere twenty-three years old when her Vietnam Veterans Memorial was finished. After being besieged by offers to replicate her masterpiece (much in the same way that Edwin Lutyens was asked to churn out slightly altered copies of his most acclaimed war memorial, the Cenotaph of 1919–1920 in London, for several other cities in Britain and its colonies), Lin was determined not to become typecast as a commemorative monument specialist. She decided after completing several subsequent commissions in that vein to decline further requests for such designs, which is why she exempted herself from the September 11 Memorial project. Since her auspicious debut, Lin has produced a strong body of work that unites architecture, art, and landscape design in inventive and thought-provoking ways that set her apart from the vast majority of single-minded practitioners in those separate disciplines. She is one of those rare creative figures who thoroughly alter the way in which an entire generation reconsiders long-accepted conventions and comes to accept a wholly new conception of how things ought to be. That is a contribution that far outstrips any tally of individual works, no matter how numerous or excellent.

The nature of architectural practice has changed enormously in recent decades, yet it remains much as it always has been in its wild unpredictability. The fates that befall even the most inspired master builders can be so capricious and cruel that one cannot predict whether Arad’s youthful masterwork will be seen in due course as his lift-off point or apogee. But just as the test of time has already proven the validity of Maya Lin’s insights into the wellsprings of mourning in the modern age, Michael Arad’s profound variations and expansions on her themes have in turn ratified him as one of the signal place-makers of our time.

Martin Filler, trained in art history, has been a steady, learned voice of architecture criticism for three decades. Find his work in The New York Review of Books (where the articles, collected in Makers of Modern Architecture, Volume II first appeared) and in documentary films (co-written with Rosemarie Haag Bletter), like Beyond Utopia (1985) and Sterling (1987).

Recent Projects