Memory Holes

Two ongoing wars and many controversies later, the search for meaning at Ground Zero still proves painfully elusive.

I remember that I was on a subway platform, but I can’t tell you which one. I remember a woman approaching me, map in hand, a tourist, but I can’t tell you what she looked like. I remember she detached herself from a group, conspicuously static in a flow of New Yorkers who knew where they were going, but I can’t tell you how large a group it was, whether it contained a retiree husband, a sniffle of grandchildren, or the balance of her bingo-night girlfriends. Memory is selective, fungible. The many details of that brief encounter four or five years ago have all been erased by the one detail that made it memorable at all—a question she asked me: “How do we get to nine-eleven?”

Surprise, edging into disgust; I will also admit to a touch of delight at being chosen for the query. How do we get to nine-eleven?! So innocently delivered, so corrupt in its implications. Was it a slip of the tongue? An ideological elision of time and space? A confusion learned on TV? The rebranding of the event into an all-ruling meme—a creative idea that spurred unity, also destructive, regressive, manipulative, used to start wars and quell dissent—had been completed in a single news cycle many willfully forgotten years before. And here we had the terminal conflation: the place and the day as one.

Whatever its inspiration, the strange question was all too easy to answer in New York: take the train downtown to the station still clearly marked “World Trade Center.” That is where two out of four of the intended or completed aerial attacks of September 11, 2001, took place, and the lion’s share of that day’s death. “Nine-eleven” has lived elsewhere, in the public imagination, an efficient mnemonic construction created by media impulse, sustained by political need and perhaps, too, by a shared desire to shelter ourselves from the full scope of the event. They are not the same thing: what happened on that site and what we remember of that day via the compression of a headline-ready nickname. I’ve always resisted saying or writing 9/11. It limits. It defines. It sanitizes. It simplifies. And nothing about that day, how we think about it, was, is, or should be simple. For sowing complexity and chaos, for obviating any possibility of a satisfying marker—on the ground or in language—the target and timing of the attack could not have been better chosen. The killing happened in and above a thriving, intricately programmed commercial development, in America’s foremost city, at a moment of deep domestic political crisis (Florida, we must remember, was still a very fresh wrong). It has been grieved with difficulty since, at an active construction site for a replacement commercial complex, and through ten years of international political strife, compromised local decision-making, and disputed creative and financial control. Now, with the opening of the official memorial, the event is destined to be contemplated subject to prejudices that do not arise directly from the fact of the attack—or the need to directly remember its victims—but from the long, braided paths of political and real estate least-resistance that got us from one very bright, very real September morning to the endless artificial twilight of 9/11.

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Follow my group of tourists into the abyss. They say a quick thank you for the directions, probably, then are off to do what people did when visiting the World Trade Center before a memorial was built. I see them now, that group of earnest visitors that is every group of earnest visitors. They climb up from the subway. They find the edge of the site (a high steel-grid fence hung with photos and slogans). They join the flow of other pilgrims, instinctively circling—down Church Street; right on Liberty; a scan of the tables laid with black-market souvenirs (picture books, paperweights) if the hawkers have not yet been chased away for the day; a stop for a moment at “Ten House” to honor those firemen, the first of all the first responders, who did not return from the disaster across the street; then over the enclosed footbridge (the last in situ relic of the original World Trade Center, impact scars pocking its topmost edge); and right again into the heart of the World Financial Center, where it has been possible, since the glass-roofed Winter Garden Atrium reopened, clean and new in late 2002, to pause at certain windows and look back across busy West Street (partially rerouted after the very late discovery of additional human remains) to the various states of emptiness and industry on the ground of the catastrophe itself. For a time, security guards would shoo people away. Then they gave up.

The main feeling, the primary means of paying one’s respects—the theme, if you will, of a visit in the pre-memorial years—was searching. Hence the ritual circumambulation around the rim of the ruined super-block, anticipating at every corner a chance fence crack or unscreened elevated view that might allow a peek in, hoping for an experience that would indicate in what direction meaning might be found. As if such an elusive thing could be located in this or any place. The site itself could offer nothing but raw presence: a pile of truly awful proportions, and later a hole in the ground deep enough that its bottom was rarely seen. The touching human habit to seek a vector for emotional resolution in architecture (standing, impending, or lost) can have only one end: disappointment.

Yet here we have the new memorial: two square pools, elaborately hydro-engineered with record-setting waterfalls, two huge square depressions that only roughly correspond in size and position to the two squares drawn in the mid-1960s by the Japanese-American architect chosen by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to build its proud home and great symbol. Minoru Yamasaki was just a man; he led an interesting life (investigated for treason after Pearl Harbor, he went on to build naval training stations), but there is nothing magic about the shapes he sketched one workaday moment long ago. If not openly derivative, they are certainly rote for the time, hearkening to the geometries of certain Mies towers and artistic operations endemic to the Bauhaus. The figure of two dancing squares as we know it now was never visible in the finished buildings. Each tower met the elevated plaza level with membranes of glass and a dotted line of mock-Moorish columns. A mezzanine floated out to meet the false ground, the space beneath opening wide in a shopping mall that honeycombed the site, with connections to the surrounding streets and the many trains below, and to passages linking the towers and a half-ring of thoroughly forgotten outbuildings. What we all call “the footprints” are really an opportunistic half-memory of the towers’ roof plan, projected down on to the site plan with cartographic temerity.

The footprints are to the World Trade Center what “9/11” is to the experience of September 11, 2001. Their current state of putative sanctity is a product of the rampant political opportunism that drove and defined the redevelopment process. When then-Governor George Pataki declared in the summer of 2002 that the footprints would be held sacred forever, “from bedrock to infinity,” it was not an act of grace but a forced concession—an election was coming that fall, the victims’ families had been noisily demanding a much larger terrain, and the perceived inaction on the site had been reflexively politicized by his opponent, Andrew Cuomo, months before. Pataki’s attention may also have been focused, in those years of his ascent, on pleasing certain Republican colleagues in Washington; in April 2003, in an infamous speech, he deliberately linked the rebuilding of the World Trade Center to the war in Iraq that had been falsely sold in its name. His eternal gift of the footprints to the site’s primary mourners was meant to keep the process going at a time of gathering stasis, meant to bring closer to completion a reconstruction that, after George Bush’s first visit to Ground Zero on September 14, 2001—bullhorn in hand, openly threatening vengeance on the nation’s attackers—was dedicated as a shrine to the malicious strain of American patriotism. The acceptance of the footprints as sacred ground—ghettoizing the locus of sanctity—was also essential for big business; it was the final sprocket that needed to be installed so the place could be built up again as a powerful machine for commerce. The choice to harbor memory at the World Trade Center in the confines of a hastily repurposed, politically tainted, commercially endorsed, creatively mundane architectural idea—even in representations of its “absence,” as the memorial’s designer, Michael Arad, originally intended—has always been a red flag. If this is the best we can do, we may not be ready to build a memorial at all.

And to what end has our memorial been built? The names of the victims are there, inscribed on the edges of both pools. But they will always be seen against the immensity of the footprints, which are the buildings mourned. Each visitor may decide for him or herself, as visitors to the World Trade Center once did, whether the scale of the architecture, relative to our own, belittles or aggrandizes human life and action. I always found the doubled hugeness of the Twin Towers uplifting, as Yamasaki argued it should be—“Man had built it and man could comprehend it,” he wrote in 1979—but the context through which we filter that experience of monumentality has changed.

Below the parklike memorial plaza, in the underground world of the truck ramps, rail tunnels, and service vaults, a museum is being built. When it opens next year, it will showcase the twists of steel and smashed fire trucks that the Port Authority, acting unilaterally, chose to collect during the cleanup. The morbid cache was stored in a hangar at Kennedy Airport, ensuring its eventual return to the site (against the desires of various designers considering the memorial experience with professional detachment) by the fact of its preservation alone. The presence of a repository for unidentified human remains in the same catacombs begs uncomfortable questions about equivalence.

Part of the future museum, an entry pavilion wedged between the footprint pools, is now visible. The architects of the little building made the extraordinary decision—a poor, poor one—to mimic in its structure and the lines of its metal-and-glass skin a diving, angular calamity. It is a time-worn contemporary effect, to evoke the unstable, to eschew the steady and true. Perhaps Snøhetta, a firm that has done responsible work elsewhere (and has released many renderings of more responsible designs for this site), was paying homage to similar buildings sketched in one or another of Daniel Libeskind’s master-plan concepts? Those designs, in Libeskind’s own sensationalist style, died on the vine, then were deliberately swept away by the selection of Arad’s memorial in its original pristine form (pointedly, powerfully bare; free of all encroachment by gentrifying museums or comforting trees). I can’t imagine why that look should be revived. Truly, in this place, now and probably forever, aping collapse is a despicable, morally empty way to build.

As it stands—deeply compromised, existentially confused, and flawed by bad taste—the purpose-built memorial will never equal in quality the spontaneous one we are now losing. A search for meaning enacted as a circular walk around a forbidden center, a quest with high expectations ending in futility, was an excellent, instructive, fitting (if accidental, unscripted) mechanism to aid in processing an event, like all fresh violence, that has no inherent message or palliative truth.

I mourn here the end of that decade-long processional. The gates of the site are finally open to all. Other, highly processed, more deliberate stories will be told there. Human stories. Civic stories. Humbling stories. Jarring stories. They are all, by the fact of their active curation, political stories—told in water, video, glass, and stone. After a decade fending off the inevitable, stubbornly fighting inclusion into a delimited culture of remembrance, the World Trade Center site has finally given itself up to that thing we call 9/11. Go to the memorial. See where it takes you.

But remember the free-wandering pilgrims of the recent past: their observance had a natural, uncanny, unmediated ability to express in action a dim truth that most, left alone, would repress. There is no sacred ground at Ground Zero.

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