Photo: Carrie Levy

This article was originally published on August 12, 2011, under the title “Cold Openings.”

Soon after the Twin Towers fell, the young architect Michael Arad made a dreamy sketch of two square holes in the Hudson River, with water perpetually flowing in from all sides. That poetic image, haunting in its paradoxical simplicity, evolved into the entry that won the 9/11 memorial design competition. Now Arad’s imaginary sculpture of water and air has taken more concrete, prosaic shape: a pair of chasms clad in granite the color of shadow and then lined with a film of falling water. Inside each box is a second void, its bottom always out of sight. The still-forming hulk of the One World Trade Center tower rears above, creating a vertical panorama of stone, glass, steel that stretches from Hades to the clouds.

On a recent visit, I picked my way through the noise and dust of a still-hectic construction site for my first close-up view of the south pool, which opened up in all its austere vastness. In the foreground, a ribbon of names incised in bronze scrolled devastatingly in front of me. Beyond, a specklike worker standing in the dry container helped calibrate my sense of scale. I thought, as I was meant to, of the immensities that once filled those foundations, of all the people swallowed there, and of the ricocheting cataclysms that followed.

Then I moved on to the north pool, which shares the same mournful shade, form, and dimensions as its companion, but bears a different roll call of the dead. What hit me there was the awful anticlimax of repetition. A singular moment, the Big Bang that launched a fearful decade, is marked by déjà vu. “Never forget,” this monument exhorts—and then says it again.

Of all the missteps and miscalculations that have marred the rebuilding of the World Trade Center, the ones surrounding the memorial are the saddest, because many were made in good faith. The design’s basic, ineluctable elements were already laid down well before Arad sent in his drawing. In January 2002, Monica Iken, a victim’s wife, asked at a public meeting: “How are we going to honor those like my husband who died? How can we build on top of their souls that are crying?” That demanding expression of grief became an explicit political agenda a few months later, when then-governor George Pataki echoed Iken’s demand that the lots where the Twin Towers had stood be dedicated to commemoration rather than commerce. He promised that the buildings’ footprints, 212 feet on every side, “will always be a permanent and lasting memorial to those we lost.” He declared them “hallowed ground.”

By the second anniversary of the attacks, as the memorial competition jury was sifting through thousands of proposals, the then-president of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, Kevin Rampe, made the exclusion even more specific and categorical: The footprints of the two vanished towers, he declared, would remain free of commercial structures “from bedrock to infinity.” A few people wondered whether it was wise to plan a memorial while the pain was still fresh, before trauma had hardened into history, but it was already too late for equivocations. A succession of vows had already defined the memorial’s shape, size, and location, plus its overriding aesthetic of emptiness. (The openings are in fact slightly smaller than the Twin Towers’ footprints, but a tree was placed on the plaza directly above the stump of each supporting column, reproducing the original perimeter in symmetrical greenery.)

The site’s master planner, Daniel Libeskind, initially conceived of the memorial as an eight-acre park dropped 70 feet below street level. (He later pulled it up to less than half that depth.) Arad wisely feared that such a plan would produce a grim pit in the middle of a space-starved neighborhood. What he wanted instead was a grand piazza at sidewalk level where the city’s life could churn around separate zones of mournful pensiveness. Those he envisioned as a pair of sunken cloisters, reached by ramp from the plaza, and a gallery running around the perimeter of each square, curtained by falling water. I can imagine that walking through such a space might have had a mellow beauty: shadowy towers and mottled light visible through a liquid veil, and the city’s clangor softened by the fountain’s steady thrum. But the idea of bringing visitors into the depths and communing with the names below ground, so central to Arad’s conception, was tossed out, on practical and financial grounds. So when the construction fences finally fall away and streets run through the site, eight new acres of open space will indeed appear in the heart of lower Manhattan—and at the center, two geometric fissures.

Arad’s clarity of vision did not exempt his project from the thicket of bureaucracies, budgets, rules, security fears, agendas, and political interests that have dogged virtually every step of the redevelopment. The history of squabbles over how to arrange the names of the dead, for example, is not an uplifting tale. Still, Arad claims to feel that this grinding process wound up enriching his design.

It’s true that the simple squares are vibrant with understated detail. The names are not just carved but cut right through a thick bronze plate, the letters made of space and light. Water flows through channels spaced an inch and a half apart, forming separate filaments that merge as they fall. The dark granite of the fountains sets off the pale gray pavers on the plaza, which alternate in rough cobbles and smooth planks of the same stone. The trees are planted in irregular rows that look random at first and then suddenly snap into orderly allées. Mid-century modernist architects fetishized such orthogonal precision, and their spiritual heirs—the ones producing all those tight-cornered office towers—still rhapsodize about the elegance of a straight line and a flawless edge.

The fountains have a separate pedigree, too: They evoke the work of the earth artist Michael Heizer, who, at around the time the World Trade Center was going up, sliced a deep scar in a Nevada desert and called it Double Negative. But the closest precedent to the 9/11 memorial is North, East, South, West, an ominous set of cubical and cylindrical steel voids sunk into the floor of Dia: Beacon. Arad has merged Heizer’s rough morbidity with corporate elegance. His huge cubes of nothingness—Arad’s own double negative—take their place among the pinstriped canyons of steel and glass. In the end, even this $700 million memorial winds up looking like an adornment for real estate.

Arad’s design is so minimalist and pristine that bigness remains its most extravagant feature. Eventually, those hard edges will be softened by a canopy of mature oaks. The pedestrian plaza, landscaped by Peter Walker and Partners, could yet prove the perfect, verdant buffer between temple of memory and profane street. For now, though, with the plantings young and the paving at least a year away from completion, the space still has an uncertain vibe. Its equilibrium will depend on an ongoing negotiation between those who consider it a public square and those who yearn for decorum and remembrance. The fuss over the proposal to build an Islamic center a few blocks away suggests that, for a while, at least, the zone will remain a cultural battleground.

It will be years before the cranes go away and the noise level at the site abates to a normal urban thrum. Eventually, dogs will pee on the plaza, couples will come to grope there, and kids will loiter raucously, and few will think to shoo them all away from “hallowed ground.” It’s hard to gaze on those somber fountains without imagining an errant Frisbee floating into the reverent abyss. Perhaps, as the rawness of the attacks continues to ebb, those two zones of emptiness will keep reminding forgetful generations of the scale of the towers that rose there and the enormity of their destruction. But I can’t help wondering whether the place will really be exhortation to memory, or just a pair of darkly alluring holes—a doubled invitation to oblivion.

From the archives
The Breaking of Michael Arad (New York Magazine, May 22, 2006)
The Memorial Warriors (New York Magazine, September 15, 2006)

See Also
Q&A With Port Authority Chief of Staff Drew Warshaw on the Memorial’s Opening