Memento Mori

Ghost Footprints: New York architect Michael Arad's Reflecting Absence respects the boundaries of the Trade Center towers.Photo: LMDC

Somehow, in the drama of finding the right new architecture for the World Trade Center site, personalities and power struggles have become the subject of the exercise, fostering a strange amnesia about September 11. As the battle royal about which architect will do what has raged and usurped the stage, rhetoric has replaced content, and posturing has displaced vision. We need to remember that the whole site is a memorial, and that within the big picture, there is a smaller one: the matter of the space dedicated explicitly to the nearly 3,000 people who lost their lives that day. Last week, eight proposals chosen from a design competition that drew 5,201 entries from 63 countries went on view in an exhibition at the Winter Garden in the World Financial Center. The quality of the results suggests that the process proceeded with much greater integrity than the related architectural competition. All the entries are serious, and some are inspired. Each is a vehicle of memory and contemplation.

Last April, the lower manhattan Development Corporation called for submissions for the World Trade Center Site Memorial Competition. That the entries would be anonymous guaranteed the competition a broad, democratic appeal, and indeed most of the finalists are young and unknown—much as Maya Lin, one of the thirteen jurors, was when her design won the Vietnam Memorial competition more than twenty years ago.

After canvassing families of the victims, the committee established guidelines, which included the delineation of the tower footprints, acknowledgement of everyone at the site who died on September 11, 2001—along with those killed on February 26, 1993—and a designated resting place for unidentified remains.

All the finalists propose a meditative environment through deliberately underplayed designs built out of the elements—water, stone, space, darkness, and light—as well as the immaterial element, story. Some make a strong statement visible from the pit that master planner Daniel Libeskind has proposed, while others reserve their most evocative spaces for tenebrous subterranean rooms in which sculpted light delivers a hoped-for catharsis. Many pursue a physical narrative by proposing promenades into the depth of the site that lead from one mysterious space to its sequel.

Two of the strongest plans derive their power by clearly articulating ghost footprints of the original towers. In the beautiful Reflecting Absence, Michael Arad fills the two tragic squares with reflecting pools 30 feet below grade, and lines the cavity with walkways that lead deeply into the aqueous void, where sheets of water veil views into the empty cavity. Suspending Memory, by Joseph Karadin with Hsin-Yi Wu, floats the two squares, each planted with groves, in a basin of water that fills the whole tub that Libeskind revealed in his design: The lakes surround the squares, turning them into islands that are poignantly out of reach. Gisela Baurmann, Sawad Brooks, and Jonas Coersmeier, in Passages of Light: The Memorial Cloud, solve the issue of how pedestrians from Battery Park City cross Libeskind’s three-story depression—the designers create a monumental arch of glass that makes light a tangible element. The success of this fragile rainbow of crystal depends largely on the detail—how to hide the structure so that ephemera dominate, creating the effect of people walking magically on sparkle.

“All the finalists propose a meditative environment through deliberately underplayed designs.”

All the plans list the names of the victims, but some evoke identities in ways that names alone cannot. Gardens of Light, by Pierre David with Sean Corriel and Jessica Kmetovic, presents names handwritten by relatives on alabaster altars illuminated by cones of light. Dual Memory, by Brian Strawn and Karla Sierralta, projects images of faces so that one of the underground spaces becomes an album of the dead. This is a heartbreaking chamber, though the design of the space itself seems passive. In Votives in Suspension, Norman Lee and Michael Lewis hang small votive candles in a three-dimensional constellation of candlelight, one for each of the dead, all suspended at different heights.

Two plans featuring long slots of space open to the sky seem bland. Lower Waters, by Bradley Campbell and Matthias Neumann, features a veil of water dropping into a shallow basin. Inversion of Light, by Toshio Sasaki, has horizontal brows that face each other across a submerged courtyard centered on a reflecting pond open to the sky. Their spaces are not as focused as those of other schemes, and not as emotionally intense.

Libeskind has seen his role eroded by Larry Silverstein, the leaseholder of the WTC, who is hiring his own architects to design the office towers. With some of the memorial proposals, Libeskind faces the possibility of more erosion, though on a different scale. Reflecting Absence is powerful partially because the designers eliminate one arm of Libeskind’s planned museum, which, in bridging the footprint of the north tower, obscures the footprint. As presented, Reflecting Absence does not acknowledge what remains of Libeskind’s buildings—the museum—but suggests instead a simple structure to the west of the pit that walls off busy West Street. The proposal destabilizes Libeskind’s role in the project.

There seem to be some discrepancies between the proposals and the facts on the ground, and they will have to be clarified. Many of the projects respect the slurry wall that held its own during the collapse of the towers, but Libeskind has partially submerged it with horizontal structural slabs, and then covered over most of the remaining wall still in view.

The process of selection should not lull the public and the survivors’ families into relaxing their vigilance. The rest of the site remains caught in an identity crisis: Who will design it? The memorial is of central importance, and the selection process seems to be on the right track. But the rest of the site cannot be understood merely as a passive frame of office buildings for the memorial. The larger complex is integral to the memorial, and just as important.

What do you think? Images of the 8 designs >>

Memento Mori