Gathering to Remember

Standing on Liberty Street, architect Bartholomew Voorsanger peers across acres of low-rise rubble to a ten-story dagger of façade – the last remaining bit of either Trade Center tower that still reaches for the sky. He’d love to put a tag on the massive Gothic detail, a signal to the contractors that it should be preserved. Except the façade weighs hundreds of tons; it shall not be moved, and will most likely end up demolished.

“You’d almost have to build the entire site around it,” Voorsanger says. As one of three people chosen by the Port Authority to select artifacts for an eventual memorial (Marilyn Taylor, chairman of Skidmore Owings & Merrill, and art consultant Saul Wenegrat are also part of the effort), he has tagged dozens of items at ground zero, as well as out at Fresh Kills and Port Newark, where much of the debris has been shipped. He searches for totems that are less weighty but no less freighted with meaning: Mundane signage, crushed public art, beams bent in ways that neither God nor man intended. In his office, he has a yellowed edition of the New York Times that was stuffed into a girder as the towers were being built (Monday, June 23, 1969: JUDY GARLAND, 47, FOUND DEAD).

Voorsanger, who just completed a redesign of the Asia Society building, has no idea what kind of monument will emerge from his work. It will be left to others to conjure – and fight over – a memorial that somehow satisfies the needs of the thousands who died and the millions who were affected. But he’s ferociously interested in making sure that whatever is built captures the violence and loss of that day.

“I worry that the site is being sanitized,” he says. Behind him, a dozen cranes, some twenty stories tall, dine on the remains of the seven Trade Center buildings. A lazy snowfall of office paper accompanies each bite. “It’s starting to look almost normal. You have to see it, to smell it, to understand what really happened here.”

Voorsanger and his colleagues have had to work in a big hurry. This being New York, practicalities required a massive push to get the site cleaned up, and the progress has been amazing (and divisive, pitting firemen against Mayor Giuliani). Now seven-foot-high chain-link fences surround the site, swathed in view-obscuring green fabric – as if what’s going on were too shameful for civilians to witness.

“I think it’s very important that we preserve elements of habitation,” Voorsanger says, standing in front of an escalator in Building Seven, which now leads nowhere in particular. A door with a nameplate, DANA MURNANE, SUPERVISING ENTRY OFFICER, opens to an office that in turn opens to the world because there is no exterior wall.

“For the memorial to be effective,” he continues, “it has to speak to subsequent younger generations. You have to have metaphor. Now, there are plenty of bright people out there who can find a more effective metaphor than I can. But if you don’t have a fragment of reality, then it’s almost impossible to develop the metaphor.”

Gathering to Remember