WTC Memorials

The consensus for the World Trade Center memorial competition finalists is not good. Too complicated, too difficult to maintain, too literal...these are some of the complaints that have been leveled against the designs unveiled by the LMDC last week. And I generally agree with them. Looking through the designs reminds one more of a really neat installation art piece or temporary exhibit than a memorial intended to stand the test of time.

Where do the designs go wrong? A starting point certainly seems to be Maya Lin's memorial for the Vietnam war, based on its ubiquitous mention in critiques of the designs. But most of those allusions fail to grasp exactly what the Vietnam War Memorial does that makes it so deeply affecting. Specifically, it is a deeply ambiguous, contentious and elusive memorial that offers no easy answers. Commentators praise its 'simplicity' and 'grace', but the memorial is beloved because it represents a history and a dialogue that we have only very painfully come to terms with, and in that, it imparts a feeling of comfort and understanding.

Just remember for a minute how radical and disputed the Vietnam memorial was. Here you have the need to respond to an event that, for many Americans of the period aroused feelings of uneasiness, revulsion or outright shame, to a war that had fundamentally changed the way they thought of the national mission, patriotic duty, and collective strength. Thus, many realized that a traditional statue of valiant soldiers could not be reconciled with the experience. Maya Lin's response was to create a massive, mute, black, gravestone. Because that was Vietnam--in the end, the horror for many Americans was that the whole thing turned out to simply be about death. Everyone had been told that there were higher purposes in play, but in the end, it was hard to shake the feeling that the whole thing wasn't just about death--plain, simple and unresolved.

That's what makes it a great memorial. It uncovers the ambiguous truth of the event and with stoicism and earnestness leaves it for future generations to ponder. And that's why an evocative memorial for the World Trade Center seems so hard to find. Because an honest national conversation hasn't really come out of the events of 9/11 yet. Not to sound blasphemous, but memorials are ultimately for the living. The best memorials understand that relieving personal guilt towards the dead is a different process, and instead focus on things that can be learned and explored together.

9/11, as awful as the day was, and as surely as it made those living near the attack sites and beyond contemplate their own mortality, was about much more than simple mourning, as the turmoil of the last two years has attested to.

Here lay the appeal of retaining the 'slurry wall', which Daniel Libeskind so passionately advocated before the Port Authority stepped in and used it for the new PATH station. The following is a quote from the book The Ghosts of Berlin, by Brian Ladd, a very poignant study of how Berlin has dealt with an urban fabric rife with the most despicable events of the 20th century. The quote refers to the debate which raged over how to memorialize the Holocaust in the very city in which it was planned:

"Proposals to combine preservation with documentation...encouraged thoughtful and creative forms of interatction with the relics of the past, forms thtat would acknowledge the complicated tangle of memories and the multiplicity of meanings attached to a place. Advocates of these displays had no grand plan for a new Berlin, but they clearly understood what they did not want: a traditional commemorative monument. Not only would such a monument tend to focus on victims rather than perpetrators, it would also reduce the complex understanding of an urban site to a single aesthetic gesture. A work of art, in the form of sculpture, architecture, or landscape design, would leave the impression of a final statement that resolved the dilemmas and uncertainties of the site."

Libeskind, who eventually designed the Holocaust museum in Berlin, was of course quite aware of these issues, and one can see why he would appreciate the slurry wall. The wall worked on a number of levels to uncover the uncertainties which 9/11 calls out, even if our national discourse has been unwilling to explore them: the massive exposed wall, the hidden bulwark for one of the largest skyscrapers in the world and a synonym for American capitalism spoke to the deeply felt vulnerability of the American way of life which 9/11 exposed, which is no doubt reflected in the more hysterical responses to the event; as an exposed portion of foundation in a city and indeed a country where no space is allowed to go unbuilt, it reminded us of the the past we too easily forget; and in its battered massiveness, it evoked the steadfastness of the American character, the notion that in a nation and indeed a world of abiding contradictions, there are principles which we hold dear and preserve. These are the tough questions which a 9/11 memorial must confront, more than facile metaphors of 'rebirth' played out in water and light features.

The Vietnam War memorial is powerful because for those who lived through Vietnam, mourning the dead was a hard, confusing process. With 9/11, mourning the dead is natural. History will judge us on how we confront the rest of it.


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