Final WTC Memorial

Despite my earlier grousing about the bland, clueless memorial designs for the World Trade Center site, I have to say I think the winning design was definitely the best of the bunch, with the revised version only an improvement. In the artistic renderings for the original site plans, there was a similar memorial concept which I liked. That rendering didn't have the water features in the current design, just two dry voids the same size as the tower footprints. Like the current design, there was a narrow cut in the walls of the empty areas, and visitors could descend into a narrow walkway which would look out onto the space. The walls were high enough so that from the subterranean gallery looking up, a visitor would only be able to see the sky. The power in this design came from its ability to create a powerful feeling of alienation from the city itself.

Imagine visiting the memorial in August. Descending from the hot din of Lower Manhattan 40 feet below ground to a cool dark hallway, the noise of the city muted above, the shuffling of other visitors feet, their breathing, suddenly loud and present. When you try to look for the buildings, the people, the life, craning your neck, you find only empty sky. You slowly walk the outlines of the massive squares in silence with your fellow visitors, voices lowered until the hallway ends, and you ascend the long ramp back to the city, the sound, the heat.

It works because it focuses on process rather than substance. It draws you out of the routine, the familiarity of the city, and by extension, of life. The rhetorical purpose isn't clear, but the disjointing emotional effect is. It also works because it deals with the people experiencing the memorial rather than people memorialized by it. Its power is not in keeping a literal record of those who have died, but in bringing the living into contact with memory and lost experiences.

The similar design chosen as the finalist has retained many of these features, although the window on to the void will now be obscured by a curtain of water, the voids themselves will be half filled with water, and you'll also be able to go underneath the voids and look up through the pool. Also, there won't be walls around the top, so you won't get the blocking out effect planned in the other design. The memorial doesn't really need these aspects and I wonder if the designers will decide they are extraneous at some point, but neither are they too offensive. I tend to believe that memorials shouldn't require mechanical upkeep, and by 2010 the water is probably going to be pretty scummy and some parts of the water curtain will probably be on the fritz, which will be embarrassing and make the whole enterprise feel dated.

The revised plan also includes an underground memorial museum. While I think this is OK and feeds a necessary demand which visitors from around the world will have when they visit the site, I would hope that it is kept separate from the memorial itself, which should try to keep its content as simple as possible.


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