Grave Yard

Lessons in memorial-building.

Should the Twin Towers be rebuilt as they were? That question has already been answered in the affirmative by the architects A.M. Stern and Philip Johnson and former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, who all want to see a replica erected, in part as a message of defiance to terrorists. A Quinnipiac Survey last week found there was 63 percent support in New York state for rebuilding the Twin Towers as they were, versus 28 percent opposed. (The rest were undecided.) This idea raises a host of psychological and other issues. As nearly everyone’s noted, businesses would be too spooked to rent space in the rebuilt towers. And the symbolism would be all wrong: Replicas would carry with them the confounding symbolism that nothing had changed, that the city hadn’t experienced the massive impact and reverberations of Sept. 11.

Meanwhile, the leaseholder of the property, Larry Silverstein, is talking to architect David Childs of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill about a replacement for the destroyed World Trade Center complex. And Silverstein has already mentioned an even more concrete prospect: four replacement towers, each about half the size of the original two, in a complex that would be integrated with the waterside World Financial Center.

It is much too early to know if some version of Silverstein’s napkin sketch of a four-tower solution will prevail. On the closely related question of a suitable monument for a site that will serve as the final resting place for thousands of victims and a place of pilgrimage for their loved ones, Metropolitan Museum of Art Director Philippe de Montebello recently argued in the New York Times op-ed page for the installation of a seven-story, cathedral-spire-shaped fragment of one of the tower facades. De Montebello’s fragment certainly looked haunting and imposing in published photographs; but it has a strong if incidental sectarian connotation of a Christian house of worship. And surely this or any other piece of one of these great buildings, however poignant, is inadequate to represent the entirety and enormity of the Sept. 11 events.

Whatever their final decisions, the planners of the rebuilt site will be able to draw on a rich library of approaches to memorialization. For example, De Montebello’s proposal for keeping the shard of one tower as a monument has a powerful lineage. The Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, reduced to a stump in Allied bombing in 1943, has been left standing on Berlin’s Kurfurstendamm Boulevard as a “warning to posterity.” Another famous example of a memorial ruin is the skeleton of a building that looms over the Hiroshima Peace Park, a modernist three-story domed structure that served as the Hiroshima Prefecture Industry Promotion Hall in the 1930s. And of course a similar approach was taken with many concentration camps, which serve as damning, unvarnished testimony to the Holocaust. All of these ruins are unimpeachable in their authenticity and lack of artifice. It is hard to imagine a memorial to the Sept. 11 catastrophe without some similar touchstone of the actual event.

But preserved wreckage will not be enough, and the Hiroshima Peace Park explains why. The ruin evokes the vanished buildings and city fabric. But the other elements of the site add additional layers of meaning. A park invites individual and collective reflection and offers a compelling metaphor for regeneration and continuity. (The idea for a similar peace park at the World Trade Center site has been advocated by the writer Pete Hamill and others.) There are two main sculptural monuments at the Hiroshima park: a Cenotaph, a monumental arch built in tribute and remembrance to the victims, and a Peace Sculpture, dedicated to children but generally representative of the hope of a better future. The arch acknowledges the site as a burial ground, and the Peace Sculpture reflects the hope of drawing transcendent meaning out of the devastation. Finally, a museum recalls the event in specific historical detail.

The Hiroshima Park is impressive in its utter gravity and sincerity. However, some of its imagery, soaring figures and so on, feel dated and sentimental, at least from an early 21st-century point of view. “Memorial to the Victims in Camps,” the big sculpture that adorns Israel’s Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem, prompts a similar ambivalence. Its poignant melee of tortured bodies, however heartfelt, only reminds you that the horrors of the mid-20th century tend to outstrip the capacity of art to express them convincingly. In contrast, Yad Vashem’s other elements—a museum and a parklike setting—have aged a little more gracefully.

So, what is genuinely moving, and not just well-meaning, to a modern soul? Maya Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial is, as pretty much everyone who’s ever visited it has acknowledged. With it, something fundamental happened to the vocabulary of collective grief. Abstract and conceptual art, an aesthetic vocabulary innovated in the ‘60s, was made to speak (and with supreme eloquence) for the defining event of that same decade. Lin’s design creates a space of mourning. The design is unified and singular, but listing the names of the dead clarifies the relationship between individual and collective loss. Lin invests abstraction with deep potential for emotional expression.

Lin’s memorial opened the conceptual gateways that led to the latest American memorial to victims of terrorism. At the Oklahoma National Memorial, the vocabulary of both the Hiroshima and the Vietnam commemorations have been brought together into a kind of amalgamation of previously established memorial traditions. As at Hiroshima, a natural setting has been invoked: There is a reflecting pool, a Memorial Tree, and a Rescuer’s Orchard. The monumental arch was reinterpreted as twin “Gates of Time,” one representing 9:01, the other 9:03, symbolizing the fateful moment and its consequences. A Memorial Center offers a repository of related artifacts and a chronicle of the events. And as with the Vietnam Memorial, abstract forms have been turned into convincing objects of collective affect and catharsis. You see this in the field of empty chairs of concrete, bronze, and glass, recognizing individual victims and the collective loss of human life, as well as in the sculpturelike arches.

Like Hiroshima and Yad Vashem, the Oklahoma City memorial takes a multipart approach, trying to cover more than one emotional base of grief. But Oklahoma City’s memorial also adds something new: a Children’s Area, where children are encouraged to express their feelings about the tragedy by drawing on chalkboards, making their own memorials, so to speak. This gives the memorial a formal therapeutic dimension. For the first time, a memorial gives its visitors something to do other than standing, looking, and reading in hushed silence.

Given all these precedents, it seems pretty safe to assume a few things about the Sept. 11 memorial. It will probably be a multiformat, something-for-everyone affair, perhaps with separate tributes to the regular tenants and rescue workers killed. On the purely technological/formal level, one can safely speculate that it will involve multimedia and interactive elements. Given the importance of the memorial, New York’s place in the world of the arts, and the exhaustive process that is likely to precede the design solution, there’s every reason to expect that a suitably evocative and consoling memorial will be built. But there is still the risk that in a multifaceted approach, the whole will become lost in the sum of its parts, and that the design will trade focus and depth for breadth.

That said, the city’s memorialization process already seems to be off to an admirable and remarkably unified start. The New York landscape is likely to be graced soon by the project “Towers of Light,” which promises to serve as a kind of interim monument, and in a sense, a bridge between acts of informal commemoration and more permanent monuments to come. A project by the artists Julian LaVerdiere and Paul Myoda and the architects John Bennett and Gustavo Bonevardi, the “Towers of Light” proposal already enjoys the support of the city’s Municipal Art Society and the public arts organization Creative Time, which means it stands a fair chance of being realized. An all-light artwork, located very near to where the actual towers stood, would represent the Twin Towers in spectral form. “Towers of Light” would ascend high into the sky, variously evoking the hopeful beacon, the prayerful candle, the memorial flame—as well as “standing in” for the buildings themselves, and for the enormity of their absence. “Towers of Light” offers the prospect of a hopeful and unifying tribute during a mournful, brooding, and anxious time.