Monumental Folly

A look at telling absences in art history tells us why not to build a monument at the WTC.

A void may be the most powerful memorial to these imposing towers

The Lower Manhattan Development Corp. has announced an open competition, with submissions accepted until June 30, to design a memorial for the victims of Sept. 11 and the attack on the World Trade Center in February of 1993. The memorial site takes up some 4.7 acres within Daniel Libeskind’s planned building complex and includes the “footprints” of the two original towers, bounded on one side by an exposed slurry wall, the only part of the original structure of the World Trade Center to have survived the attacks. According to the New York Times, the victims’ families, New York firefighters, and downtown residents have already launched an “intense lobbying effort” to influence the 13-member jury. There have been calls for separate recognition of rescue workers and for filling in the sunken pit so that the memorial will be at street level. In the end, we’re likely to get a celebrity sculptor who burnishes his or her reputation with an idiosyncratically designed—and inevitably “controversial”—monument. Or a sentimental and crowd-pleasing idea like the “soaring” memorial envisaged by former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. So, I have a simple proposal. My proposal is that we put nothing at all in that space—that it be left as a hollowed-out void.

There are powerful precedents for such a thing. Libeskind himself built empty spaces—or “voids”—into the design of his Jewish Museum in Berlin, which opened in 2001. When I visited the museum with my father, a Jewish refugee from Hitler’s Berlin, both he and I found these to be the most moving parts of the museum. Elsewhere in Berlin, on the cobblestone expanse called the Bebelplatz, Micha Ullman, an Israeli-born artist, has commemorated the Nazi book-burning there of May 10, 1933, with a window at ground level that looks down into an empty subterranean white room lined with empty bookshelves. And then there’s van Gogh’s haunting “portrait” of Gauguin’s Chair, empty since Gauguin abandoned him in Arles—an idea repeated in the one empty chair per victim of the monument for the Oklahoma City bombing victims.

An empty chair was also a mourning motif in early Buddhist art, and lately I’ve found myself thinking about how the Japanese, as the first wave of American visitors discovered during the Gilded Age, have always known the power of understatement. When Henry Adams, himself a literary master of absence, traveled to Japan in 1886, he particularly admired the Great Buddha at Kamakura, where a 15th-century tidal wave had swept away the huge temple housing the 40-foot statue. Did the Japanese rebuild the temple? No. Its very absence, with its “footprint” marked by broken pillars, was a powerful presence. Adams’ guide in Japan, the connoisseur and author of The Book of Tea, Kakuzo Okakura, deplored the way Westerners filled their houses with pictures, statuary, and bric-a-brac. He proposed that the tearoom be an “abode of vacancy,” a description that directly inspired Frank Lloyd Wright’s absence-creating “architecture from within.”

In the heart of Adams’ autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams, there is a gap or void of 20 years, a period during which he got married; his wife, Clover, committed suicide; and he went to Japan on a journey of mourning in the company of painter and designer John La Farge. Recently I was on a panel at Yale to discuss it, along with Peter Gay, a distinguished historian of psychoanalytic bent. “What kind of man leaves his marriage out of his autobiography?” he asked, expecting—I suppose—the answer: an immature man in need of therapy. (Gay isn’t the first to complain. In a long piece on Gertrude Stein in a recent New Yorker, Janet Malcolm quotes a 1933 letter from Thornton Wilder in which he remarks on Adams’ silence about his wife: “It’s possible to make books of a certain fascination if you scrupulously leave out the essential.”)

I myself find Adams’ decision perfectly justified and deeply moving. Clover Adams, a gifted photographer devastated by her father’s death, hated monuments anyway. During her honeymoon on the Nile, she complained that Egyptian mortuary art was oppressive; and during a stopover in Rome she chastised the sculptor William Wetmore Story for spoiling “nice blocks of white marble.” Adams’$2 20-year gap is the perfect “countermonument,” to borrow a term—for a monument that refuses to be a traditional monument—from James E. Young, a scholar of memorials who serves on the selection committee for the World Trade Center memorial competition.

We all know that memory is primarily an inner, not an outer, process. No monument can do justice to the horror of the Civil War, which is why Lincoln’s simple words at Gettysburg (often invoked after Sept. 11) remain its most compelling monument. The movingly minimalist wall designed by Maya Lin (a member of the WTC jury) came more than a decade after the American pullout from Vietnam, at a time when many Americans wanted to consign the war to oblivion. During the months after Sept. 11, thousands of people came to view the site of the devastation, contemplating what Wallace Stevens called “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” We need to heed the message in Emily Dickinson’s stanza about “a certain slant of light”:

Heavenly hurt it gives us;
We can find no scar,
But internal difference
Where the meanings are.

There may be a time during the coming decades when memory will require some more specific physical reminder of what happened on Sept. 11. That time is not now. We should be looking instead for ways to honor the “internal difference,” starting with the void at the heart of Ground Zero.