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With each refinement of the plans for Ground Zero, designers and politicians have, wittingly or not, opened up space for competing views of how to memorialize Sept. 11. When the site is complete, it will form the backdrop for aesthetic conversations between youth and experience; between the logic of the corporate world and that of the avant-garde; and, we found out this week, between minimalist abstraction and literal narrative.
So far, the discussion we’ve paid most attention to has been one between David Childs and Daniel Libeskind as they worked to produce a design for the Freedom Tower, a skyscraper at once elegant and ham-fisted. We can now see evidence of a less shrill and more productive dialogue in the updated Ground Zero memorial design, for which Michael Arad, a 34-year-old architect for the city of New York, has teamed up with Peter Walker, a 71-year-old landscape designer who lives in San Francisco and keeps his office in Berkeley.
The mere fact of Walker’s appearance on the design team is, on its own terms, an interesting narrative. In November, when the memorial jury announced eight finalists picked from more than 5,200 entries, the reaction, on the part of critics, victims’ families, and the general public, was wary. The finalists’ designs, though remarkably pretty to look at, seemed to flail conceptually. To varying degrees, each struggled to strike the right balance between commemorating the destruction of Sept. 11 and pointing the way toward rebirth. The shortcomings seemed to stem from two factors: The designers were mostly young and inexperienced, and they were being asked to wring perfectly distilled meaning from an event that America as a whole was still having lots of trouble coming to grips with.
Looking at those eight designs, many of us began asking the same question: Should the jury scrap the whole thing, apologize to the finalists, wait several months, and try again?
The jurors themselves, understandably, were reluctant to go that route. But now that we’ve seen an updated version of the design that prevailed, it seems pretty clear that they wanted to choose a winner while making sure that winner was substantially improved before it was fully introduced to the public.
Instead of taking the most attractive scheme and trying to add meaning, the jury decided to do the opposite. It chose the finalist, Arad, whose design was the strongest conceptually and tried to figure out a way to soften and humanize it. To do that, jurors apparently suggested—and here I’m speculating a little bit—in no uncertain terms that Arad pick a much more experienced designer to help him strengthen and flesh out his plan, and gave him a very short list of people to pick from. The name Peter Walker was on that list.
Why Walker? For starters, his overstuffed résumé is tough to beat: He has headed the landscape architecture departments at Harvard and U.C. Berkeley, and has contributed landscape elements to several high-profile buildings by well-known architects, most recently Renzo Piano’s new Nasher Center in Dallas. More than that, he was probably attractive because of the way his work, squarely in the modernist tradition, combines simplicity and richness, two qualities that the jury—particularly its better-known members, notably Maya Lin—were hoping the Ground Zero memorial would include.
This time, Walker had his work cut out for him. Arad’s memorial design, “Reflecting Absence,” was in November almost completely devoid of natural elements. It kept the footprints of the towers open, as recessed pools of water, and proposed a lonely hard-paved plaza between them. Ramps led to a lower level where visitors could see the water pour down in squared-off sheets as they scanned the names of the victims.
Arad’s main gesture was both minimalist and realist: It used the tower footprints as the centerpiece of well-orchestrated sculptural geometry, but it also relied on the literal dimensions of the towers’ bases to do so. At the same time, Arad’s design had serious liabilities. It was easily the most severe and least welcoming of the eight finalists. Above ground, the plan was unfortunately reminiscent of the original plaza between the twin towers, a space almost universally derided for its lifelessness.
The revised plan, unveiled Wednesday morning, doesn’t solve all those problems, but it’s a big step in a promising direction. It uses bunches of deciduous trees (Arad had a small number of evergreens) to soften the original design and make it more lush. The landscaping also helps the whole design strike a more effective balance between memory and rebirth, death and life. In this sense, Walker has done more than add trees: He has helped clarify the goals of “Reflecting Absence.” After walking through elegant landscaping and overhanging branches to get to the edge of Arad’s pools, the voids where the towers once stood will be all the more starkly moving.
Meanwhile, Arad and Daniel Libeskind appear to have struck a compromise on the location of the cultural buildings due to go up at the site. In the original memorial competition, entrants were told that both footprints were going to be spanned by large sections of those buildings. Arad and one other finalist submitted designs that wisely (and rather cheekily) ignored that instruction, suggesting instead that the space above the footprints ought to be open to the sky. In the updated version of “Reflecting Absence,” the cultural buildings have been moved so they huddle on the northeast corner of the site, no longer leaving the footprints in shadow. An odd retaining wall that Arad had placed on one edge of the memorial site is thankfully gone, too.
Just as significant a change comes below ground, where Arad and Walker have found space for a display of 9/11 relics, which victims’ relatives had argued should be included somewhere at Ground Zero: pieces of the tower facades, twisted steel, crushed fire trucks, and maybe even what’s left of the spherical sculpture by Fritz Koenig that once stood on the plaza between the towers.
It’s not hard to understand why the families fought for their inclusion: There is something about seeing a survivor of the towers’ collapse, even an inanimate one, that can make more detached artistry seem completely inadequate. When I walked through an exhibition of various Ground Zero rebuilding plans at the Venice Biennale about a year and a half ago, for example, it was amazing how mundane and emotionless the conversation inside the exhibition hall was: Oh, look how tall that one is. This one has a roof garden. Check out that cantilevered section. Then, when we walked back outside, we noticed that there was a grotesquely mangled steel beam from one of the towers on the ground. We all instantly stopped, went quiet, and just stared at it.
I imagine the collection of artifacts in what’s being called the Memorial Center will have that sort of power and more. But the items will also offer yet another example of the extent to which Ground Zero will house directly competing ideas about how to remember Sept. 11. Since Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial was finished two decades ago, minimalism has been the only critically acceptable way to design a memorial. Up above, at street level, “Reflecting Absence” will use that visual language to memorialize, and abstract, the story of Sept. 11. Down below, in a room full of battered objects, it will get on with the business of telling it.