How To Build a Memorial to 9/11

An ingenious and moving design—one you haven’t seen—to remember the World Trade Center.

Chatterbox hasn’t paid much attention to the various designs on view at galleries around New York for proposed memorials to Sept. 11. What he’s glimpsed in the newspapers hasn’t particularly impressed him. Meanwhile, one memorial design that does seem worthy of serious attention hasn’t been on display anywhere except a Web page built by the person who conceived it, an architecture writer named Fred Bernstein. (The link was forwarded to Chatterbox, Internet-style, via a chain of three people.) The Bernstein memorial would be inexpensive to build; it would integrate itself well with other meaningful tourist sites in the area; it would sidestep current controversies about whether and how to rebuild on the World Trade Center site itself; and it would convey the scale of the World Trade towers—architecturally, the only distinctive thing about them—in a bracingly direct way. Click here to see it. (You’ll need to click through three pages to see the proposal in full.)

Essentially, Bernstein has designed two very long piers extending over New York Harbor from Battery Park. From the air, the piers look like the World Trade towers knocked on their sides and protruding ever so slightly above the waterline. Some people might question whether this is in good taste. Chatterbox thinks it’s an admirably straightforward description of what happened on Sept. 11. Two enormous towers were knocked—well, not over, but down, killing thousands of people in the process. (Some might prefer to read the image more suggestively as the shadows of the former towers.) The piers would be the precise length of the World Trade towers, marked off by a line every 12 feet that runs the piers’ width to designate each of 110 “floors.” Each 12-foot section would bear the names of those who perished on that floor, in a manner reminiscent of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Bernstein likes to imagine people leaving small mementos of lost love ones here and there, as is done at the wall.

The piers would be art objects in themselves, but they’d also provide a good vantage point from which to appreciate another art work—the skyline of lower Manhattan—and to contemplate what’s now missing from it. The piers would also be a pathway to two further destinations, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, since each pier would extend in the direction of each. Bernstein would like boats to dock at the far ends of both piers to carry visitors to and from the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. If nothing else, that would give tourists something to do while they waited to board their vessels. (Bernstein concedes that the Circle Line might have to travel a little farther south to avoid crashing into the piers, but it’s a small price to pay.) On the land side, the two piers would converge near Castle Clinton, a fort erected to repel foreign invasion during the War of 1812 that subsequently housed a concert hall and an aquarium. So, Bernstein’s memorial would actually link three existing historic sites, one of them related to the relevant theme of national defense, while summoning vivid memories of 9/11. And it would achieve these things without having to build on existing land, thereby avoiding endless arguments with developers, historic preservationists (Lower Manhattan, remember, was once New Amsterdam), and families of 9/11 victims who view the hole in the ground where the towers once stood as a sacred burial site. Arguments about what to do at Ground Zero will have to take place anyway, but why must a memorial await their resolution?