26 September 2011

Early Views of the September 11 Memorial

Before the memorial comes the checkpoint, an inevitable reminder of the days when the downtown concierge’s “Can I help you, buddy?” was replaced by security personnel’s “Please remove your belt, sir,” the less egalitarian mode of address putting a fig leaf of flattery over potential humiliation. Today, however, the guards are in a good mood. The one overseeing the X-ray conveyer belt, a round, mustachioed Nuyorican, chuckles when I ask if he wants my shoes, “like at the airport,” and just shakes his head. We’re waved through and our group is escorted around the foundations of the building that will arise just a few yards downtown from the old site. We pass through a cordon of construction workers chatting around some white roadblocks and then we’re on to the plaza, drawn almost immediately to the South Pool, where a woman in a brown T-shirt and shorts is polishing the names engraved into the black stone with a pair of neon green cloths. We peer into the pit, the footprint, the place where it was, now a stately fountain in reverse. The water flows down the sides in even, pin-striped jets, its roar muffled by the rumbles of winching cranes and backhoes at the nearby sites, collects in smooth waves at the bottom, and slides from all sides towards the hole within the hole, the large empty square at the center. No matter where we stand around the pool, we can never see the entirety of the square that outlines this central void. It’s a simple, effective way of making the visitor feel loss, a permanent sense of incompleteness that renews itself with each glance at the falls.

The space has been designed to record an interruption in everyday life by reminding us of what it’s like to have perception interrupted, but this sense of radical discontinuity exceeds the designers’ intentions. The oak trees are still too young and sparse to resemble the sacred grove promised by the lush impressionist series of Peter Walker and Partners’s CGI models; only 250 of the planned 400 have been planted by the opening. The stone cube benches snaggle out in places where they will eventually be part of paths that will be framed by the not-yet existing tree canopy. The North Pool is closed off, not ready for visitors. In this way, the memorial, its present form a function of accident and inevitable delay, acknowledges that the meaning of September 11 is still very much under construction.

The visitor’s mind too struggles to fit the pieces of the past, present, and future together amid all the construction noise, the cranes turning about the partially sheathed glass of what had been planned to be Libeskind’s “Freedom Tower.” The flux around the memorial helpfully undermines what might be thought of as a memorial’s prime task: the regulation of memory, prodding us not only to remember but also to forget the most disturbing thoughts of the recent past. There are, for instance, no plans to screen the collapse of the towers or the aftermath, in endless video montage, although, for most of us, September 11 is most closely associated with the trauma of those pictured foreign disasters daily beamed into our homes suddenly becoming our disaster, too real. Not that we complain about their omission, but neither are our minds entirely subsumed into the flow of pacific carrying on.

Amid the ongoing construction, the design loses some of its smoothness and some of the critical spirit of the project seeps through. It’s hard to look at the national September 11 museum building, Michael Arad’s brushed steel and glass rhomboid at the center of the plaza, and not think that it looks like a piece of a Star Wars set, or the Apollo moon lander somehow turned on its side, or a fragment of Dubai fetched up on our shores. Hard also not to see it as a partially habitable ruin, its irregular geometry summoning visions of the twisted steel of the fallen towers, pieces of which are, in fact, enclosed in glass and displayed within the structure itself. This bit of architectural meta-critique, a form mourning an older form, doesn’t quite change the perception of the new towers groaning upwards all around the memorial, not as audaciously rectilinear as the originals, but four rising where there were two. For a moment, everything appears oddly doubled; even the rising sun, reflected in the glass of the West tower, washes the plaza in double light.

We must also put aside the cognitive dissonance of memorial hoopla—the odd buoyancy in the steps of the press attachés, the staff kitted out in long tasteful dresses in bright patterns or simple gray suits, the camera crews unpacking while an anchorwoman does her blush seated on one of the stone cube benches, the announcement that the mayor will be arriving at nine-thirty and could we please clear the plaza unless we’re filming the mayor’s opening ceremony—in order to come to the creeping realization that this place is, in fact, a tomb.

Unlike at Maya Lin’s Vietnam cenotaph, immediately recalled by the names carved into the black stone balustrade around the pools, the remains of many of the dead are, in fact, mingled here with the matter of the site. What has been designed is more like a cemetery than the grand civic abstractions of most memorials. The swept gray paving stones, set in a loose, sandy mortar, the tree-framed alleys, the designated “reflection spots,” the museum as folly-garden ruin, these are as much features of 18th-century European funerary architecture as they recall the Japanese-influenced modernist, minimalism behind Peter Walker’s office park projects for Stanford, Novartis, and Pixar. Some of the stones are even “sponsored” by the victims’ families, although no names have been engraved on them. We type a name into one of the computer terminals posted around the site and receive a print-out map that guides us to one. Gradually, one hopes, the plaza will be filled with the ordinary paraphernalia of graveyards, the flowers, the stones placed atop the pool walls, the photographs. The ultimate success of the site will not depend on the original and now much-compromised design, so much as on how our ordinary and individual mourning practices are allowed to happen there, or even whether ordinary life happens there at all. It’s impossible to wander onto the plaza and not picture the first illicit skateboarder, the first teenage couple making out in the shade of the still young trees, the first protest march. How these intrusions are tolerated will determine whether the memorial becomes a living part of the city or a macabre tourist attraction.

The site remains, for now, somewhat at odds with itself, divided between these competing views and demands, unreconciled. Only the groups of policemen and firemen lining up at the entrance in dress uniform seem at ease, the mood of an Irish wake; their laughter cuts through the solemnity, but they know why they’re here, to honor those who died in the line of duty. Once again, as in the days after September 11, one admires and envies the simplicity of the sharp lines of action that shape their lives and deaths. The void between duty and honor doesn’t seem to trouble them, much. They’re here to mourn their friends or even comrades unknown; we’re here to mourn for unambiguous heroism.

There’s another group, too, who will see the memorial in their own way. The future inhabitants of the towers will get to look straight down into the site from their office suites. To them goes the aerial view of the plaza, as depicted on all the posters and the homepages of websites, the overview where there are no fragments or moments of incompleteness. They will peer straight down into the twin holes, the perfectly outlined squares. Looking up from the plaza to the expressionless glass towers where the slightly chastened masters of the universe will soon look down on us, it’s nice to imagine that the existence of this memento mori in the center of their work life will somehow give them pause. Instead of staring out the window into an infinity of their glass reflections, they’ll choose to look down and linger before returning to their desks to press the next button.

Image: Photo of the memorial model. From wirednewyork.com.

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