As a breeze whips the veils of water cascading into the 9/11 memorial’s pools, sparkling garlands dissolve into mist.
The dancing waters don’t strike the solemn note I expected from this shrine to 2,983 deaths on the site of the World Trade Center’s twin towers.
With the consequences of Sept. 11 still unfolding we can’t know the larger meaning of what happened that day. The rush to commemorate resulted in a compromised, but elegant muddle.
Remembering the victims has been the only safe course.
I take time to consider the names of the dead, laser cut in 76 sloping bronze panels that run in a long, continuous railing around the pools.
Individual names pop out. (Guides will help visitors locate specific people.) They’re arranged in long, gracefully staggered lines that remind me of just how many they were.
The veils of water behind the names are not the main point: They shower the names with grace.
I wander among Swamp White Oak trees planted on the 8-acre plaza that surrounds the pools. They run in east-west lines across bands of light-gray granite that alternate paving stones and cobbles.
Landscape architect Peter Walker has instructed arborists to trim the branches of the oaks (eventually 442 of them) to a uniform 11-foot height. Amid stolid tree trunks marching into the distance, that horizontal expanse under the leaves draws the eye to the low, dark granite parapets of memorial pools set into the twin tower footprints.
The landscape and the pools are sensitive and respectful, but a searing, politically and emotionally complex process largely guaranteed that the experience is essentially passive rather than gripping.
Since so many people felt they owned the memory of that day, grief clashed with angry, flag-waving defiance. Cooler heads argued that defining the true meaning and significance of the events required a detachment only time would bring. Cooler heads did not prevail.
Respecting the wishes of those 9/11 victim families that deemed the tower footprints to be sacred ground, officials dedicated almost half of the Trade Center site to the memorial.
That decision proved very expensive, helping to push the cost to an unconscionable $700 million.
Beating 5,200 entries in an open international competition, the original design by young architect Michael Arad included a vast austere plaza and the memorial waterfall pools. He brought in Walker, a respected Berkeley, California, landscape architect to soften the plaza with greenery, invigorating sorrow with city life.
Though Walker has created a place of quiet dignity with the ranks of trees and the plane of granite, pleasant ambivalence trumps the expression of tragedy. Once the site can be opened to surrounding streets, local Wall Street workers will gather at lunch.
Currently construction equipment thumps and growls on the four streets surrounding the memorial’s plaza, but about three fourths of the precinct opens on Sept. 11.
Visitors will enter the southwest corner of the site, on Liberty and West Streets, after passing through an airport-style checkpoint. The plaza will not exert its full effect for years, when surrounding streets open and the checkpoint is removed.
Hulking ventilation structures jarringly intrude. They had to be accommodated once officials authorized a grandiose 9/11 museum that fills much of the 70-foot-deep space beneath the plaza. Accounting for perhaps $300 million of the memorial’s cost, it opens next year.
Another intrusion is the museum’s entrance building. It started life as an $80-million, patriotism-drenched center to celebrate freedom. After protests by victims’ families, officials belatedly recognized that the center’s programs might attract ugly controversy at odds with its location at Ground Zero.
The Oslo architecture firm Snohetta turned the center into an oversized entrance to the 9/11 museum. It now overwhelms the twin memorial pools, even pushing its crystalline prow into the space between them, muddling the site’s meaning.
The urge to commemorate the horror of Sept. 11 has outrun history. The terror-attack aftermath -- the military engagements, for example, -- remains too emotionally raw and politically divisive to engage.
Arad’s first design listed victims in underground galleries behind the waterfalls. It was a powerfully poetic idea, but I am glad the names came up to the plaza.
Visitors can remember loved ones or pray as the trees cast dappled shadows on passersby chatting with friends. Recognizing loss while getting on with our lives is an enormously affirming gesture.
The memorial never needed to do more than that.
Visitors to the National September 11 Memorial and Museum must reserve free passes in advance. Information: +1-212-266-5200; http://www.911memorial.org.
(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. Island Press has just published his book, “The Agile City.” The opinions expressed are his own.)