The Sept. 11 Memorial: Still Unsettled

Although a contract to build the foundation has been awarded, debate over the design continues to rage

Slide Show >>

In July, a Ground Zero memorial commemorating September 11 victims came closer to reality. New York's Port Authority and the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation announced its award of a $17 million contract to build the structure's foundation to E.E. Cruz & Co. of Holmdel, N.J.

But although such a development signifies that a September 11 memorial will soon be in the works, the road to its completion is sure to be rocky. The process of designing and building a monument to those killed at the World Trade Center has been marked by heated debate on how best to memorialize the dead—and the contract award will not put an end to the controversy.

Some relatives of September 11 victims, for example, hope to see their loved ones listed according to their professions. But that would defy the original design, which called for no such distinctions. And architecture critics are frustrated by the lack of funds and, arguably, imagination from the government to bring to life architect Michael Arad's original design.

The plan Arad unveiled in 2004 called for two square voids where the towers once stood. Water would fall from these two angular holes into pools 30 feet below ground. A breathtaking design, to be sure, but also structurally challenging.

The most recent, stripped-down revision is being blasted as a budget-conscious travesty. Unveiled this June, and consisting simply of two pools in the towers' footprints, the new plan, which now includes a museum, has been panned as dull and generic. "Were it not for the names that are to be carved into the barrier surrounding the pools, you might be contemplating a pair of fountains at a corporate plaza," wrote New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff on June 22.


  Mass death, whether by war or famine, is to say the least, an emotionally and politically charged topic. So it is hardly surprising that creating a public, contemporary symbol of remembrance often spurs heated debate among architects, critics, relatives of the dead, and government leaders.

In the past half-century or so, as more abstract, modern memorials have started to appear—consider the sleek forms of the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor, finished in the 1960s, and Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., in the 1980s—the arguments over how to remember the dead via monuments are increasingly focusing on the power of design to offer contemplative places of mourning.

"Memorials have to speak more than any other type of architecture," says Philip Nobel, author of Sixteen Acres: Architecture and the Outrageous Struggle for the Future of Ground Zero (Metropolitan Books). "Everything that's happening now goes back to Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial. It was the first time an architect really succeeded in making a modern memorial resonate with people."

But Nobel points out that Lin had an ideal location, within eyesight of both the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. This was, Nobel says, the perfect context for a spare sculptural style. Lin's dramatically abstract design was literally framed as a monument. It was a rare situation that's hard to replicate, especially in the case of the World Trade Center memorial, located in a bustling commercial area not initially intended for a monument to the dead.


  In the past, public memorials glorified victories rather than emphasized loss. Consider Rome's Ara Pacis, built in 9 B.C. by Emperor Caesar Augustus, a rectangular, carved structure intended to celebrate the peace that ensued after the Roman Army triumphed in Gaul and Spain. (The Ara Pacis, it's worth noting, was ensconced within a highly modern, minimalist museum by American "starchitect" Richard Meier this year.)

Or take France's Arc de Triomphe, a neoclassical structure commissioned in 1806 by Emperor Napoleon I after his army's victory at Austerlitz. The neoclassical design is echoed in New Delhi's India Gate, a memorial built in the 1920s to commemorate fallen soldiers who died in World War I and India's Afghan Wars.

As modern architecture with bold, geometric lines started to become more widely built in the 20th century, monuments began taking on abstract forms, too. Such abstraction provided a means of confronting and contemplating the brutalities of war even less directly than Roman-style arches, while also providing a contemplative place of public mourning and respect for the dead.

Lin's groundbreaking memorial was chosen solely for its striking, open-book-like design via an architectural competition judged by experts in the field and governmental leaders. This process, which at least in theory encourages decision by committee, has produced such national landmarks as the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial.

Arad's design for the World Trade Center memorial was also chosen via competition—with Lin, among others, on the jury. Arad's graceful work beat out 5,200 others. The World Trade Center Memorial Foundation hopes to raise nearly $1 billion for the memorial and related museum.


  When victims of mass killings are civilians, as they were at the World Trade Center, the issue of how best to build a monument becomes an even more sensitive topic. One trend after World War II was simply not to build a memorial at all—instead allowing destroyed buildings to serve as the all-too-real markers of civilian death.

Charles de Gaulle, for instance, declared that the small French village of Oradour-sur-Glane would remain untouched as a reminder of the atrocities of June 10, 1944, when retreating German soldiers burned the entire village to the ground, killing all 642 civilians. And in Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima, Japan, a skeletal dome that survived the atomic bomb dropped on the city in 1945 remains as is. Although a minimalist cenotaph is also located in the park and serves as a graceful, modern-looking monument to the dead, the ragged dome is a haunting reminder of the bomb's casualties.

As the future memorial for September 11 victims at the World Trade Center takes shape, arguments for and against its design are sure to continue. Citizens seem equally skeptical and enthused. A Pace University poll conducted in June, 2006, indicated that lower Manhattan residents, the closest neighbors of Ground Zero, are torn when judging the rebuilding effort at the World Trade Center site. Half of the 511 people surveyed by phone said the rebuilding effort was "off on the wrong track." (The margin of error was plus or minus 4 percentage points.) But now that plans for laying the physical foundations of the memorial are in place, the public no doubt will soon critique the memorial's physical progress, as well as Arad's design and the bureaucracy surrounding its construction.

Click here for the slide show.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.