Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company   

The New York Times

October 25, 2001



Competing Plans Hope to Shape a Trade Center Memorial




ow will the horror be remembered? Since the World Trade Center attack on Sept. 11 there have been no shortage of ideas for a memorial for the thousands of people who died there.


Should a portion of the skeletal remains of the tower that still stand in the ruins serve as a memorial, just as the frame of a building destroyed by the atomic blast was left as part of the Peace Memorial in Hiroshima?


Another suggestion calls for two huge beams of light to search the night sky, a symbol of the vanished towers. And there are those who argue that the site is sacred ground, still a smoking funeral pyre containing the remains of thousands, and that nothing should be built on it.


Meanwhile, Larry A. Silverstein, who holds the lease to the site, has asserted that the best memorial would be to rebuild in the same place, which constitutes some of the most valuable real estate in Manhattan, and has commissioned the firm of Skidmore Owings & Merrill and Cooper Robertson & Partners to draw up plans for four 50-story buildings and a park that would include a memorial. But there has been no consensus yet. And architects and historians say that given the lessons of recent history, the process could be fraught, only adding to the universal pain of the catastrophe.


"Our concern is that the memorial not be seen as an afterthought," said Michael Manfredi, an architect who has become involved in an effort by architects, artists and representatives of the business community to help shape the process through which a memorial will be chosen.


The participants are serving on a committee that calls itself the Memorial Process Team. It hopes to avert the acrimony that has developed over projects like the Jewish Museum in Berlin, which eventually had a successful opening, and the World War II memorial in Washington, which is not yet built. It is an offshoot of the Design Coalition, organized by the American Institute of Architects, consisting of professional, civic and cultural organizations considering how to rebuild downtown Manhattan.


The memorial team has no authority, and is purely advisory, said one of its coordinators, Ray Gastil. He is executive director of the Van Alen Institute, an advocacy group to improve public architecture. The team will hold a meeting tomorrow.


It will not make recommendations for a design, Mr. Gastil said, but "we are trying to set up the best principles." The group will look at the way other memorials were built, like the one in Oklahoma City, consisting of 168 empty chairs in a parklike setting to commemorate the victims of the 1995 bombing.


The building of any memorial is an immensely complex undertaking, said Richard Scherr a member of the team, who along with James Rossant was a finalist for the Oklahoma City Memorial. To be successful, he added, the end product must necessarily "work on symbolic levels, political and cultural levels."


And while the design for the memorial will inevitably be chosen by committee, which many designers and architects assert should include a strong presence of victims and survivors, Mr. Manfredi said, "it's important that whatever art is done, it's not done by committee." Mr. Manfredi and his partner, Marion Weiss, designed the memorial to women of the armed forces at Arlington National Cemetery.


Diana Balmori, a landscape and urban designer also on the panel, suggested that while the process of deciding is under way, there could be a temporary memorial on the site, which would "reflect the different stages which the site goes through, like an organic, living thing." The site is largely closed to the public now, Ms. Balmori noted, while crews search for remains and remove debris. A temporary memorial might include a viewing platform from which people could see the location. "The hiding of the site is not a good idea," she said. "Seeing the site, gives the site a chance to heal and the people a chance to heal."


Whatever happens, timing is critical, architects and engineers say, with Mr. Silverstein's announcement that he is already drawing up plans for new buildings for the site and the state and city considering how to organize a rebuilding effort. Mr. Manfredi said that it was important that a memorial "not be a footnote to a large development project."


"While moving forward is important," he said, "what you wouldn't want is a little statue or a little plot."


Timing is also important because of the sheer rapidity with which the site is being cleared, with debris being hauled away to the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island, and to locations in New Jersey where it is already being ground into scrap. Some of the debris, Mr. Scherr said, "represents a fabric that exists from the site that can speak to us from the site" and could be used in a future memorial.


To ensure that objects are preserved for this kind of use, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the land, has appointed a committee to designate objects to be salvaged. The committee consists of two architects - Marilyn Taylor, chairman of Skidmore Owings & Merrill, and Bart Voorsanger, who designed the remodeling of Asia House - and Saul Wenegrat, an art consultant who was involved in choosing public art for the World Trade Center.


"We think of it as collecting objects for a museum," Mr. Voorsanger said. The committee's members have already tagged remnants of the public art that once stood at the World Trade Center, like Fritz Koenig's "Sphere," for preservation. They also want to preserve some of the impromptu memorials created by work crews, the great cross of ruined steel that has become an icon of the rescue effort, and some of the firetrucks, taxicabs and passenger cars that were crushed under the weight of tons of steel. The twisted vehicles are a shocking and direct link to the moment of the disaster. "There is no way someone wasn't in that car or taxi," Mr. Voorsanger said in his office, pointing to a photograph of a car that was nearly flattened by the force of the explosion, and which is a blood orange color.


The group has also tagged huge pieces of construction debris for salvaging. "Look at this," Mr. Voorsanger said, pointing to a huge steel beam bent into a U-shape by either the force of the attack or the subsequent inferno, as he gave a tour of Metal Management's yard in New Jersey, where some of the debris has been hauled by barge from ground zero. "There is no equipment strong enough to bend it like this."


The chunks of ruined steel might be used in a memorial in the same way that museums reconstruct ancient pottery, Mr. Voorsanger suggested, with a piece of original material joined together with facsimiles of missing pieces to recall the building.


The immense steel beam that was impaled in the side of one of the buildings in the World Financial Center could also be left in place as a memorial after the building is restored, Mr. Voorsanger suggested, as a symbol of the sheer force of the attack. "It was like Zeus hurling thunderbolts," he said.


But the committee's search for objects raises further questions about the memorial's design. Should it even include objects from the site, or statues or likenesses of the victims? Or should it deal with the event more abstractly, like Maya Lin's Vietnam memorial in Washington?


On the subject of involvement by survivors and relatives, Mr. Gastil said he hoped that they would soon join the Memorial Process Team. The involvement of survivors and relatives of victims in the Oklahoma City memorial is widely acknowledged to be one reason for its success.


Mr. Scherr also emphasized the importance of survivors and relatives in decision making. But the Oklahoma City memorial involved 168 victims, Mr. Scherr pointed out. "Here you are talking about over 5,000 people," he said. "And when you magnify that to relatives and others who were involved, it becomes thousands and thousands of people."


But the voice of relatives and victims in shaping a memorial is no guarantee of success. The World War II memorial planned for Washington was designed with much input from veterans groups, but it has also been the object of protest from others who dislike the design. Even if the Trade Center memorial does not incorporate artifacts from the site, Mr. Voorsanger said, it is important to have them in case they are needed. "What do you reclaim as memory?" he asked. "This memorial needs a level of poetry." But for the memorial to work as poetry, the objects must become metaphors, he said, adding, "Metaphor is the only way you can speak to future generations."


"Was it Wallace Stevens who said you need the literal in order to create the metaphor?" Mr. Voorsanger asked.


In the past, much more time passed between a tragic event, and the discussions of how to memorialize it, said Edward Linenthal, a professor of Religion and American Culture at the University of Wisconsin in Oshkosh, who studies memorials. But in a culture that embraces an almost therapeutic mode of openness, Mr. Linenthal writes in "The Unfinished Bombing: Oklahoma City in American Memory" (Oxford University Press), memorialization has become a significant form of cultural expression. And daily accounts in the news media of the search for bodies, the anguish of families, have only intensified the national empathy for the victims of national tragedies and their survivors.


In a telephone interview, Mr. Linenthal who has also written books on battlefield memorials, and the creation of the Holocaust Memorial in Washington, said that the grounds of the discussion in New York have been largely the same as in Oklahoma City. The first impulse in New York, Mr. Linenthal said, was "we will not let terrorists alter in an enduring manner the landscape of New York. We will rebuild."


In Oklahoma, he said, "People were going to rebuild the federal building. But what developed rather quickly was the opposite pole, that this is, if not sacred ground, at least charged ground. It has been transformed, just as a battlefield is by the loss that took place there."


He endorsed deep community participation in the project. "The whole process enfranchised people," he said, and was part of a general democratization in the creation of memorials that has also occurred in recent years. One instance of this is the way that people make their own mark on places like the Vietnam memorial, tracing names on the stone, and leaving objects there.


"Memorials have become much more than just static places to honor long ago events that quickly become of only antiquarian interest," he said. "The purpose is not just to mourn the dead, but to actively reshape the moral conscience of people who come through."


The conversations about the Trade Center memorial will probably be more complex than any of the others, Mr. Linenthal said. But he added that the debates themselves could be more important than whatever memorial is eventually built.


"I happen to think it is in the conversations, in the careful selection of people to think about this, that we in fact agonize and come to grips in certain ways with these massive, horrendous events," he said. "From my perspective, what is more important is the process ?in some cases, it is more important than the memorial."