Confronting a Specter – The 9/11 Memorial and Site

WTC 2 memorial site with museum in background.

WTC 2 memorial site with museum in background.

Positively no remnants of the previous incarnation of the World Trade Center site remain in its re-imagined recreated self. Logically I know that the memorials occupy the two footprints of WTC 1 and 2 but they’re anti-forms of the buildings that once were and trigger no recollections. There is nothing familiar afoot.


While inhabiting this new alien space in my mind’s eye I know a previous physical reality existed there that’s been overlaid by a new self-subsuming and improved self. Recollections of walking the World Trade Center site, marveling at the brutality of the double towers and its sun’s anvil of a plaza, walking the cathedral like lobbies of the buildings, taking out of town visitors to the observation deck, staring out the vertical slit apertures of Windows on the World effecting an airplane view not a skyscraper view, generally interacting with the site up close and from afar, using the towers as distant way finders from uptown, knowing this space existed and that we inhabited it, repeatedly, yet now not physically experiencing or visually seeing anything of those tangible and forceful memories. The former twin towers and the site around them? Specters of the past.


This tabula rasa proffered by newly vacant ground in dense lower Manhattan provides an overpowering once in a lifetime opportunity for architecture and the city. The manifestation of the site’s reconstruction naturally reacts to this opportunity. Moreover it’s the perfect expression of a congenital NYC zeitgeist insisting that each generation obliterate the buildings of the previous one to recreate them bigger and better in their own contemporary image. NYC must be always constructing itself anew.


Non New Yorkers logically conclude, “New York will be a handsome city when it is finished,” because they have not yet internalized the mad logic that makes the place tick. This notion fundamentally misunderstands the obsessive and intense energy required for The City to persist. Remember, the original WTC obliterated an entire neighborhood producing a radical, re-imagined, reoccupied section of downtown NYC that fundamentally altered the skyline.


The force that is NYC insists that 16 suddenly empty acres of prime downtown real estate available for redevelopment be entirely re-imagined. New Yorkers are perpetual optimistic neo-Futurists in spirit and actions. In fact they were futurists before the Futurists, proto-Futurists. It’s the only way to persist in that environment, especially if you aren’t a hedge fund manager, a Russian industrialist oligarch or independently wealthy. This attitude towards the built environment helps explain how and why NYC is NYC, why 8+ million souls choose to difficultly live there. Its assurance in its primacy, importance and immediacy of itself makes it absolutely exhilarating and oftentimes infuriating.

WTC Before & After - Previous WTC site, left. Current WTC site, right.

WTC Before & After - Previous WTC site, left. Current WTC site, right.


The two Arad / Walker memorials themselves perplex me, actually, they disturb me. They are not contemplative edifices. Absent is the calm solemnity of Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial or the Butzer Gardner Oklahoma City National Memorial, environments for reflection and introspection. Standing athwart the rail at the edge of the memorial precipice evokes a discomforting reaction. The plunging water over the black granite outer edge of the memorial into the black pool below and then descending into a smaller square black void centered in the pool elicits strong recollections of the terrifying falls of that terrible day.


Thousands of pieces of paper incongruously lilting in the air 1,200 feet over Manhattan, then drifting to the streets of lower Manhattan and Brooklyn Heights, the oppressive cloying dust (all those who walked through the debris cloud ingested these WTC particles, eating a small part of the event), plummeting, flailing, jumping human beings from above the façade impact zones, the collapse of the buildings themselves and ultimately the ragged hole left in lower Manhattan. The buildings dropping from the sky are intense and painful images from that day, the interminable acrimonious 13+ year planning and construction project are the hole’s legacy. Why compel visitors of the site to relive these memories?


These memorials are dark, literally and figuratively, with limited sensitivity or meaningful opportunities to memorialize the events of that day. My only conclusion is that maybe in some reading of the memorials they are in spirit poor variations on Terragni’s Danteum or a halfhearted attempt to channel Etienne-Louis Boullée?


From Dante,


So that the Universe felt love,

by which, as some believe,

the world has many times been turned to chaos.

And at that moment this ancient rock,

here and elsewhere, fell broken into pieces.


 And more obviously,


I am the way into the city of woe,

I am the way into eternal pain,

I am the way to go among the lost.

Justice caused my high architect to move,

Divine omnipotence created me,

The highest wisdom, and the primal love.

Before me there were no created things

But those that last forever—as do I.

Abandon all hope ye who enter here.


What I was hoping to experience,


To get back up to the shining world from there

My guide and I went into that hidden tunnel,

And following its path, we took no care

To rest, but climbed: he first, then I – so far,

through a round aperture I saw appear

Some of the beautiful things that Heaven bears,

Where we came forth, and once more saw the stars.


Lastly, what happens during the freeze of winter? Are the fountains turned off? The over-spray will ice the surroundings creating unsafe conditions compelling closure of the site. These openings without water flow must surely be seen as open mass graves. Hopefully there’s a winter plan I’m unaware of.


With respect to the museum itself I couldn’t compel myself to stand in line, buy a ticket, stand in line to enter and then buck the crowds for a walk-through. Additionally an anxious horror of confronting the gift shop loomed foremost in my mind. From the exterior the building form leaves me empty. It seemingly has no specific relationship to the site, the city or the 9/11 attack, a Snøhetta formalism transplanted from Scandinavia into lower Manhattan? Not sure yet. Before making a final assessment I owe it to the building and the architects to go inside.


Maybe next visit.

[Ed. Note: This piece was written in October 2014.]