National September 11 Memorial

National September 11 Memorial in New York City by Michael Arad and Peter Walker, 2011.

It was a cold, gray and windy day when I finally made my way to the National September 11 Memorial last week. Given that it was also the middle of a work day, the crowd at the Memorial was sparse. It was also a breeze to trek through the cumbersome routine required for visiting: reserve a timed visitor pass online; stop by the Preview Site northeast of the World Trade Center site to pick up the pass; walk to the southern end of the site for the Memorial entry; walk through airport-like security screening; follow the path to the western edge of the site to step foot on the plaza to finally see and hear the Memorial footprints up close.

The National September 11 Memorial & Museum is the full name of the project that encompasses the Memorial designed by Michael Arad and Peter Walker, and the Museum designed by Snøhetta and Davis Brody Bond. The latter is set to open in September 2012 (recent disputes make that improbable), so for now the experience is limited to walking about the plaza and circling the two pools whose footprints correspond with the locations of the World Trade Center's North and South Towers destroyed on September 11, 2001. Entry to the plaza is basically tangent to the southern edge of the South Pool, meaning that most people gravitate to the southwest corner of that pool to look into the cascading waterfalls. The wearing away of the parapet's bronze finish in this corner (little to no wear is evident in other places) made me wonder how people's interactions with the Memorial will add a layer of patina to the place: The bronze parapets will exhibit the residue of people's movements and reflect which names have been touched the most.

"[The 9/11 Memorial's] design conveys a spirit of hope and renewal, and creates a contemplative space separate from the usual sights and sounds of a bustling metropolis." -National September 11 Memorial & Museum website

While securing the World Trade Center site is one reason for the circuitous route to gain access to the plaza, the horseshoe-shaped entry sequence also stems from the rebuilding that surrounds the Memorial on three sides. Both 1WTC and 4WTC are rising to the north and east, respectively, as two glass towers among the four planned. Between them is a lot more construction closer to the ground, the bulk of which won't be complete for at least five years. This means that the separation from the "usual sights and sounds of a bustling metropolis" is still some years off. Yes, the water does a good job of drowning out the blast whistles and other sounds of construction, but only so when right up against the guardrails that are home to the names of the victims of the September 11, 2001 attacks and the February 1993 bombing. So presently the surrounding construction is a distraction, but so is the Snøhetta-designed Visitor Pavilion, a stainless-steel-clad angular insertion that will provide access to Davis Brody Bond's below-grade museum, but which currently steals attention away from the footprints. As the one element in the rebuilding that is most befitting Daniel Libeskind's winning masterplan, it is interesting as an object, but its dynamic form is an odd counterpoint to the tranquil pools.

This digression about the Visitor Pavilion is not to say that the Memorial is perfect, or that it needs to be respected by the other buildings in order to be successful. If anything the Memorial is most powerful when one confronts it directly, removing the surroundings from one's periphery and looking closely at the names on the parapet and taking in the sounds and enormous expanse of the black void. I'm still saddened that Arad and company didn't fight harder to keep the names underground, per his initial design; this would have ensured a removal from the city around the Memorial for the full experience and carried some metaphorical heft, in terms of death, burial, light, etc. As is the footprints feel like they almost make a great memorial; the voids are too large and distant to pack an emotional wallop for people who aren't searching out the name of a lost loved-one on the parapet. Nevertheless as the swamp white oak trees in the plaza age, and as the rebuilding draws to a close, the Memorial will have a better chance of becoming a place of solemn remembrance.