Pooling Memories

John Haber
in New York City

National September 11 Memorial

Martin Luther King, Jr., National Memorial

I had never been so grateful for a patch of grass and a construction site. I had made it at last to the National September 11 Memorial, at Ground Zero, and the first thing I saw was grass, trees, and sky.

Make no mistake, though. It is a construction site, too. Fenced in on all sides, it is both part of a changing fabric since 9/11 and a respite from it. In time, if one is to believe the promises, the fences will come down, but that dual nature will remain. A memorial to Martin Luther King, Jr., opened this same fall in Washington. In its shying away from both change and peace, it stands as a monument to what not to do.

A patch of grass and a construction site

As everyone surely knows, September 11 memorial opened on "September 11"—on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, with invitations to those who had sustained a personal loss at the Twin Towers. As one surely knows, too, the memorial builds on the footprints of the towers and the names of the dead. National September 11 Memorial: visualization of pool at night (Squared Design Lab, 2011)Water rushes down the two black pits, without time to gather before it disappears into smaller square pits at their centers. One can watch as light reflects off the water to each side, in contrast to the deeper blackness below. One cannot touch, though, for a black metal table borders each footprint, inscribed with the names. They include not just ill-fated office workers and rescuers, but also those on the four planes, those who died at the Pentagon, and casualties from the clumsier attack on the World Trade Center in 1993.

One can locate the names from touch screens outside the future museum, on the memorial Web site, or with a cell phone. Just scan the QR code near the site's entrance. One can also browse the names in search of connections, past and present. The architect, Michael Arad, proposed a completely random array but agreed to the obvious groupings. Additional inscriptions in fact identify ladder companies—but not, say, brokerage firms or Windows on the World. And do not expect a further order in time or the alphabet.

For most, the place will feel greater than any name. Where the towers defied any human scale, their dimensions seem meant all along for a tribute and for fountains. Wherever one stands, the nearest side has the torrential uniformity of a waterfall. The torrent seems to darken and to slow at the bottom, where light has less chance to create visible ripples. It says something, too, that the water has not found a final resting place in reflecting pools, but only a stage before cycling through again. World Trade Center plaza, too, was anything but human, and now count me grateful to Peter Walker and Partners for the grass, the "sustainable design," the four hundred swamp white oaks, and guidance from the clearings among them.

Still, descriptions like this fail to capture the experience—or the very possibility of art after 9/11. They are like aerial views, in which each footprint is clear and the canopy of trees a comforting green. At ground level, one can see the south footprint from the entrance, but one might not know of the other footprint without the countless articles and photographs. Pavement quickly outweighs the grass, and skyscrapers fill the air on most of three sides. I truly was grateful to see them taking shape, especially the signature tower at last well over one's head, its sides taking on their peculiar slope and even quite a bit of cladding. I was doubly grateful for the grass, too, after ten years and twenty long minutes coming in.

For this is a construction site. At the very least, it opened with only the shell of a future museum, a one-story polygon by Aedas and Snøhetta, a firm best known for the library in Alexandria. It tapers toward the east before widening slightly, to nestle between the fountains. Steel horizontals will help it change as one moves from transparency to frosting. Sides parallel to the fountains gives them the illusion of unique sites of contemplation. Beyond the fences, though, change is literally in the air.

It marks the memorial as belonging both to past and present. It serves as part of Lower Manhattan and a place apart, just as the former bridge from the World Financial Center comes to an abrupt end. Construction, no doubt, will end eventually, and maybe the fences will come down. Supposedly, one needs timed tickets only to allow work to continue. Maybe afterward one will feel less grateful for a patch of grass. The ambiguity will remain.

Names and private lives

That sense of change also distinguishes the design from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, by Maya Lin. They share the blackness, the sinking into the ground, and of course the names. Both memorials deal with loss, helplessness, and failure by putting it in personal terms, rather than hide them behind a monument. Both also move from Minimalism and earth art into history. Arad's parallels the square pits of the 1970s and Sunken Pool by Mary Miss. Thanks to Lin, walls of text have become inevitable anyway these days.

Still, in Washington one moves through the text as through the deepening and then lessening American engagement. Here the names randomize moments in a single day. They also cut not into stone but right through the metal, leaving the city above and the water below. They run alongside the fountain like the slanted tables of text in front of dioramas at a natural history museum. One moves freely, but also stands, looks, and learns. One can ask how much has changed.

I tried to recover a personal history of my own, and I could not. I had often come east from the waterfront park and cove, via that dead end of a bridge. I had also worked as a temp, in college, on the eighty-eighth floor of tower two. Other moments are already ancient history, too. Few will remember their exclusion from opening day, when someone simply had to make a choice. Few in turn will remember the demands of the included, the survivors, to exclude as un-American a cultural center at the site—or an Islamic cultural center a few blocks away, especially as the Islamic wing opens at the Met.

Politics has changed, too, along with how it intersects private lives. Maybe the fences will come down, and maybe not. The tickets and lines serve another function, just as at airports. Three different guards in as many minutes asked to see my visitor's pass. Another scanned its bar code, and yet another punched a hole in it. In between, I passed through a building with nothing but guards, conveyer belts, and metal detectors.

One can seek a connection to 9/11 while waiting outside to a wall of cheap wood, for this is a construction site. One can seek a connection while emptying one's pockets and taking off one's belt. One can try instead to figure out what has happened to America, or one can look for signs of hope. For starters, access is not all that hard. I had heard that visitor's passes took months, but I found them freely available on the memorial's Web site or, in limited number, at a visitor's center. No one asked for a photo id.

I found hope in the site's dark beauty, much as Isa Genzken does in its ruins. I found hope, too, in the ambiguity of respite and engagement. One can choose to tune out the city or to revel in it, like the mist blown by the wind from the fountains. One can, I suppose, walk on the grass, but nobody did. Was I really in New York City? And then I left with another choice, just a block or two away from a luxury hotel and Occupy Wall Street.

Ye mighty and despair

I was eleven when I first went to Washington, and all I remember is a monument to words. I wanted to stay inside the Lincoln Memorial until I had read them all. I wanted their sounds and their outlines in stone to have sunk into my head. The shadowed interior, the Greek templed steps, and the eighteen-foot statue of Lincoln himself—all seemed to elevate his language and not the other way around. I think I made it through the Gettysburg Address before my parents lost patience and took me away. Eventually I read the Second Inaugural, with its rich conclusion about patience, along with justice, peace, and care.

Lei Yixin/ROMA Design Group's Martin Luther King, Jr., National Memorial (National Memorial Project Foundation, 2011)I wonder what an eleven-year-old in Washington will remember of Martin Luther King, Jr., today. They will see not a man who led by organizing, the man who joined with others in the Montgomery bus boycott, but thirty feet of white granite. They will see not the gestures of an orator, but the stance and crossed arms of a dictator, lacking only the salute of Saddam toppled in central Baghdad. They will see not the lips of a speaker, but the "sneer of cold command" that Shelley imagined for another fallen idol in "Oxymandias." They will see him turning his back on words, inscribed on the curving wall behind him, as if guarding the way. His surprisingly realistic eyes cast judgment rather than inspire or forgive.

Let he who is without sin cast the first stone, and Lei Yixin has cast a doozy. The sculptor must know the imperial statues and contemporary kitsch of Chinese art, and he follows them all too well. He has sliced this stone out of the central memorial, to create an entrance, but it seems more massive still. ROMA Design Group called for fountains along with flowering trees, to honor King's "let justice run down like waters"—but funds ran short, and this is a dry affair indeed. The main wall alone runs four hundred fifty feet, to immerse one in its polished stone and inscriptions. That legacy of the Vietnam War Memorial becomes one more cliché.

As for the text, it reduces rhetoric to aphorisms, as political as greeting cards. More words ripped out of context account for the statue's puzzling design. King stands embedded in the rough slab behind him, as if it could not decide whether to thrust him forth or to swallow him up. "Out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope." But he was calling on Americans "to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together." This is all him, and the extra rock monumentalizes him that much more.

Critics have complained that he faces the Jefferson Memorial rather than the Lincoln Memorial, which completes its axis—although this way one can set aside debate over Lincoln's relative commitment to abolition or union. Besides, I find fascinating anyone whose deeds, thoughts, and feelings about slavery were as contradictory as Jefferson's. Critics have wondered at having a memorial at all, especially without King's growing antiwar rhetoric and growing despair at America. They have blasted not using an African American sculptor. They might wonder instead at lasting memories left to a design committee. Did King have a dream by committee?

An eleven-year-old could hardly remember the 1963 March on Washington—one hundred years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. And the memorial was to have had a formal opening on its August 28 anniversary, had not another storm, Hurricane Irene, hit the capital. That day left its image in sound, in Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and "I Have a Dream." It left its image in that sea of a quarter of a million faces, stretching past the Reflecting Pool to the Washington Monument. As they proceeded to the Lincoln Memorial, they left the organizers behind. A child will have to remember instead the sealed lips of a man of words.

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jhaber@haberarts.com

The National September 11 Memorial opened September 11, 2011, and no longer requires reservations as of May 15, 2014. The museum opened to the public May 21, 2014. The Martin Luther King, Jr., National Memorial opened to the public on August 22, 2011, with a ceremony October 16.

 

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