Loss creates a void — a physical and emotional space that needs to be filled. In the case of the September 11, 2001 and February 26, 1993 attacks, the void is particularly severe as it affects families, a nation and the lot once occupied by the World Trade Center. Architect Michael Arad took it upon himself to fill the latter with a memorial that preserves the memory of the 3,000 people who lost their lives in these tragedies.
Arad’s memorial design, which was selected from a 2003 international design competition, stood out from 5,201 applications from 63 countries. Although the original design is uniquely Arad’s, ambitious plans called for cooperative relationships between Arad, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation and Peter Walker and Partners, a Berkeley, Calif.-based architecture firm. Challenging plans to execute construction and sky-high estimated costs grated nerves and caused relations to thin. Despite myriad difficulties, however, the disparate teams struck a collaborative balance in the end. The National September 11 Memorial is now completed and rises out of Ground Zero, open just in time for the 10-year anniversary since the tragedy.
Some changes suggested by Walker were made to the design Arad submitted to the competition, but the essence of Arad’s original vision for “Reflecting Absence,” as he titled his project, has been maintained. The proposed plan offered a space in which people could fall into the hush of private and shared grief; the final creation does exactly that.
Protected by trees whose leaves quietly track the passage of time with seasonal changes of color, the memorial offers a haven away from shrieking traffic and overbearing pressure of the city environment. Pools swell 30 feet below ground in the square acre prints where the Twin Towers originally stood, inviting visitors to reflect. Waterfalls hem in the pools; the water’s perpetual flow is reminiscent of a collective whisper that persists in the mists of memory.
For individual commemoration, names have been engraved in bronze around the pools with the intention of visitors being able to find the names of their loved ones and create rubbings and impressions of the inscribed letters. To facilitate tracking a specific person on the memorial walls, the 9/11 Memorial website features a search bar in which one can enter a name, birthplace, residence, employer, affiliation, first responder unit or flight.
Additionally, names can be searched for in an on-site museum that complements Arad’s outdoor space for remembrance. Designed by the Norwegian architecture firm Snohetta, the museum presents educational opportunities through interactive exhibits. Children who are too young to remember the events or adults who are just now ready to confront them will have the chance to learn about the victims, the events that led to the attacks and how 9/11 continues to affect us.
Inside the museum and outside the plaza surrounding the pools there is space. Rather than creating emptiness, the space is filled with respect and the knowledge that, despite our checkered patterns of personal backgrounds, shared memory brings us a common American identity.