Because it’s so heartbreakingly bad, the worst show of the year by far is the display currently on view at the Winter Garden of the eight models for memorials to those killed in the attacks on the World Trade Center. Unless the jurors halt the process, or public outcry overwhelms it, one of these models—all of which resemble waiting rooms, food courts, corporate parks, underground malls, or airport architecture—will be built. The day that happens will be a sad one.
It’s not that all the proposals are horrible; a few have poetic details. One is an affecting cemetery in a forest and features trees planted in rows in the buildings’ footprints. Among the trees are 2,982 “memorial columns,” each with the name of a victim and some details about his or her life. Another plan has two evocative underground waterfalls. But none of the finalists, winnowed down from 5,201 entries by the 13 jurors of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, capture the imagination. All are deeply derivative of minimalism and generic installation art and offer only warmed-over pseudo solutions. Worst of all, none offers a significant form. There are waterfalls, gardens, trees, and lights, and new agey names, like Garden of Lights, Inversion of Light, Votives in Suspension, Suspending Memory, or Dual Memory. In her Times op-ed piece, “Unbearable Lightness of Memory,” Maureen Dowd aptly observed that these titles conjure “books by Deepak Chopra and Marianne Williamson,” and employed the term “architectural Muzak” to describe the designs.
How could something so important and sensitive, something so in need of an inspired touch and more time, go so wrong, so quickly? To answer this we need to look back to a month after September 11, when the air was still acrid with the smell of the smoldering wreckage, and the managerial mindset that brought us to this point surfaced. At a packed assembly of architects in Cooper Union’s Great Hall, professionals from all over the globe met and listened to dozens of their own speak about the tragedy in ways I hadn’t heard before or, thankfully, since. I love contemporary architecture, but I was appalled by the breathtaking opinion, expressed by many in attendance, that architects were the only ones who understood the site “in the deepest sense.” Several exclaimed that “only Frank Gehry could build here,” or extolled Zaha Hadid or Richard Meier. I admire all these people’s work, but it seemed a bit premature and more than a little callous to be throwing names around. One expert brandished a bolt he swiped from the site; another griped that he hadn’t been allowed to conduct his own “structural analysis.” This would have been amusing had it not been so contemptible. These puffed-up professionals and autocratic academics believed that they were the ones who could set things right. Astonishingly, many referred to the attacks with a word I hadn’t heard used to describe hell before: opportunity.
As they crowed, I cringed at how stone-blind, self-absorbed, and deluded they were. I thought about how for decades, architects like these have willfully disfigured our cities and eagerly torn down older, better buildings for their newer, lousy ones. Most defend their undertakings with hip theories or disdainful excuses about “uninformed clients” and “limited budgets.” All imagined that what they had already ruined once, namely our cities, they could now fix. It was pathetic and unbearable.
Which brings us to why none of the memorials can work: None divert us from the humdrum buildings designed by Daniel Libeskind—the celebrity architect who eventually won the architectural competition. These buildings are so nondescript that it’s not possible to conjure a mental image of them. In my mind’s eye I see angular masses, a collection of ungainly Citibank Building clones—a fragmented cluster of slant-roofed shapes, all overbearing, one jutting higher than the rest. In the end, Libeskind’s design is mostly a number. What we know is that there will be several slick structures on what is essentially a burial mound, and that the so-called “Freedom Tower” will reach 1,776 feet. The date is great and the height is fine. But tall is all this tower will be. Libeskind’s is a plan only architecture critics, academics, and developers could love—although thankfully that plan is being tinkered with. Yet together, the buildings are still utilitarian, arbitrary, and oppressive, and look like they belong in Houston. They leave no breathing space for any of these memorials. It’s too bad the gently winding, kissing twin towers designed by Norman Foster weren’t chosen. Those were buildings and monument in one: a memorial to the lost in the form of shapes that lean on and love one another (while echoing the former Trade Center), and a testament to the living in their dignity and elegance. Had Libeskind’s plan been more commemorative or beautiful and crowded the site less, there mightn’t have been so much riding on these eight proposals.
September 11 is beyond words, buildings, and memorials. The eight finalists and Libeskind’s plan are all examples of the corporate sublime. The buildings are bland, the memorials canned. They all sanitize and shrink-wrap our emotions in a fanatically tidy visual security blanket. Each makes us settle for less and turns a blind eye toward the heart. We, the living, deserve more. The dead, much more than that.