The memorials

The memorials
: I went to see the models and presentations of the eight finalists for the World Trade Center memorial today.

There are two I could like. There are others I could hate.

They are all complex — too complex. As I said yesterday, a memorial should have one clear idea eloquently expressed: the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Memorial, the Vietnam Memorial, the Berlin Holocaust Memorial all meet that test. None of these proposals does.

You can see my own proposal here. Let me make clear that I never thought for a second that mine would progress; that’s not why I made it. I made it because I had to; it was a proper tribute, a necessary step in healing. So my reaction to these finalists is not as a participant but as a witness, a mourner, a pilgrim, a survivor, a New Yorker.

Here is my reaction to each:


: Votives in Suspension is the one I like best. And that surprises me. In photos, it looks cluttered. In the model, it looks elegant. It provides a space for contemplation — sanctuaries, they’re called — that are beautiful and quiet. The open space with the hanging lights, the votives, is a canvas on which to place your own memories and thoughts. It is dramatic … inventive … unique … appropriate. The top-level view of the site is clean and, in fact, uncluttered and does an excellent job of marking the edges of both the site and the footprints of the towers. Except for John F. Kennedy’s eternal flame, I cannot think of prominent memorials that will depend on ongoing fuel and that is new; here is a memorial that must be kept up; it cannot just sit in the weather like a slab of granite. And that is good; this memory must be tended. Among these finalists, this is my choice.

: Dual Memory has one element I like: Large photos of some of the heroes and innocents who died there. That is what I so wanted to see in this memorial: Memory of the people who lost their lives as more than names in stone; I want to see the people just as we saw them on the streetcorners of New York and then in the pages of The Times. I want a human memorial. Other than that, this proposal is confused, trying to create many elements, each with symbolism that will be clearer to its creators than to its visitors. The inside space is warm and of the right scale; the outside space is a bit of a mess, trying to do too much. It need not give us dual memory. A single vision of memory would be sufficient and appropriate.

: Suspending Memory shocked and almost offended me. The small columns that rise up look too much like tombstones to me: a cemetery is the last thing we need here. But it is worse: Each of them is of the shape of a World Trade Center tower. So the tombstones mimic the tombs in which these people died. Yet worse, as I examined one of the columns, I saw lines that are meant to give us the name and age of the victim but these lines looked like too many of the newspaper graphics that marked the floors of the dead. All this imagery of the towers themselves seems — quite unintentionally — disturbing, cold, almost tasteless.

: Lower Waters looks like nothing so much as a Frank Lloyd Wright outtake. Its spaces are terribly chilling and inhuman. It is confusing, lacking any coherent vision and message that I can see.

: Passages of Light is, at first, a dramatic concept: light above and below, coming through thousands of white tubes. In two dimensions, it looks appealing. In three dimensions, it looks like a 1962 bank headquarters gone mad — or the perhaps instead the set of the next Star Wars movie. It shows off. It is a case of the designer trying to outshine the memorial and the message and those memorialized.

: Garden of Lights is gimicky and, like most of the others, tries to throw together too many ideas: more tubes of light, more columns sticking up, cold spaces, a walk with names and roses almost as an afterthought. It appears to have been conceived by committee.

: Reflecting Absence is built around water and I’m sorry to say this, but it reminds me of an aquarium. And the ground-level view of tile looks like a bathtub in the bathtub. The water in constant motion seems unsettling, as if there is never a moment of peace here.

: Inversion of Light is sleek but in a bad way — sleek like a modernistic airport. It, too, is busy. It, too, uses water, rushing by a wall of names. It, too, has cold and inhuman spaces.

They have the original boards from each entry hanging near the models and images. I can’t imagine how the judges saw what they saw in those posters. They are so very abstract and necessarily brief; they give snippets of a view rather than a vision. But these boards from the professionals did make me feel a bit better about my own clumsy and amateurish board; I probably expressed my idea as well as I could.

I was also struck by how architectural all these are. As I said yesterday, all the finalists are architects or designers who might as well be architects and that shows clearly in these boards: Architects selected architects, for they all speak a language they understand best. I’m not sure that language will speak to the hearts of the millions who will come to this space to find memory and comfort and pain and healing. They will find architecture.

Even the Votives of Light, as imaginative and beautiful as they are, may not be as sweeping and simple and clear — and eternal — as they should be.

I wonder whether we are rushing this project. As much as I want to see the space rebuilt — as happy as I am to see the PATH and its life and utility returning to the site — I do not want to see us hurry to lay down a vision from today that will not live into tomorrow. For our first duty is to remember. We must remember well.