The Ground Zero Memorial, Revised but Not Improved

THE NEW YORK TIMES • click for original

June 22, 2006 | Critic's Notebook


Less is more, Mies van der Rohe famously preached. But when it comes to this week's decision to scale back the memorial at ground zero, such words bring no clarity or comfort.

The plan unveiled on Tuesday by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Gov. George E. Pataki is less a design than an exercise in value engineering. Stripped of most of its original features as part of a budget-cutting effort, the memorial has also lost most of its meaning.

A list of names around twin reflecting pools linked to a vast underground museum - a remarkable banality after two years of intense thinking - is a disservice to the events of 9/11 and the victims whom the memorial honors. Yet this comes as no surprise. The gutting of the memorial is only the latest step in a decision-making process that has virtually scorned the potential of architecture to address the magnitude of what happened on that day.

The site remains so politically and emotionally charged that every sane proposal has unraveled.

One hopes, however perversely, that as the hollowness of the plans becomes hard to deny, the process will simply grind to a halt and have to be rethought once again. Unconscionable budget overruns, outlandish construction delays, bumbling planners - at this point anything that delays construction may be the memorial's salvation.

The current version has little to do with the one unveiled in January 2004 by the architect Michael Arad. The core of his design was a sobering procession down a series of ramps to an underground gallery framing the twin voids that represented the footprints of the lost World Trade Center towers. There, visitors would encounter the names of 2,979 who died at terrorists' hands in front of a curtain of falling water.

Removing the underground gallery and moving the list of victims' names up to plaza level is not a minor alteration. It is an altogether new design. What was once conceived as a genuine architectural experience shaped by the visitor's movement into the earth is now a static composition of conventional reflecting pools.

Were it not for the names that are to be carved into the barrier surrounding the pools, you might be contemplating a pair of fountains at a corporate plaza.

It is now blazingly clear that in choosing two relatively unknown, powerless young architects to design the memorial and what was once called the Freedom Center, decision makers were interested in obedience, not youthful talent.

It is the mayor and the governor who should be credited with the latest design, not the bruised architect. Now that his design has been eviscerated, Mr. Arad could consider stepping aside, rather than twist in the wind. Since the experience of the pools will be two-dimensional, perhaps the memorial should be turned over to an artist rather than an architect.

If the plan goes through, it will now be the separate 120,000-square-foot underground memorial museum that will serve as de facto memorial, since that is where most visitors will directly confront the tragedy of Sept. 11. It will essentially be a storehouse for relics of the dead, including memorabilia salvaged from the wreckage of that day and displays like firetrucks. The content is currently being negotiated with the victims' families.

In putting most of the emphasis on the museum, Governor Pataki and Mayor Bloomberg got it exactly wrong: they traded the memorial's silent evocation of loss for the more literal experience of the relics.

The success of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, for example, by the New York architect Peter Eisenman, lies partly in its humility. The memory of those who were murdered is enshrined in a grid of concrete pillars set in a sinking landscape. A museum devoted to the history of the Holocaust is housed in a small, 20,000-square-foot structure tucked underneath a corner of the site. The ground zero museum - which, unlike the Holocaust museum, is not expected to address the complex roots of the murderous events - is grotesquely overscale at six times the size.

What the most powerful memorials convey - often with the simplest yet most powerful forms - is that every life is sacred, and that human suffering binds us together across continents and history. The endless bickering over the rendering of the list of names at ground zero speaks for itself.

The paradox in this week's news is that there is so much else that could be wiped away, saving heaps of money, that would improve the current designs at ground zero. The former Freedom Center, which has been transformed from an already questionable attempt at philosophical inquiry into a ticket booth for the memorial museum with public amenities, might better serve as an information center where the public could monitor the construction progress - or lack thereof - at ground zero. It might prove both a popular attraction and an important symbol of the city's faith in the democratic process.

This is all wishful thinking of course. For the time being those of us who still have hopes for the site have to content ourselves by watching for signs that the wheels are finally coming off Governor Pataki's grand plan. There have been a few. To his credit Mayor Bloomberg has suggested that some of the office towers could become residential, for example. And the Port Authority has hinted that the Freedom Tower won't be built until tenants are found, which could take quite some time, given that the building is viewed as a potential target for terrorists.

Meanwhile, nearly five years after 9/11, we are no closer to a viable plan for ground zero. A more patient approach to rebuilding - one that shows less hubris - is the only hope for the site.