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'Tribute in Light' Is All We Need

September 16, 2002|RICHARD SPEER

On April 19, 2000, five years to the day after the Oklahoma City bombing, I stood in the media bleachers at the former site of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building as President Clinton dedicated a memorial to the victims.

As a human being, I was moved. As an art critic, I was appalled.

The memorial is awful, a gauche Hydra that aims to be all things to all visitors and thus fails spectacularly as public art. It proves the adage that a camel is a horse built by committee.

New Yorkers facing the task of creating a World Trade Center memorial should look to the Oklahoma City National Memorial as a cautionary example of what their memorial must not become.

Once upon a time, public memorials were direct and dignified, if perhaps a tad boring. Washington had his obelisk, Jefferson his rotunda, Lincoln his acropolis. Then in 1982, Maya Lin's dark elegy on the Vietnam War redefined our conception of what a memorial looks and feels like.

It was probably Lin's brand of understated overstatement, inimitable yet much imitated, that the 350-member Oklahoma City committee hoped to evoke with what is actually six different memorials, including a survivor tree, a reflecting pool and 168 empty chairs inscribed with victims' names.

Any one of these elements alone would have provided the requisite pathos. Six of them, to use a terribly inappropriate term, is overkill, a morbid theme park: Branson, Mo., meets Timothy McVeigh. This is what you get when you try to appease too many competing alliances. This is what New York must avoid.

Yet already the Lower Manhattan Redevelopment Corp. has bowed to public complaints that the World Trade Center project is not inclusive enough, opening the doors to additional architecture firms after thousands of armchair critics panned the initial proposals.

How many memorials does the World Trade Center site need? One. How many contests should be held to find the best use for ground zero? Zero.

The best design has already been submitted, built and dismantled. It was called the "Tribute in Light," and it was the brainchild of six designers who created a temporary homage not only to the victims but also to the great minimalist doctrine, less is more. Unlike the multipart Oklahoma City memorial, the "Tribute in Light" expressed its power not in preponderance but in simplicity.

If there is a lesson from the heartland that New Yorkers should take to heart, it is this: One terrorist atrocity is too many for any city to live through, and one memorial is enough to remember it by.


Richard Speer is visual arts critic for Willamette Week newspaper in Portland, Ore.

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