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Reading symbolism in the Sept. 11 era

Memorials are charged with meaning, architects learn the hard way.

October 05, 2005|Christopher Hawthorne | Times Staff Writer

Shanksville, Pa. — MAYBE spelling out the words "Let's Roll!" across the hills of southwestern Pennsylvania will do the trick -- you know, like the Hollywood sign, but with bigger letters and a star-spangled exclamation point.

Truthfully, it's hard to know what advice to give Paul Murdoch about the best way to recast his politely streamlined but politically controversial design for the Flight 93 memorial, slated for a wind-swept site 80 miles outside Pittsburgh. The Los Angeles architect barely had time to enjoy his victory over four other finalists before his design was savaged by angry bloggers and a congressman, Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), who charged that its crescent of red maple trees is a sign of sympathy for Islamic terrorists.

The crescent is a common symbol of Islam that appears on the Algerian, Tunisian and Turkish flags -- a form whose power, Murdoch now ruefully admits, he might have considered a bit earlier in the design process.

"It didn't seem, to us, loaded at all," a drained-looking Murdoch says, sitting behind the broad desk in his Wilshire Boulevard office, where he runs a small firm with his wife, Milena Murdoch. "We wanted to use the crescent of trees to embrace the final resting place of the victims -- that was the symbolism. And we continue to feel that most people understand that."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday October 06, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Flight 93 memorial -- An article in Wednesday's Calendar section on the Flight 93 memorial in Pennsylvania said the site of the memorial covers 220 acres. It covers 2,200 acres.

Given that symbols are the stock-in-trade of memorial designers, Murdoch is guilty of at least a degree of naivete about his plan's potential for controversy. But he's also right to complain that his design, expected to cost more than $30 million, is being considered in a hothouse. The politics of Sept. 11, as he puts it, have become "so highly charged it's hysterical. I mean that in the true sense of the word. This is hysteria. I feel like I've walked into a war."

A culture war, that is. Murdoch is only the latest architect to be drawn into the growing battles on the subject of how best to memorialize 9/11. The debates suggest an age-of-terror version of the fights over identity politics, provocative artworks and the Western canon that flared up 20 years ago.

In the case of Flight 93, the Hallmark-card Minimalism that is now the lingua franca for memorials -- and the design world's version of political correctness -- has clashed with the notion that what we ought to remember about its passengers, above all else, is their onboard rebellion. It's not just the crescent, that is, that has Murdoch's most vocal and spotlight-seeking critics up in arms. It's that his design strikes those critics as too reflective -- too abstract, in a word -- to do justice to the legacy of Todd Beamer and the other passengers who joined him in charging the cockpit.

Minimalist memorials have often faced that sort of opposition. And given that the attacks of Sept. 11 caught the nation so plainly off guard and left so many victims without a chance to fight back in any sense, perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that what many of us want to remember of that day are examples, however rare or symbolic, of American action rather than inaction.

But Tancredo and others go a bit further: They see a direct connection between that in-flight struggle and the work of the American military in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. In a letter to the National Park Service, which runs the Flight 93 site, Tancredo called Murdoch's crescent "unsuitable for paying appropriate tribute to the heroes of Flight 93 or the ensuing American struggle against radical Islam that their last historic act and the 'Let's roll' effort has come to symbolize."

For all the vitriol of the Flight 93 debate, though, it's got nothing on the conflict over plans for the World Trade Center site itself, which continues to set the standard for 9/11-related grandstanding.

Last week, New York Gov. George Pataki summarily barred the International Freedom Center -- an institution that promised to "explore freedom as a constantly evolving world movement in which America has played a leading role" -- from its site overlooking Michael Arad's ground zero memorial. Pataki said he was persuaded by critics of the IFC who claimed it might promote an agenda insufficiently friendly to the United States. The IFC follows New York's Drawing Center out the door of the cultural building after that small visual arts museum came under similar fire and abandoned plans to move to ground zero from its current location in SoHo.

Both institutions were asked to pledge that no material critical of the U.S. or its government would ever appear on its walls, however fleetingly -- a loyalty oath that would effectively neuter any arts group agreeing to it.

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