NEW YORK — On Jan. 6, 2004, an exhausted panel of jurors drank champagne to celebrate the selection -- at last -- of a memorial for ground zero. The design, called "Reflecting Absence," centered on two rectangular voids into which pedestrians would descend to look up at the sky through curtains of water.
Two and a half years later, with preliminary construction on the memorial already underway, city and state authorities are reconsidering basic elements of the design, including whether any part of the memorial should be underground.
"This is the moment of truth," said Thomas Roger, who lost his daughter on Sept. 11, 2001, and serves on the board of the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation. Over the next weeks, revisions to the design will determine "whether or not this gets built in any sort of fashion," he said. "Somebody let it get out of control."
The current rethinking has been prompted by a report leaked May 5 estimating the project's cost at $1 billion. But criticism of the design had mounted on such grounds as safety, symbolism and the order in which victims' names would be listed in underground galleries. Last week, representatives of the city, state and private agencies in charge of rebuilding at ground zero returned to the drawing board, looking at alterations that would cut the memorial's estimated cost in half.
"Reflecting Absence," the work of little-known architect Michael Arad, was selected from among 5,201 proposed memorial plans. Already it has undergone a series of alterations: As a finalist in the competition, Arad brought in a landscape architect, Peter Walker, who adorned his stark plaza with lush oak trees.
Last year, Arad's design underwent another change, reducing the number of ramps descending into each void from four to two -- one entrance and one exit -- after consultants said visitors would find his design too confusing. Arad, who is contractually prohibited from discussing the process, is said to have been unhappy with the decision.
What the present crisis over cost means for the design is "very unclear," said Frederic Bell, executive director of the New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects. But Bell said he has been troubled by suggestions that the underground portion of the memorial could be eliminated. That change, Bell said, would be "the last straw" for Arad's original design.
"That's what Michael's scheme is about. It is about going down and separating from the street life and hurly-burly," Bell said. "The lack of descent would be the irreconcilable change that would finally cause the scheme to lose its meaning."
The underground element of Arad's design has drawn attention since the beginning. Several organizations of families who lost relatives on Sept. 11 have attacked the concept for months, but it was not clear if their complaints were prompting a reconsideration. Then, on April 22, New York newspapers printed details of a leaked letter from James Kallstrom, Gov. George E. Pataki's former head of counterterrorism, saying the underground chambers would be vulnerable to bombs or the release of chemical agents.
Roger, who is an attorney and engineer, said the revisions under discussion now will address multiple criticisms, not just cost.
"It's a combination of the security, the concerns on the part of some of the more vocal family members, and certainly cost," he said. "If we can kill three birds with one stone here, maybe something positive can come out of this."
One possibility, he said, would be to build Arad's enormous voids and bring the list of names up to plaza level. That change would alter the visitor's experience by moving the listing of names from a private, contemplative space to a public one, Roger said. He said a wall surrounding the voids could provide that privacy.
Another possibility -- one favored by Bell and James Young, a member of the jury that chose Arad's design -- would be to put off construction of an underground exhibition space that had been added to the original design.
There is great public pressure to resolve the cost issue. On May 5, a memorandum written for the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation was leaked to the press, suggesting that the cost of the memorial would be $972 million, nearly twice the previous estimate.
The figure includes $672 million for the memorial itself, plus as much as $300 million for site infrastructure.
Pataki and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg were sharply critical of the cost increase and announced that the project's cost should be capped at $500 million. They also criticized the foundation for raising only $131 million in private donations over the last year. Two days later, the foundation's board announced a suspension of fundraising "until there is consensus on what is going to be built."
Fundraising "has not been without challenges, given the intense emotions and scrutiny that's been involved in this project," said Lynn Rasic, a foundation spokesperson.