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Unseemly memorials

Planned tributes to the victims of 9/11 have served as a reminder only of the red tape such projects can face.

September 09, 2006|Christopher Hawthorne | Times Staff Writer

WHEN the process of choosing a memorial design for ground zero got underway three years ago, New Yorkers had good reason to hope it would steer clear of the acrimony that had, by that point, already compromised Daniel Libeskind's master plan for the site. A high-powered jury, including America's most esteemed memorial designer, Maya Lin, met in secret to sift through more than 5,000 entries. The winning design, by an unknown 34-year-old New York architect named Michael Arad, proposed turning the footprints of the twin towers into huge reflecting pools lined with fountains that would cascade into subterranean galleries. It was widely praised for its stark power when it was unveiled in early 2004.

Similar optimism greeted the winning design in the other major Sept. 11 memorial competition, for the crash site of United Flight 93 in rural western Pennsylvania. Among other features, Los Angeles architect Paul Murdoch's plan called for ringing the huge site with a crescent of maple trees that would turn a blazing red each fall.

Now, five years after the 9/11 attacks, both memorials are mired in conflict. Arad's design has been gutted, its underground rooms eliminated to save money after the total budget for the memorial, an attached museum and related infrastructure neared $1 billion. The headstrong architect himself has managed to alienate engineers, politicians and at times, even his partner on the memorial, landscape architect Peter Walker.

Murdoch was forced to revise his design after apoplectic, irrational bloggers (and one apoplectic, irrational congressman, Colorado's Tom Tancredo) denounced its crescent of trees as a symbol of Islam. In both cases, fundraising to build the memorials has lagged.

One obstacle after another

What went wrong? The answer lies, at least in part, in the way memorials have been selected, designed and built in this country in the last two decades. New memorials overwhelmingly use a Minimalist approach that works best in a vacuum, when the designer has at least a measure of autonomy. But they operate, increasingly, in a highly contentious cultural and political context. This is particularly true of the 9/11 memorials, charged with commemorating a series of attacks that we are still struggling to define.

Since Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial opened in 1982, memorials that share its aesthetic language -- sober and formally restrained, with a simple list of names in place of grander, figurative elements -- have had the inside track in international competitions. It's not hard to understand why that approach has become a lingua franca for memorials. It is bracingly direct, it avoids kitsch and sentimentality and it provides a powerfully intimate framework for visitors to reflect or mourn. And it is often favored by the jurors in international competitions, who tend to be drawn from an elite, like-minded pool of architects, artists and academics.

Precisely because these memorials are so stripped down, however, any unwise change or attempt at value engineering -- even a seemingly minor one -- can threaten their overall integrity. Because they lack the obvious symbols of courage or national pride that can be found in more traditional memorials, they are vulnerable to the charge that they're unpatriotic. And because the federal government is now unwilling to pay the full cost of major memorials, their planners have to seek funding from outside sources -- from foundations, corporations, individuals and other groups that often expect to have a say in a memorial's final design. For that and other reasons, it's hard to imagine Lin's Vietnam memorial, which sparked plenty of controversy in its day, being approved now in anything like its searingly simple form.

At ground zero, of course, where the targets were corporate office towers and where those killed were not soldiers but financial analysts and dishwashers, the rebuilding effort and the memorial have as much to do with real estate as with a response to terrorism or a commemoration of death.

The players who have helped shape that effort include family members of the victims: a governor, George Pataki, with an unblinking eye on the White House and his legacy; a shameless developer, Larry Silverstein; a master planner, Libeskind, with a remarkable talent for compromising self-preservation; and a giant bureaucracy, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

That group has spent the last two years pushing at the edges of Arad's plan. Over the summer they finally broke through, getting the below-ground level removed as a cost-cutting measure and rearranging the display of victims' names in a manner more palatable to family members and the police and fire departments.

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