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Feeling the void

ARCHITECTURE REVIEW : ART & ARCHITECTURE

The National September 11 Memorial by Michael Arad and Peter Walker has weathered a long process of design changes intact enough to be effective.

August 12, 2011|Christopher Hawthorne and ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

NEW YORK — If you were hoping that the National September 11 Memorial might turn out to be a visionary or uncompromising monument to human tragedy and architectural destruction, you probably haven't been paying sustained attention to the process that created it. And who could blame you? The rebuilding effort at the World Trade Center site has been marked by enough grandstanding, backbiting and power grabs, among politicians and designers alike, to push even the most dedicated optimist toward utter cynicism.

At its core, though, the memorial -- designed by architect Michael Arad and landscape architect Peter Walker and set to open next month on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks -- has managed to preserve at least a kernel of genuine and affecting meaning.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, August 16, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 60 words Type of Material: Correction
Memorial: An architecture review in the Aug. 12 Calendar of the National September 11 Memorial in New York said that a forthcoming museum at the memorial site was designed by the Norwegian firm Snohetta. The museum's above-ground portion, known as the Museum Pavilion, is designed by Snohetta, while its underground section is by Davis Brody Bond, now part of Aedas.

The central idea of Arad's original design remains intact: to keep the footprints of the twin towers open to the sky as massive, sunken fountains. Approaching either of those voids through the long rows of oak trees that Walker added to the site and encountering the names of the 9/11 victims carved into a dark-bronze parapet along their outer edges, as I did earlier this week, is to be reminded in visceral fashion of the immensity of the events of that day and the sheer scale of what was destroyed.

Covering 7.5 acres in total, or just less than half of the World Trade Center site's original 16 acres, the memorial is the first part of the massive, many-headed reconstruction plan for ground zero to be completed. It will be joined next fall by a museum, designed by the Norwegian firm Snohetta, occupying a relative sliver of space between the memorial's twin voids.

Rising just north of the memorial is the 1 World Trade Center tower, in its early versions, a tense, ham-handed collaboration between Daniel Libeskind, the master planner of the overall site plan for ground zero, and architect David Childs of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, and later given to Childs alone. Also under construction to the east of the memorial are a skyscraper by Fumihiko Maki -- so-called Tower 4 -- and Santiago Calatrava's transportation hub, a sadly compromised symbol of the ground zero planning morass that is now pegged for a 2014 completion. A potential performing arts center by Frank Gehry, meanwhile, remains in a preliminary, conceptual phase.

The memorial has its roots in a design that Arad, then an unknown 34-year-old architect, submitted to the 2003 memorial design competition, which drew 5,201 entries in all. Arad's proposal was as stark as it was simple: those two huge voids, filled with rushing water, set into an empty, monumental plaza. It was also remarkable for its disdain for Libeskind's master plan, which called for the area around the tower footprints to be sunken well below street level. That promised to keep ground zero an open wound even as new skyscrapers rose along its edges.

The leaders of the memorial competition made clear that they would consider only those proposals that respected Libeskind's master plan. But that meant essentially trying to design a memorial inside a memorial. Arad's design, determinedly ignoring the competition brief, suggested raising the plaza around the footprints back up to street level.

As the master plan already mandated knitting the site back into the street grid around the site, replacing streets that had been erased by the World Trade Center's raised superblock in the 1970s, lifting the memorial also allowed it to flow directly into the surrounding neighborhood. Indeed, that single gesture by Arad, made as he rushed to prepare his entry in the summer of 2003, may in the end have a larger impact on the urban character of the rebuilt World Trade Center than any other.

After being named one of eight finalists in the memorial competition, Arad was directed by the jurors -- including Maya Lin, designer of the highly acclaimed Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., and a champion of Arad's proposal from the start -- to bring an experienced landscape architect on board to flesh out and humanize his rather barren scheme. He chose Walker, who is based in Berkeley and known for a crisp, minimal style. At 71, he was at that point more than twice Arad's age.

The pair's victory in the competition, in early 2004, was a serious blow to Libeskind's master plan and its notion of a submerged memorial; combined with the decision by developer Larry Silverstein to give the 1 World Trade Center design to Childs, it essentially left Libeskind as a spectator at the site where he was still nominally master planner.

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