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Patt Morrison Asks: Memorial man Peter Walker

The Berkeley landscape architect on creating a monument for ground zero that honors the American people.

September 10, 2011|Patt Morrison

Berkeley landscape architect Peter Walker has designed bigger projects than the 9/11 memorial in New York, but probably none has carried more weight. The opening of the eight-acre plaza Sunday marks 10 years since the terrorist attacks, and almost as many years since Walker joined with architect Michael Arad to finalize a monument for ground zero. The design -- down to plaza lights like the model Walker is holding -- demanded as much attention to emotion as to aesthetics and engineering. With work on One World Trade Center and the museum still in progress, it is the memorial that will first meet the public eye and, if it succeeds, affix in the public heart the harrowing sorrow and transcendent memory of 9/11 for as long as such monuments endure.

On this project you have about 350 million clients: the American people.

That's right, and of completely different points of view. Even [among] the families, the interests are not all the same. One hopes the memorial itself will bring a certain closure to the families and maybe even pull them together.

Photos: The September 11 Memorial

Architect Michael Arad's "Reflecting Absence" was one of eight finalists in the design competition. At the jury's suggestion, he asked you to partner with him. What did the design have to accomplish?

There were two different points of view being expressed. One was the need that New York has for the memorial and rebuilding. But they didn't want a field of stone. They wanted it to operate as a neighborhood park as well as a memorial.

[Then-Gov. George] Pataki had a good handle on [it]. He said: "We're memorializing what happened because we don't want to forget it. But we're also memorializing the ability of New York to rebuild, and so you've got to have both the tragedy and the response."

You've said this undertaking has been like Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea" -- you caught this huge fish, now, how do you get it home with any meat left on it?

Our part is almost the same as the original conception. Michael's has changed radically, and it's been difficult on him. When we began, you went down ramps into the "underworld" and you saw the [victims'] names and then waterfalls behind them. About two years into the effort, it was [changed] for financial reasons, but mostly security.

The memorial probably is as big a target as the [towers] were, and much more easily destroyed. The security people said that halfway down the ramp, you'd have [a checkpoint] like at the airport. Everyone felt that would pretty much destroy your sense of going down into this tomb. So they decided to get rid of the lower portion.

We [Walker and his firm] lost a few things, but we also won some real battles. When we started, the [site's] below-ground [structures] needed vents, and because of security, these vents had to be 25 feet tall. Imagine, 16 vents coming up in the middle of [the memorial.] We made a model -- we called it the Awful Model -- and we took it to Gov. Pataki. He got it immediately. He turned to the engineers and said: "We can't have any of this. Absolutely none." [Now] the buildings on the west side have those vents.

Walk me through what a visitor will see.

Before, it was largely a processional down into a tomb. [Now you] walk onto the block, come through and under the trees, and then come onto the voids [two deep waterfalls in the footprints of the twin towers, with the names of the victims etched on the perimeter]. The sun comes in. And we have a recessional as well. The trees are an expression of life when you turn and walk out.

What is the cost of the entire ground zero rebuilding project?

They won't tell us. But the memorial is a very small part, maybe 10%. The museum and the Freedom Tower have to make money because we need a cash flow to keep this operating.

With memorials there's a tension between the abstract and the literal.

There are memorials that have no real quality, and there are the great ones, like the Lincoln and the Vietnam. You try to catch that abstract thing, and if you do, I think you succeed. If you can't, it becomes nondescript, like the Korean War [memorial]; you probably can't even picture it. I can't picture it. It doesn't have that weight.

If the emotion comes through [at the 9/11 memorial], and the scale is right, those are terribly important, more important than the trees individually, more important than benches, right up there with the names themselves.

The design was slammed by some critics; the New York Post said it stunk.

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