The 9/11 Memorial Park in New York reviewed by Sheppard Craige

April 8, 2012

in Articles, From the USA, Garden Reviews, General Interest

A poignant piece about a very particular site, sensitively written. Thank you, Sheppard.

Anne Wareham, editor.

911 pool copyright Sheppard Craige

Sheppard Craige:

The still unfinished 9/11 Memorial Park in lower Manhattan has already been seen by more than a million visitors. It is a powerful minimalist composition of two large squares excavated in the earth by architect Michael Arad. (“Voids” is the word he uses to describe them.) Water flows over the granite edges of each open square, then drops 30 feet down perpendicular stone walls to a pool below.

The scale is huge. Each of the two pools covers an acre, or about 4,000 square meters. Thus each side of a square is about 63 meters long. The forms are set into the footprints of the two giant towers that once stood above them.

The only vertical element in this park is an impressive planting of some 400 swamp white oaks (quercus bicolor) that have been placed around the pools. Aligned in rows, they sometimes vary in the distances from tree to tree. Their canopy, when it develops, will someday shield the park from the gaze of the large buildings now going up all around it. The foliage may also begin to show a reddish brown change of leaf soon after the September day that the trees commemorate.

I saw the 9/11 Memorial on a cold and grey February afternoon. Approaching one of the pools, there was the low steady roar of the waterfalls well before I could see it. Indeed there is a constant thrum of falling water wherever you go at the site. Standing at the edge of the pool, which is about waist high, I faced a heavy bronze ribbon which runs around each pool and which displays the names of all the 3,000 persons who perished on 9/11. The names were cut through the bronze, probably by laser, and are illuminated from underneath at night.

911 inscription copyright Sheppard Craige

Water was welling up under the ribbon, though I couldn’t see where. It then flowed out on a level shelf before plunging at a straight edged border. This is the only part of the work where water is smooth and reflecting.

I noticed that water was not allowed to fall in great sheets. Instead, as it began to descend it flowed through a metal comb, breaking up into large drops, small drops, plumes and sprays.

The pool 30 feet below is made slightly turbulent by the waterfalls. The water here has a slight greyish color, so dye may have added to increase reflection and conceal the bottom. Ripples and small waves all push towards the center. Here they encounter the dramatic moment of the work: another open square form, this time of smooth black stone. The water simply goes over its edges in sheets and then vanishes.

911 memorial, copyright Sheppard Craig

Is this work too strong? Probably for some people it will be. It’s about falling, and, at its center square, about disappearing. There is the suggestion, without illustration, of something horrible. I regret using that word, but the journalistic term “troubling” does not go far enough. This is, of course, a memorial to a horrible event: a murderous attack on a large number of civilians. Over the centuries there must have been other built memorials with a similar theme. But under the influence of this one, I’m unable to think of any.

By way of contrast: some who have visited the site on sunny days have noticed a fine mist rising off the waterfalls, where occasionally rainbows appear.

My conclusion is that the 9/11 Memorial Park is both horrid and sublime. In this public monument there is a new way of presenting to ourselves our strongest feelings of loss and memory.

Sheppard Craige

Sheppard’s garden website and see also Rory Stuart’s piece on Il Bosco della Ragnaia

Sheppard Craige portrait

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Emmon April 9, 2012 at 8:29 pm

Ann, I agree with you — this is such a great description. I was at the site a few years ago when it was basically just a crater. Even then, it was powerful.


Susan Cohan April 9, 2012 at 6:12 pm

I have not been able to bring myself to visit the site. Ten years later, the images I have as a witness to the event itself –even from many blocks away are too raw, too powerful and too real. With that said and without seeing the memorial itself, I can envision another reason why the water is so powerful. Water renews and we need it to sustain life. I hope that message isn’t lost either – in the face of an event that changed our city forever and affected so many lives, those of us who bore witness need to believe in renewal and life.


Sacha Hubbard April 9, 2012 at 9:52 am

I agree that Americans do this well and are proud to do it, too. We were very impressed by the Pearl Harbour memorial. I was slightly apprehensive that it might be over-sentimental but it was immensely dignified, simple and really made one aware of what a hugely significant and shocking moment that was for Americans.


Ann Hawkins April 9, 2012 at 9:14 am

What an evocative description, thank you Sheppard.


Billy April 9, 2012 at 12:14 am

Magic and Loss.


Victoria April 8, 2012 at 10:50 pm

Yes, very good piece of writing – I think it conveyed really well the sense of menace that this memorial evokes. I think it’s the mark of an effective work of art that it provokes a strong response like this – and like Sacha, I find the scale of it frightening. But it’s difficult to see how else you could mark such a dreadful event, which the entire world saw unfold on their television screens.
I think the Americans are quite good at these memorials. I like the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington DC, with the ghostly figures of the soldiers on patrol.


Sacha Hubbard April 8, 2012 at 9:27 pm

I am moved and disturbed by this piece. Moved by the very personal reaction to it and the thought and analysis that has gone into it but disturbed by how powerful the imagery is of the memorial itself. For reasons I don’t understand, I’ve always been a bit scared of water and machinery on a large scale. I’m not terrified by our washing machine but I *hate* swimming near the filters in a pool or even seeing the chain that anchors a swimming raft to the sea bed. So this wonderfully vivid word picture, describing the memorial, gave me a frisson of horror. I’ve seen a photo of it before and thought it wasn’t something I could possibly approach, even if that were possible but now, I’d like to see it for myself one day. Reading this marvellous description/explanation I know now why it does that fear/horror thing to me. It’s life falling into the unknown and it represents all the terror that went with those people at that time. Everyone should read this and it should be required reading in secondary schools, in my opinion. It gives us a real view of the use of art in how it relates to immediate human experience. I feel extremely pretentious writing that last sentence in particular but I was very moved by this piece and it made more sense to me than anything else I’ve read and seen about that memorial. Congratulations on a splendid piece of writing.


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