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