Memory Marker: Remembrance of Things Past By Adrian Welsh Any marker to ‘9/11’ must sit in relation to polar opposites: the capitalist drive to extract dollars per sq ft on the site and a desire to leave space for memory of this atrocity. But are these truly irreconcilable opposites or could a creative architect – or team (an important distinction) – reconcile these goals partly or even fully? I won’t dwell here on questions of how the site is being parcelled up – it is disappointing that separate competitions were organised for ‘building’ and ‘memorial’ – but the separation is relevant as background information. The ‘building’ competition came first probably due to its scale and fiscal importance, the ‘memorial’ being slotted in afterwards with eight typically minimalist ‘spaces’ mostly using water and light, shortlisted. If a more creative mind took charge of the rebuilding, could the two have been married together? Pre-Modernist memorials were mostly formal objects – such as Lutyens’ Thiepval Arch in the Somme, dedicated to the First World War dead. Modernism brought us simpler structures – the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington DC stands out, more recently Libeskind’s Memorial Garden outside his Berlin Museum. Memorials are described as being places to reminisce, but normally, not too vividly: no overt references to falling bodies will appear in the Twin Towers Memorial.To avoid offence they seem to retract from death and tragedy into the pathos of abstraction or general formality. Memorials inhabit a ‘twilight zone’ between architecture and sculpture; linked as they often are to taboo subjects – here ‘atrocity’ – they sometimes suffer from a lack of reasoned critique. But back to the opening question: can Libeskind et al. make the dollar generator into the memorial? Can ‘Freedom Tower’ itself have the required potency? The foot of Manhattan is already a powerful marker for many US immigrants – including members of my own family. Arriving on a ship, one sees the very empirical lights of Mammon shining alongside the symbolic Statue of Liberty. The latter has a dual purpose – icon and climbable tourist attraction: how could the ‘Freedom Tower’ adequately express this duality? The tower height was originally fixed at 1,776 ft – to resonate with America’s Year of Independence – but it fell flat
for me. Nevertheless, I expected it to change post-competition and so it did. It is, however, unusual for the spec to be revised upwards! The impression is of lip service to the tragedy whilst the fiscal side works in the background: the result being to simply parcel off a patch of prime real estate purely for memory. The Ground Zero site is owned by Larry Silverstein who, together with George Pataki, the City Governor, ran an international architecture competition to find an architect/scheme for the site. The shortlist was whittled down eventually to Daniel Libeskind – radical Polish-born architect – and Rafael Vinõly – a conservative but contemporary architect born in Mexico. But cries of ‘sell-out to Silverstein’ – especially from relatives – drown out the logic of this situation: as with the Swiss Re building in London [rebuilt after years of IRA bombs], would not the burgeoning tower of real estate be in fact the most fitting memorial? It should express City values, embody confidence, and emanate determination to progress. The people who died were primarily part of the bullish capitalist drive to make money: why pretend otherwise? Why wrap obscure reality with cotton-woolly, disconnected abstraction? Central to the memorial is symbolism and inscription. From Stonehenge to the humble gravestone we see this. Take for example Louis Kahn’s 1968 abstract memorial to the ‘Six Million Jewish Martyrs’ proposed for Lower Manhattan: it contained both – the central pier served as an ohel (chapel), complete with inscription. The written word introduces the personal – the name you can point to, relate to. An unspoken rule of architecture is that ‘good buildings don’t need signs’ (or, by extension, ‘words’). Yet no architectural memorial seems complete without inscription. ‘Set in stone’ is a phrase to suggest permanency – rootedness is a comfort when suffering loss. Hope. Life after death. Memorials also of course allow the State, organisations and people to make a joint statement, exert power, show collective respect. Just as arguments exist around the extent of ‘respectful’ space around city cathedrals – for example the years of vigorous debate around Paternoster Square’s relationship to St Paul’s Cathedral – so the same applies for memorials: do monuments really need space? Discussion regarding this site
seems to have revolved around the notion of amount of space given over to ‘memorial’: space = respect. This corollary comes from the public/private opposition that has characterised debate on urbanism for decades: the more ‘public realm’, the greater the developer’s generosity and perceived benevolence towards the populace. The demand for rent creates maximum development by default. The Public appears to want ‘sacrifice’ where possible. Here the sacrifice could be a viewing platform at the top of ‘Freedom Tower’ a contemplative pool or a square for parades and gathering. The clever bit (in developers’ eyes) is to dress the necessary space around the building (building laws related to light, etc.) up as this ‘sacrificial space’. Monuments in the past were largely grand and impersonal, arching over singularity to create plurality and collectivist aspirations but mostly subjugation. The Arc de Triomphe, Nelson’s Monument, the Monument to the Great Fire of London all rise above an urban context to dominate the humane. But what validates ‘monument, differentiates it from sculpture or building? Does the ‘title’ matter if you realise there exist ‘living structures’ (The London Eye) and ‘functionless buildings’ (Calton Hill’s National Monument)? The Ground Zero site will be home to one of the most observed memorials ever, trying to come to terms with huge, spectacularly vicious loss of life, and in one of the world’s largest and most popular cities. New York often seems to epitomise what we think a city should be. The memorial will be a marker for more than atrocity: it will also become a marker for cities, architecture and society in the future. The agenda of the people, the owner/developer, city and state may all vary. Monuments generally use scale, heroic forms, emblems/icons, metaphor and allusion. This Marker could synthesise function and memory and be emblematic of New York. Empirical institutions and situations of the city stand as allegories of the invisible substance of society as a whole.
In these days of super-fast media dissemination, the permanence of solid physical memorial may be a welcome antidote, but the possibilities for memorial would have multiplied if New York wanted a more imaginative expression of the current zeitgeist. Imagine loops of crash footage on a massive screen, raining mannequins projected from above, the smell of kerosene and worse, screams and sirens blasted around the site complete with multi-screen slivers of reaction from bereaved families. However, this is not a horror film-set but a place of reconciliation for the bereaved, for East and West, conservative and radical. Libeskind is working on a book fittingly about ‘tragedy, memory and hope, and the way architecture can reshape human experience’: his asymmetric tower ostensibly follows the Statue of Liberty so unless the forces of commerce puncture this concept, we will have iconoclastic towers forming a lop-sided symbolic gateway. Neither forms a traditional abstract solid, the obelisks, pyramids and towers of the past. The Twin Towers form modern day icons blasted into people’s minds. The Towers were considered by many to be ugly, but they will be a hard act to follow. Memory is what matters most, not built form.
* In 1946 New York State Legislature set up a WTC Corporation to analyse such a facility. The World Trade Centre idea formed in 1960* and preliminary drawings were drawn up by SOM, who slipped in behind Libeskind 43 years later (via David Childs). Michigan-based Minori Yamasaki and Emery Roth & Sons completed the Twin Towers between 1966 and 1973. Yamasaki had over 100 schemes, one being a single 150-storey tower. Towers 1 and 2, nicknamed ‘David and Nelson’ after the supportive Rockefeller Brothers, became quintessential New York symbols, appearing on a large proportion of postcards.
Politically the site has to represent unbroken spirit, confidence to progress, unhindered by fears of terrorism of the populace, but without creating what Gideion termed ‘devaluation of symbols’, empty gestures of civic monumentalism. Monuments should be catalytic. Tension between the ‘opposites’ could be played up or down. Aspirations of State could transmit to surging height or connotations of peace and freedom. In Rossi’s The Architecture of the City he defines monuments as ‘primary elements in the city which are persistent and characteristic urban artefacts. They are distinguished from housing, the other primary element in the city, by their nature as a place of symbolic function, and thus a function related to time, as opposed to a place of conventional function, which is only related to use’. A monument is dialectically related to the city’s growth.