The 9/11 Memorial Site. More a Tourist Attraction Than a Memorial

Updated: Apr 19

Comparative essay of the design competition

9/11 Memorial Pool by Michael Arad


On the morning of September 11 of 2001, a series of coordinated terrorists attacks affected the population of the United States, taking the lives of 2996 people and injuring over 6000. During the attacks the Twin towers (designed by architect Minoru Yamasaki in 1964) were destroyed, leaving a a void in the inhabitants and the city of New York.

Two years after the horrendous terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation launched a design competition to create a memorial site. This became the largest design competition in history. Over 13,683 people signed up for the challenge however only 5,201 responded to the task to honor and dignify the victims of September 11, 2001 and February 26, 1993. The construction of a memorial usually creates controversy; where an architectural piece is created to reflect and reimagine collective sentiment in which the reflection of a community has to be reimagined in an architectural piece.

The 911 Memorial Mission Statement was clear; the prime objective was to remember and honor the thousands of lives that were taken by the terrorist in 1993 and 2001, to respect the sacred nature of the affected area, to recognize the endurance, courage, and compassion of all the people who supported the community and lastly to remember the value of life and with this, inspire an end to hatred, ignorance and intolerance. Its crucial to notice the importance of specific areas aimed for quiet visitation and contemplation. In addition to this, no commercial structure could be included in the design. The outlines of this competition were designed by Daniel Libeskind Studio, who was at first commissioned to be the lead architect of the entire site but due to internal disputes he became the site master planner, and even then, his original design was heavily altered. Out of the 5,201 entries the number was reduced to the top eight projects, this projects were; Votives in Suspension, Suspending Memory, Lower Waters, Garden of Lights, Dual Memory, Inversion of Light, Passages of Light and Reflecting Absence. This eight projects shared common elements like water and use of light to create that spiritual environment. Nonetheless the project "Reflecting Absence" from Michael Arad and Peter Walker's stood out of them all with the concept of a constructed forest of trees surrounding two large voids containing recessed pools.

In contrast with the remaining 7 finalists, "Reflecting Absence" was the only one where a single continued plaza took place. It appears that the detachment from the street into a ceremonial space, was not what the jury was seeking and that the creation of a hybrid public space was a hidden element of acceptance. Given this statement, the holiness of the place it's sacred nature gets lost with the concept of a large expansive plaza. It appears that the intention of the site and the execution conflict with each other and the two elements are not complimentary.

Competition Runner-Ups

Comparatively, the project named “Votives in Suspension” by Norman Lee and Michael Lewis finished second in the competition. This particular project brought attention to the ritualistic nature of the site and gave new meaning to what was once a symbol of capitalism now represented as loss and mourning. This project aimed to transform the tower footprints into sanctuaries where the individual and collective loss would resonate in unison. The sanctuaries would be placed beneath the ground level, not giving any indication of its presence and only becoming noticeable by long parapet walls that surround the outlines of the original towers. These monolithic expanses would invite contemplation as well as suggest absence. The Sanctuaries would only be accessed with a lift system or down a stairway emerging into a dimmed and still environment where people would encounter a field of votive lights suspended in mid-air showering the space over a reflecting pool. Each of the votives were to represent each person who was lost, and the height would reflect the height of the deceased, in this way the field would have an irregular topography. The lights would function as capillaries that bring liquid fuel to the votives in order to obtain an eternal flame. The project also seek to involve the families in the ritual, where they would light each votive and by doing so create an act of remembrance and personal ceremony.

Paradoxically, the winning project resembles more a park rather than a ritual and commemorative space. With ambulatory commerce on the perimeter of the plaza and no silence to be found. It appears so that the contemplative state and the sacred nature of the site was forgotten. Perhaps the first approach of the project was different than the actual state. But nonetheless Arad’s proposal is the only one where the memorial is at the same level as the urban grid. There are no transitions or filters. The pools clearly represent a void in the fabric which evoke a visceral emotion and creates an overwhelming response. The running water muzzle the noise of the city and invites people to contemplate the void. However, it is as though the two towers are the object of mourning and the deceased are secondary and less represented in this design which, again, detracts from the intended purpose of the site. The individuals lost are only shown by name in the parapet, sometimes unseen by the distracted eye, rather than being the central focus. In many ways the constructed memorial doesn’t create a place of healing and reverence, nor does it reflect the initial design brief. Was, perhaps, the need for an open space greater than the need to honor and respect those who lost their lives in the attacks? By allowing absence to speak for itself, the designers have made the power of these empty footprints the memorial itself, but then again, is the speech given the correct one?

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