Memoriam // Memorandum

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The introduction of the National September 11 Memorial to Manhattan’s dense urban fabric garners a feeling that is intense and far from equivocal. The Twin Towers contributed to the much revered New York City sky line that made for a perfect photograph and to the stereotypical painting that had their silhouette against a bright orange city sunset. For the world to see a massive change from that perspective, and for the resident who lives or works around the area, the absence of the buildings that contributed to the language of Lower Manhattan is apparent. The stark contrast of the ‘hollow’ plot in the dense urban fabric also reinstates the lifestyle of the quintessential New Yorker. The design of the memorial is one that attempts to translate the meaning of the ‘void’ from perspectives of the victim, the passer-by and the tourist, which are distinct, into one physical entity. Here, the classic association of a memorial with monumentality is challenged. This memorial is more a virtual occupation of the mind, with its third dimension being one of depth, symbolizing loss and embodying a particular sentiment.

Apart from it being solely a memorial, the nature of the design is instrumental in not isolating the casual passer-by from experiencing the space. The absence of a vertical visual element and the aural accessory of the continuously flowing water that is an integral part of the design of the memorial activates the space far from the center. However, this is also the reason as to why the whole memorial being experienced as a whole is not fulfilled. The experiential difference through different parts of the memorial is distinct. The two pools being separated by the 9/11 Museum are identical and constructed exactly the same way, with the details and geometry reflecting each other. The void surrounded by the One World Trade Center and the Oculus, which is the Transportation Hub designed by Calatrava suggests an idea of resurfacing from the tragedy, which is conflicting when it comes to the idea of the irreplaceable, deep loss symbolized by the depth of the void that seems to be visually infinite. On the contrary, the South Pool has no immediate interference, questioning the cohesive experience and function of a singular memorial.

Having a large retail space that has a style unique to Calatrava’s work and is of a magnified scale in the context of Lower Manhattan, office spaces that cast their shadow on the memorial pools during a few times in the day and the construction of the five other World Trade Center towers in close proximity is contradicting to the sanctity a memorial space has to offer. This immediate setting with the skyscrapers “exploits its own contradictions to monumentalize, in exemplary “post-critical” fashion, the neoliberal consensus regarding new “opportunities” opened up by techno-corporate globalization.”[1] Another paradox surfaces when it is noted that the water cascades into a bottomless pit when viewed from around the parapet on ground, but the floor profile of the pit is visible from a section of the 9/11 Museum by Snøhetta that opened to the public in 2014. The underground component of the pool suggests a finite space to the otherwise infinite nature of the “void” which is symbolic in its true sense of sentimental purpose.

The changing concerns of the void make us wonder if the idea of an isolated memorial was embodied, further questioning the relevance of the monument in this context to the city and its people. “As architecture is a communicative medium that provides a focus for identity discourses of many kinds, the tensions around landmark projects encourage reflection on sociological questions, such as how buildings come to represent collective identities at all.”[2]

The National September 11 Memorial to Manhattan is symbolic of a relationship of one that is an unchanging, eternal memory and one that is constantly changing and developing, creating a conversation and setting a sense of authority of its presence in city and global dynamics. The memorial in the context of New York, a city that has a status in the financial milieu that is less volatile but is constantly keeping up to adhere to the changing global economic realm makes a statement that convinces the city on a micro scale to project an instrument of remembrance, but also positions itself in an environment of avarice, altering the degree of purity it was meant to have, especially because of its understated form and immediate setting. The setting makes it almost emotionally disputable because it reminds us of an event that was driven by terrorizing forces, almost making people aware that “buildings are much stranger than we are willing to admit. They are tied to the economy of violence rather than simply a protection from it”, and that “security” in industrialized, capitalist countries, more commonly known as the First World is not dictated by buildings that offer comfortable spaces for the stereotypical white-collar worker that also suggest a sense of place in modern society.

Emotional conflict and logical opportunity are best explained by “declarations of faith (which) offer a way into the problem of the abstract relationship between architecture and money, understood at a philosophical level.”[3] Declaration of faith is apt mainly because of the undeniable tension between the September 11 Memorial and the abutting built environment, which is controlled by an authoritarian capitalist market at its external periphery, projecting boundless expansion. Symbolism of capitalist power and particularly of New York’s place as a strong player in rapid globalization is evident and hard to ignore when the line between the “memorial (here in a literal sense) and the routine industrialized spaces for offices”[4] is vague.

As I stood at one end of the North Pool, I noticed that tourists with selfie sticks had these prominent buildings that are symbolic of New York’s position in the capitalist market, surrounding the memorial as their backdrop in photographs, while standing close to the water body of the memorial. This was confirmed when I was requested to take a young couple’s photograph with the One World Trade Center building in the background as the man rested his hand on the bronze parapet of the pool with the engraved names of the deceased. There might be an individual case where an employee in an office building adjacent to the memorial uses the memorial, in which way the memorial is successful as it is an accommodating public space, to escape the monotonous cacophony of an urban lifestyle, further reflecting upon the capitalist economy and its practices in major cities across the world.

This further leads us to question the relevance of memorials and their significance in a metropolis like New York City in particular. Comparing extremes of black and white in this situation is relevant where something as quantitative as architecture in the financial district spearheaded by private developers and political influences is analyzed by its contrast to something as qualitative and pure as a memorial.

While acknowledging the success of the design by Michael Arad and Handel Architects in its micro-environment, it is also perhaps the intangible aspects of the personal and the public space (mental and physical) that brings into focus the symbolic eternity of a memorial juxtaposed within an actual “heavy” yet mundane milieu. This is perhaps an indicator or signpost of an architectural genre which might become more visible because of the times that we live in.

[1] Reinhold Martin, “Critical of What? Toward a Utopian Realism”, Harvard Design Magazine, Spring/Summer 2005, Number 22

[2] Paul R. Jones, “The Sociology of Architecture and the Politics of Building: The Discursive Construction of Ground Zero”, Sociology, Vol. 40, No. 3 June 2006, pp.545-565, Sage Publications, Ltd.

[3] Reinhold Martin, “Financial Imaginaries: Toward a Philosophy of the City” in Grey Room 42, Grey Room Inc. and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2011

[4] Mark Wigley, “Insecurity by Design”, Open! Platform for Art, Culture and the Public Domain, 2004