December 15, 2003

Ground Zero Memorial

In a recent essay, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd attacked the eight finalist designs for a Ground Zero memorial. The pretty designs, she suggested, fail to capture the horror of the event they mean to memorialize. “The designs,” she said, “are more concerned with the play of light on water than the play of darkness on life.” If a memorial is to capture our outrage over the 9/11 attacks and not merely our sadness over our loss, Dowd’s point cannot be dismissed.

Dowd’s column set me thinking about my own experience of September 11, 2001, and my sense of having witnessed acts of pure evil. The image seared into my mind that day was of the burning towers, particularly of the second airliner crashing into the South Tower. I imagined a memorial of an airplane crashing into a burning building, with another burning building next to it, a kind of perpetual flame with attitude. As a public memorial, this idea seemed a bit too literal, and one that would fail to comment or provide insight into the event. It would nonetheless communicate the horror and revulsion felt by Americans that day and would overcome Dowd’s objection to the sterility, if not the banality, of the designs currently being considered.

Realism is out of favor in public art, of course, and one has to admit that the world has seen too many bronze warriors on horseback. Who can be unmoved by a work such as the Iwo Jima Memorial, however? True, this statue is modeled directly on the photographic record, but the event itself was so suffused with broader significance that the sculpture is immediately recognized as signifying more than simply the raising of a flag. Perhaps a slight change in point-of-view could yield an equally powerful public statement at the World Trade Center site.

Thinking about the problem, I was reminded of the poem I wrote about the atrocity, “Falling from the Sky.” An image in the poem suggested another approach:

The second plane penetrated the wall like a heavy object dropped onto a cake.

Was anyone staring out the window as it became larger and larger?

Could he see into the cockpit?

Was the pilot smiling?

Was he serene?

Imagine the following scene in life-size bronze. In the foreground is an office with desks and other office furniture. Workers are at their desks, standing, and looking out the windows in panic. Others face the viewer, seemingly carrying on their normal office duties. Beyond the windows is an airliner, positioned as it was an instant before impact. In the cockpit are three Arabs—a pilot looking serene, a co-pilot smiling, and a standing figure in back cheering on his colleagues. That would capture our sadness about the event, as well as our revulsion and anger. Add a reflecting pool or pillars of light or whatever abstractions are demanded by architectural sensibilities, and you have an effective Ground Zero memorial for the ages.

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