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Commentary: Rush to build 9/11 memorial may compromise design

Saturday, January 10, 2004

By Mary Thomas, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

One of the most significant public art projects of this generation -- the memorial to commemorate the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attack and the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center -- is in danger of being compromised by political favoritism and economic expediency.

"Reflecting Absence: A Memorial at the World Trade Center Site" (Associated Press/Lower Manhattan Development Corp)
Click photo for larger image.

The more than 5,000 entries from 63 countries for the memorial design had been culled to eight by November. On Tuesday, the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., which was created after 9/11, announced the winner. "Reflecting Absence" by Michael Arad and Peter Walker was selected by a 13-member jury headed by Vartan Gregorian, president of the Carnegie Corp. of New York.

The critical response throughout the process has been less than enthusiastic. The proposals, viewed from the two-dimensionality of print media pages, all seem wan compared to the enormity of the events (the 1993 bombing is included because its memorial was destroyed in the 2001 attack).

New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp in November wrote, "Keep it simple. Eliminate inessentials. Cut the rhetoric. ... But for better or worse, we are living in Baroque if not Byzantine times. Some of our most impressive contemporary architecture reflects this [as do the eight Ground Zero finalists] to a greater or lesser degree. Each suffers as a result."

Arad, an Israeli native, is a designer for the New York City Housing Authority. Walker, a landscape architect and former chairman of the Landscape Architecture Department at Harvard, now heads his own firm.

(Associated Press/Lower Manhattan Development Corp)
"Reflecting Absence: A Memorial at the World Trade Center Site"
Click photo for larger image.

In early December, New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman wrote: "Now that everyone agrees that the Ground Zero memorial finalists are a disappointment, there's only one thing to do. Throw them all out."

Kimmelman and Muschamp, as well as art critics Roberta Smith and Holland Cotter, were unanimous in end-of-year commentary in their condemnation of the accelerated timetable imposed upon the design process by politicians and developers.

Since the memorial jury has been under instructions not to speak to the press, panel members haven't been able to discuss the political pressure they've endured or offer the public insight into the process.

Both New York Gov. George Pataki and Mayor Michael Bloomberg have an interest in attempting to heal this open wound in the heart of their financial center as soon as possible. None but the most hopeful expected prime Manhattan real estate to be given over in its entirety to a place of consecration.

Ideally, art is planned as an integral part of site design. But exceptional circumstances beget exceptions. Why not let the commercial development begin and forestall memorial approval until the right design surfaces?

Calls for a time-out have come not only from critics but from a range of individuals, including victims' family members, New York residents, artists (such as Eric Fischl in a December Times op-ed piece) and even former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. To adequately conceive a memorial to a moment when time stopped, a longer period of reflection is clearly needed.

Regardless of the design outcome, the fate of site artifacts is of immediate concern. Wasting in storage, they are beginning to deteriorate and should be moved to a dedicated, if temporary, site where they may be given the attention of conservators and maintained in a climate-controlled environment until their final destination is decided.

Arad's original plan called for a "slab-like cultural building" along one side "to shelter the memorial from the highway," and this could have held at least some of the artifacts as well as provided a place for the regular services requested by the survivors. But that building has been eliminated because it wasn't compatible with the overall design by master site planner Daniel Libeskind.

A ray of hope has come in the announcement of a federal review of the plans by architectural preservationists under the National Historic Preservation Act, a requirement for federal funding. Muschamp, who reported on the review this week, calls for an "undertaking in cultural archaeology" that will give development planning an appropriate expanse of considerations.

Let's hope this review opens the process to the input and scrutiny it deserves and, indeed, requires if it's to have legitimacy.


Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas can be reached at mthomas@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1925.

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