Cataloging Catharsis: The 9/11 Museum And A Time For Leadership In Designing Memorials

This Christmas Eve, the anniversary of the 2012 tragedy in Rochester, New York brought what is now the common sight nationwide of thousands of strangers joining alongside family and volunteer comrades to pay respects. People left behind flowers, Teddy bears, and balloons, calling for the erection of some sort of permanent monument. No politician or editorial board could possibly disagree with such investment of public and donated funds as part of what has become a virtual frenzy of vicarious mourning. Is this a chance for presumed grace, or are people simply co-opting the loss of directly victimized survivors in a clamor for an ennobling simulacrum of personal loss?

Paul Gunther Paul Gunther

PAUL GUNTHER IS AN OPINIONS CONTRIBUTOR TO ARCHITIZER who HAS WORKED AT THE NEW YORK HISTORICAL SOCIETY, MUNICIPAL ART SOCIETY, THE AMERICAN CENTER IN PARIS, and THE INSTITUTE OF CLASSICAL ARCHITECTURE & ART. THE VIEWS EXPRESSED HERE ARE HIS OWN. INTERESTED IN CONTRIBUTING TO ARCHITIZER? EMAIL EDITORIAL@ARCHITIZER.COM.

This Christmas Eve, the community of Rochester, New York, mourned the first anniversary of a terrible tragedy, when a man had set fire to his house only to shoot dead two of the arriving volunteer firefighters. Thousands of strangers joined alongside family and volunteer comrades to pay respects. People left behind flowers, Teddy bears, and balloons, calling for the erection of some sort of permanent monument. No politician or editorial board could possibly disagree with such investment of public and donated funds as part of what has become a virtual frenzy of vicarious mourning. Is this a chance for presumed grace, or are people simply co-opting the loss of directly victimized survivors in a clamor for an ennobling simulacrum of personal loss?

An example of an ennobling memorial, the Women In Memory Monument in Santiago, Chile. Photo: Cristobal Palma via rememberoursisterseverywhere.com

The question brings to mind one of the great architectural and curatorial events coming in late spring. Ground Zero’s 9/11 Memorial Museum will open to the public with its above-ground security-laden Snøhetta top hat leading down to the colossal and majestic Davis Brody Bond accommodation. Outside, the World Trade Center’s surviving foundation will serve as historic pathway and memorial, extending the existing plaza’s cascades and inscriptions conceived by Michael Arad and Peter Walker. Deference to the survivors was constant, as politicians demanded risk-free design. Probably no greater investment or direct survivor engagement has ever been made to a tragedy, including the cataclysm of the Civil War and the two World Wars.

The 9/11 Memorial Museum construction site.

If glimpses from the adjacent terrace and word of mouth prove true, the design teams and curatorial staff will have fulfilled their assignment superbly, with measures of complexity, sensitivity, and innovative design sophistication. Due anticipation will likely be well met.

What counts more, however, are questions about America’s evident social contract with the endless proliferation of such memorial destinations—ignoring the fact that collective memory often yields to fresh loss, and that few memorials will maintain their cathartic and “hero”-worshipping intent. Whether a sign of a society still naively young or perhaps already in lugubrious decline, this building phenomenon shows no sign of going away.

A rendering of the 9/11 Memorial Museum

With such an imperative in mind, architectural leaders should address it head on with a toolbox of design alternatives prepared and at the ready. Perhaps a broad competition could lead to formal and material templates that could be readily built and maintained? In framing it, a thorough discussion of the broad call for such a template could be considered and published in due historical and theoretical context.

In particular, there is a chance to transcend ephemerally compelling place-making with landscape or other horticultural design options. Such a design would not only stand as memorial, but literally live on as environmental enhancement, for those specifically in search of its precise historic impulse, but also for those who merely encounter it and feel better as a result. Surely this is one of the best ways to guarantee immortality as it inevitably becomes abstracted over time.

Steilneset Memorial to the Victims of the Witch Trials by Peter Zumthor and Louise Bourgeois. Photo: archilovers.com

Two examples are pertinent. First, John Lennon’s Strawberry Fields at Central Park West and 72nd Street was designed by the late landscape architect Bruce Kelly with able hands from Lennon’s widow Yoko Ono and an international array of like-minded experts. Second, the present Journey Through Hallowed Ground initiative aims to plant 620,000 trees in a highway allée for each of the estimated casualties of the Civil War across three states transcending the Mason-Dixon divide, where so much of the battlefield slaughter occurred.

Photo Credit: Flickr user wherewerewe91

Photo Credit: Tricia

Such organic living memorials enhance passively rather than insist empathically. They will thrive accordingly as transcendent design interventions. Those meant to be remembered will metaphorically live on. Dust to dust.

The year 2014 and the 9/11 Memorial Museum completion after its tumultuous 13-year genesis marks an ideal time to consider what for better or worse has become a foremost American public design mandate. The profession should step in proactively to address and, better still, refine more meaningful and sustainable alternatives.

See Architizer’s list of 10 inspiring, innovative memorials here.

Lead image © Cyril Attias

+