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9/11 Memorial Photo Essay: Dispiriting Design, Stark Ambiance

A visitor making a rubbing last week at the 9/11 Memorial
All photos, unless otherwise noted, by Lee Rosenbaum

The 9/11 Memorial, on the site of the Twin Towers catastrophe, had a big buildup. But my visit there last week (as shown in the video at the end of this post) was a big letdown.

A sense of “spiritual uplift” may be too much to ask of any 9/11 memorial. It was that quality that Eric Gibson, appraising the finished project in last Thursday’s Wall Street Journal, said he found lacking. Ground Zero will probably always remain a somber site.

But I left the plaza last Tuesday feeling dispirited and vexed, not comforted. The most solace I experienced came from chatting with the friend whom I encountered there by pure chance—Eric Gibson.

In some ways, my experience of the work of architect Michael Arad and landscape architect Peter Walker doesn’t matter much: I’m not the target audience for this project. The families and friends of the victims are. It is important for them to have a dignified designated site where they can get a sense of communing with loved ones they lost. They can find the names, make the rubbings to bring home, leave mementos and stand in reverent reflection on the sacred ground where their loved ones, 10 years ago, had walked and worked.


But for me, the long downtown pilgrimage—a gauntlet winding through several tourist-clogged streets and checkpoints (including a metal detector), accompanied by the wails of would-be visitors who discovered that they couldn’t enter without a pass (available chiefly on the memorial’s reservation webpage)—made me wish for an appealing oasis conducive to calm reflection at the end of my sweaty trek.

The memorial purports to convey “a spirit of hope and renewal, …a contemplative space separate from the usual
sights and sounds of a bustling metropolis.” Instead, I found myself in stark, almost inhospitable, very citified surroundings, with only low rectangular-block benches for “repose,” large expanses of hard pavement underfoot, and sparse greenery providing meager relief from the “bustling metropolis.”

The eight-acre memorial quadrant was supposed to appear lushly planted, like this:

Thumbnail image for 911MemorRend.jpg
Rendering by Squared Design Lab

Instead, from ground level, it looked like this…


…and like this, with one of the two reflecting pools (which sit in the footprints of the vanished towers) on the right and the unfinished museum behind it, seen through the trees:


The reflecting pools were not light blue, as they appear in the rendering. They were, as architecture critic Witold Rybczynski described them in his negative appraisal for Slate, “bottomless black holes”:


The copious waterfalls, interminably descending into the void, seemed to me like never-ending tears. Most fountains (like the one below, at Lincoln Center) cheer us by reaching upwards:

Lincoln Center’s plaza

But the 9/11 Memorial’s two reflecting pools bring us inexorably down. The architectural impact of the site made me feel dwarfed, insignificant—an effect exacerbated by the monumental monolith that serves as backdrop—the new, in-construction 1 World Trade Center by architect David Childs:


Come with me now and we’ll visit the memorial together:

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