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“Reflecting Absence” Memorializes 9/11 with Voids that Give Shape to Memory

Michael Arad on how his memorial made him feel “like a New Yorker”

By John Gendall

In Lower Manhattan next week, visitors will make their way across a landscaped plaza of oak trees, stopping to contemplate two square voids carved deep into earth—the last remnants of the former World Trade Center (WTC) towers. The design by Michael Arad, AIA, for crafting the former WTC building footprints into dual-leveled sculptural voids gives form and civic presence to buildings that today exist as ghosts, unforgettable, but absent. Overhead, in a mirror image of the memorial’s earthen abyss, a new World Trade Center Tower designed by SOM steadily continues its climb to the top of the New York City skyline. Succinctly and aptly named “Reflecting Absence,” the memorial design brings to New York (and the nation) a public place to heal the scars of the 21st century’s first catastrophe--one that turned architecture and its attendant cultural ideals into a casualty of a new war.

Ten years since that Tuesday morning—and many design proposals later—the site is beginning to take shape with the 9/11 Memorial Plaza set to open to the public on September 12, 2011, following private ceremonies on September 11.

After several fits and starts, including Daniel Libeskind’s, AIA, 2003 winning masterplan proposal, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation launched a competition to design the memorial. In 2004, it announced the winner: Michael Arad, a young, and at that time, unknown architect who had lived in New York for just five years.

“It was very public and sometimes contentious, so it could have become something very different,” Arad says. “I’m very grateful we’ve been able to bring it to fruition.”

Part of the city

Arad (who practices with Handel Architects) responded to the 9/11 attacks by thinking about ways that design could help restore the city. “I started sketching right after 9/11, and came up with [the] surface of water broken by two voids,” he says. “I spent a year thinking about it.” He built a model, took it up to his roof, photographed it, and then set it aside--until news of a design competition broke one year later.

“The original masterplan called for a memorial 30 feet below street level, but I wanted to challenge that idea,” he explains. “This should be about creating a profound site for contemplation and memory, but it should also be something that’s part of the city.” Concerned that deeply recessed spaces would become estranged from their urban context, Arad sought to meld the memorial to the city. “I wanted it to be part of the city, something that would benefit everyday residents on their way to work.” This priority emerged from his own experience as a self-made New Yorker. “I had lived in New York for three years when I was working on the competition entry, and it was public space that made me feel like a New Yorker.”

The 9/11 Memorial occupies eight of the site’s 16 acres. Two reflecting pools, each 192 feet by 192 feet, occupy the spots where the towers once stood. In the center of each, Arad designed another void, allowing the water cascade downward--a theme he explored in his initial sketches immediately following 9/11. Bronze panels surround the pools, listing the names of the 2,983 victims of the 9/11 attacks and the 1993 WTC bombing. The public walkways around the water features are surrounded by rings of oak trees. These landscape elements screen the more contemplative memorial space from the rest of the site. They also border the 212-foot-by-212-foot perimeters of the original twin towers, becoming symbolic memories of the original structures. “The scale of the voids will be really unexpected,” Arad says. “The size echoes the size of the towers.” This landscaping screen provided by the trees marks a border in the memorial, but it remains permeable. “The moment of walking up to the void will be a moment of sad contemplation,” he says, “but just 20 feet away, there may be office workers having lunch.” Arad worked with San Francisco landscape architect Peter Walker to execute his plan.

Because work at the WTC site is still ongoing, access to the memorial will be limited. But during the next 12 to 18 months, 1,500 ticketed visitors will be able to visit the memorial. Once construction is complete, “It will be an urban public space, like Union Square or Washington Square,” Arad says.

Collaborative clear vision

The memorial project also includes the 9/11 Memorial Museum, with galleries built at bedrock, 70 feet below the Memorial Plaza. Designed by Aedas, it will also include an above-grade pavilion conceived by Snøhetta. Set to be open in 2012, the museum will exhibit materials honoring victims and remnants of the original towers, including the slurry wall that was to be a central feature of Libeskind’s original proposal. The museum and memorial together cost $700 million.

Now that much of the political dust surrounding the project has settled, visitors to the memorial will be presented with a contemplative--but active--space whose urbanism and attachment to the city is likely to become a perpetual cultural remembrance unique to New York. “Things like this are not accomplished single-handedly,” Arad says. “But they are accomplished with a clear vision.”

   
   



Two reflecting pools, each 192 feet by 192 feet, overlap with the footprints of the World Trade Center towers. In the center of each Arad designed another void, allowing the water to cascade downward.



Panels surround the pools, listing the names of the 2,983 victims of the 9/11 attacks and the 1993 WTC bombing.



Landscaped oak trees screen the more contemplative memorial space from the rest of the site, and also border the 212-foot-by-212-foot perimeters of the original twin towers, becoming symbolic memories of the original structures.

All images courtesy of Squared Design Lab.




     

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