How can a memorial be born in the aftermath of a devastating terrorist attack? The story of how "Reflecting Absence," was selected as the World Trade Center Memorial illustrates the challenge of memorializing an event even when it is still painfully fresh in public memory.
In the days immediately after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, while New York City and much of the world struggled to understand what had happened on Sept. 11th, 2001, conversations were already underway over what kind of memorial should be constructed at the site. Who would be memorialized? What would be an appropriate design for a World Trade Center memorial, and who would be entitled to approve or reject it? What messages should a memorial convey? Which version of the history of Sept. 11th, should a memorial convey? Should artifacts from the wreckage of the World Trade Center be included in the memorial? What kind of memorial should be built on a site that literally had become the final resting place for thousands of victims of the attack?
In the aftermath of the devastating events of Sept 11th, New Yorkers were faced with literally a monumental series of tasks, including the question of what to do about a memorial. For some, time was of the essence: the reconstruction of the World Trade Center site had to proceed as quickly as possible, including the creation of a memorial. For others, the passage of time was viewed as a necessary precursor to the development of a memorial. They argued that it took almost 10 years before the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was created, while the Lincoln Memorial was not built until almost 60 years after the assassination of President Lincoln.
Given the very public nature of the 9/11 attacks, the conversation about what to memorialize and how to do so captured the emotions and spirits of a wide variety of New Yorkers and others from around the world. These conversations became closely tied to other questions about how the office towers and commercial space that had dominated Lower Manhattan could be rebuilt. During 2002, these conversations intensified over who actually had the rights and authority to decide what would be built.
In February 2003, after a very visible and sometimes contentious process, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC) and the Port Authority of New York selected the master plan design created by Studio Daniel Libeskind. Libeskind’s master plan called for the construction of a new “Freedom Tower”, envisioned to be the tallest building in the world. Significantly, this master plan also included a site for a memorial located within the footprint of one of the original World Trade Center towers. Libeskind’s Freedom Tower plan came under intense criticism from other competing architectural firms, and finally, according to the LMDC was “given form by design architect David M. Childs of Skidmore Owings and Merrill”. The final version of the revised master plan was unveiled in December 2003.
During this same time, the LMDC initiated one of the largest international design competitions in history in order to select the final plan for the World Trade Center memorial. More than 13,000 individuals registered to submit their ideas. Eventually the LMDC received 5,201 actual submissions, from 63 different nations and from throughout the United States. According to the LMDC, "the global outpouring of support reflects an unbounded faith in humanity– one that transcends nationality and geography."
Not surprisingly, the selection process for the memorial design proved to be as intense as the process by which Libeskind’s Freedom Tower had been selected. The panel reviewing submissions included family members of victims of the attacks, architecture scholars, and local government officials. In addition, Maya Lin, known for her Vietnam Veterans Memorial and Civil Rights Memorial, served on the panel, as well as Professor James Young, a leading scholar of memorials and monuments.
In January 2004, following a public display of the designs submitted by seven finalists, the panel was prepared to announce their selection. In their final commentary, the panel noted that their selection was only part of a longer process of memorialization, which had started literally the first evening after the attacks on September 11th.
[this panel] has regarded this memorial as a process that began with the first candlelight vigils, the appearance of posters of missing loved ones, and the laying of flowers around the city, and continued through the rescue and clean-up operations, and continues still through the memorial competition, we do not view our selection of a winner as the end of the memorial. Rather, we see our selection as one more stage of memory.
In the end, the panel selected "Reflecting Absence" by Michael Arad, submitted in conjunction in with landscape architect Peter Walker.
Construction on the memorial is expected to begin over the next several years.
NOTE: To see more images of "Reflecting Absence" and the other memorial submissions, click here