December 2012

Down the Drain?

I have just visited the 911 Memorial at Ground Zero for the first time. The Museum is not yet open, and the towers of the new World Trade Center remain unfinished, more than a decade after the twin towers came down. But the essential elements of the memorial are in place: a plaza full of trees containing two great waterworks created on the footprints of the two towers, around which are engraved the names of those who were killed on that awful day.


I was glad to be around so many people who had come to pay their respects even early on a cold Saturday morning. They had almost all made their way to the site as something more than tourists, and there was a natural reverence among them that didn’t need to be reinforced by calls for quiet and decorum. Many were clearly moved, especially by the tree that is said to have survived the attack and has been tended and replanted to take its place in the urban forest that will grow from the many saplings planted on the plaza. But the monument itself seemed neither comforting nor inspiring.

The two waterworks are not fountains or pools, both of which could suggest new life. Nothing bursts upward, and the cascades of water are never live-giving or fructifying. Everything flows downhill and winds up lost in what are really nothing more than two massive drains.

If the designers’ purpose was to show nothing but dead loss, their work succeeds. Looking over the names to the black orifice below, one can hardly think anything but, “All those lives down the drain.” While I cannot say that view of the events of 9/11 is untrue, I cannot see why anyone would want to embody it in a huge and expensive monument.

I know some of the reasons that the monument has taken this form. The families of the victims—or many of them—objected to the site being returned to productive use. For them, it was not just the scene of the crime, but the tomb of those they had lost, since the bodies had been vaporized in the fires or annealed into the rumble. Many traditional forms of monument would be impossible, because any specific religious iconography would be inappropriate, because no higher cause was furthered by the calamity, and because, aside from the policemen, firemen, and other public safety officers, few of those memorialized sacrificed their lives, and there was thus no place for the laurels that mark the heroic fallen.

Still, I am saddened that it was decided to mark the site with these emblems of pure loss. In cemeteries across the country I have seen monuments to people who died equally senseless, meaningless deaths, though never ones tinged with so much human malice. The victims of riverboat explosions or cholera epidemics are usually marked by something like an obelisk. Pointing skyward, those columns suggest hope. Do we now have a shared culture that cannot agree even to hope for, if not a life to come, a better life for others? That the “Survivor Tree” has become an important part of the site suggests we can.

I wish a monument embodying hope and resolve had been created for the dead of 9/ll—and I wish the monument had not been created on so vast a scale and that it had not made the site unusable. A place where people died going about the daily business of life should have been returned to its former uses, not left as two lifeless cavities. Nations that dwell on their defeats are never happy ones—as anyone who has met an Irishman still refighting the Battle of the Boyne or a Serb still breathing vengeance over that awful day on the Field of Blackbirds knows. We have left two open wounds running forever in our greatest city: I am not sure that will turn out to be healthy for our country.

But whatever a critic may say, the site will be used, and that use will make it sacred. I uncovered my head and prayed for the souls of all who died that day as I watched the water drain into the void. Beside me, a few people searched for specific names, and many craned their necks to see how the new towers were progressing. (Slowly, slowly!) Neither the ordinary people who suffered a senseless crime nor the heroes who laid down their lives for others will be forgotten. And that matters more than architecture.