9/11 memorial at Shanksville is minimalistic but evocative and compelling
By Philip Kennicott,
Route 30 west to Shanksville, Pa., is a road to write songs about. It snakes through farmlands and forests and along the steep slopes of the Allegheny Mountains, a ribbon of the best and worst of roadside Americana. Until Sept. 11, 2001, when United Flight 93 went down in an open field near Route 30, this was the kind of place that millions of people condescend to as a flyover, the anonymous midlands of America.
Today, a new memorial near Shanksville reminds visitors that this spot is only 20 minutes from Washington, if you are flying at 560 mph in a Boeing 757. When the passengers aboard Flight 93 stormed the Sept. 11 hijackers, they brought Shanksville and Washington even closer, into an intimacy that transcends geography. Who knows how many more dead and what icons of the republic might have been added to the toll that day if the passengers hadn’t revolted against their captors.
That makes the memorial in Shanksville different from the ones at the Pentagon and the World Trade Center site. There is a lazy habit of conflating victims and heroes, as if every victim is also a hero, and as if all heroes are equal in heroism. While there were both heroes and victims at the World Trade Center and at the Pentagon — innocent office workers and courageous first responders — the people who confronted the hijackers on Flight 93 weren’t acting in the line of duty. Aware of the destruction at the twin towers and at the Pentagon, certain that their plane would bring yet more carnage, they acted selflessly, above and beyond. They never signed up to save Washington, but they did.
One might expect, then, that the memorial to Flight 93 would be the most focused on heroism, perhaps the most bombastic and traditional of the three major Sept. 11 memorials. It isn’t. The design, by Paul Murdoch Architects (with landscape by Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects), is the most minimal, most peaceful and most contemplative of the three. It makes use of the rural landscape, coaxing it into a form that inspires thoughtfulness and repose, without adding undue pomposity or sentiment. At least, not yet.
The Shanksville memorial was authorized by Congress in 2002, a competition was held in 2004, and Murdoch emerged as the winner a year later. The design is arranged around a large circular “field of honor,” bordered by a ring road, pathway and groves of trees. The crash site, marked by a large boulder, is just outside the circle, with a low, dark, cast-concrete wall separating visitors from the site itself. Small niches in the wall invite people to leave mementos. A modest but elegantly designed visitors pavilion offers respite from inclement weather.
But the monument isn’t finished. The next stage will include a visitors center and 40- to 50-foot-high walls framing an entrance to the circular space, the height recalling the elevation of the plane as it streaked overhead just before crashing. There are also plans, years from now, to build a bell tower, with 40 chimes, one each for the passengers and crew members who died. At this point, only the memorial plaza, pavilion, ring road and field are completed.
But that’s enough. Less is more. The magic of the memorial is its close relationship to the dark forest of sweet gum trees, sugar maples and hemlocks that encroach on the grassy impact site of the plane. A small, historical farm, with an old red barn, is visible on a nearby hillside, and giant, three-bladed windmills turn slowly along a distant ridge line.
The site was used as a surface coal mine until 1995, and much of it is still an open field. After the mine was abandoned, well before Sept. 11, 2001, initial remediation of the site included containment ponds and wetlands to contain the acidic water leaching out of the ground. The memorial’s design has altered the shape of the wetlands, sculpted the terrain of the old mine, reforested parts of the site and bestowed it with local wildflowers, including great swaths of delicate Queen Anne’s lace.
Some of the old metal buildings from the mining days, which now serve as offices and a temporary memorial, will be taken down, though their foundations will remain to remind visitors of the role they played during the forensic search after the crash.
It is neither a park, carefully crafted, nor an untouched landscape. It is a palimpsest of man’s relation to the land, a mix of scars and healing, domesticated space and space reclaimed by natural forces. By helping to repair a landscape devastated by mining, the memorial hints at the need for a larger kind of healing after the events of Sept. 11. Just as the best of us hope to leave the world a better place when we die, the memorial leaves the land near Shanksville better than it was 10 years ago, when it received the wound that will forever mark it on the map.
Perhaps, then, the $60 million memorial should be considered finished. The chime tower, scheduled for 2017, could easily be discarded with no loss to the design. Even the visitors center feels unnecessary. A few discreet signs could give all the vital information and explain the symbolism of the memorial plaza.
But design and development of the next phase are already underway, fundraising continues apace (officials are within $9 million of raising the amount necessary for the visitors center and entry walls), and the memorial will progress from its pleasingly minimal form to something more rigorously programmed, interpreted and designed.
Less is more isn’t just a matter of aesthetics. An ugly chapter in the history of Murdoch’s design demonstrates that reticent memorials are better than literal ones. When Murdoch emerged as the competition winner, his design became known as a “crescent of embrace.” The term referred to the semicircular shape formed by trees framing the memorial wall. This kind of language has become obligatory in architectural competitions, in which designs are often branded with empty, vaguely poetic terms, but in Murdoch’s case, it backfired. A local preacher, seeing an easy mark, raised a ruckus about the crescent, suggesting hidden Islamic symbolism. Talk-radio demagogues fanned the flames and forced a revision.
So the memorial’s proponents dropped talk of the crescent and focused on the “field of honor,” and, eventually, the fracas subsided.
The problem wasn’t the design, it was the description, the compulsion to give portentous symbolic meaning to the memorial’s elements. The less one captions a memorial, the better.
Although Murdoch and his landscape designers have put together a compelling space, the weakest parts are precisely those that make the most literal reference to the plane, the dead and the crash site. A marble wall listing names is placed along the axis of the plane’s final path, which makes symbolic sense. But that puts it at an odd angle to the low wall that separates visitors from the field where the plane went down. The contrast between the white marble wall of names and the rough-surfaced black concrete is also jarring.
The dark concrete walls are incised with an appealing geometric pattern that echoes the characteristic angle of the branches in the nearby hemlock trees. It’s a subtle and appealing reference. But the rough surface of the concrete is meant to look like coal, a gesture that falls flat. There’s a good reason why people don’t normally build memorials out of coal. It is oppressive.
The high entry portal walls, when they are built, will only add to these weaker elements, cluttering the site visually and burdening it with yet more symbolism. The forced channeling of visitors through the portal is an unnecessary intrusion on the experience, a heavy-handed bit of social control in a landscape that is appealing for its openness and freedom.
The National Park Service (which is administering the memorial), the designers and the families of the dead that are engaged with its progress should step back and contemplate what they already have. The unfinished memorial is a complete and satisfying work. There is just enough intention built into the landscape to remind one that this is a place for contemplation, to help us remember that the price of admission for life on Earth is death at the end, and that for all too many people that death comes in service or resistance to ugly, unnecessary ideologies.
It doesn’t need to say anything more than that. It’s worth a pilgrimage to Pennsylvania, especially for Washingtonians, who have such a profound connection to this far-off spot. But make it soon if you want to hear the memorial speak softly as it now does, before it becomes blander and generic.