9/11 memorial at Shanksville is minimalistic but evocative and compelling
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.