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.
As the tenth anniversary of Sept. 11 fast approaches, the opening of the NYC memorial has sparked interest.
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.