After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the destruction of the World Trade Center, the young architect Michael Arad started thinking about how to memorialize the tragedy. A single, powerful image came to mind: two square voids in the Hudson River, with water pouring into them. He made some drawings and even a model, which he photographed on the roof of his East Village apartment building with the Manhattan skyline as a backdrop.
“As a New Yorker, I had a need to respond,” he says. No one had asked him to design a memorial, but he started thinking about one anyway. It was a kind of catharsis.
When a competition to design the New York 9/11 Memorial was announced, Arad entered his ideas, and in 2004, the then-34-year-old won the commission to create what is now one of the biggest, most expensive and most impressive memorials in the world.
It was a remarkable accomplishment for such a junior architect and even more remarkable that his basic vision has been realized with remarkably little compromise to its essential form. Although they aren’t in the middle of the Hudson River, and are surrounded by the din and chaos of construction on all sides, Arad’s voids are flowing with water, a steady cascade of rivulets plunging into pits that are each almost an acre in size. It is an extraordinary thing.
The basic vision works, in part, because it recalls ancient and deeply embedded connections among water, memory and death. Without reference to any single myth, the flowing waters suggest the River Styx, the boundary between life and death in Greek mythology. They also suggest portals, or whirlpools, through which one might pass to some unknown beyond, or the waters of death crossed by Gilgamesh in the old Sumerian epic.
The endless passing of water over the carefully designed weirs, which separate the flow into hundreds of smaller streams suggesting individual identity near the top of the fall and a collective confusion of intermingled droplets near the bottom, also recalls the primitive but infinite power of a mighty waterfall. One corner of New York has Niagara; the city now has its own, domesticated version of watery abyss.
But perhaps the most important connection for the success of Arad’s memorial is the suggestion of Lethe, another Greek river from the underworld, the one that brings forgetting and oblivion. For all that we like to think that memorials are about remembering, they are ultimately about forgetting. New York, over the course of its history, has absorbed an astonishing amount of tragedy and loss — 19th-century epidemics that killed dozens of people a day; the General Slocum steamship explosion, which cost 1,000 lives; and disasters with names such as the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire and the Happy Land arson. They haven’t all sunk into oblivion, but they have become safely part of the past, dumped from that part of the memory that needs periodic purging if a city (or a person) is to move on, heal and stay vibrant.