And so while the memorial designed by Arad and the landscape architect Peter Walker now has an international audience, while it is still very much owned in some important way by the relatives and friends of those who died there, ultimately its destiny is to be merely a civic object in the urban fabric of New York. And New Yorkers will determine whether this memorial becomes a living part of their city or a dead plaza with two enormous fountains.
To succeed, it must ultimately merge with the landscape of New York not as a place apart, sacred and full of sentiment, but as a place where people gather because they want to play, flirt, think, read or eat a half-smoke with everything on it.
As the tenth anniversary of Sept. 11 fast approaches, the opening of the memorial has sparked interest.
Arad compares his memorial, which will be dedicated on the anniversary of the attacks and then open to the public (reservations required) Sept. 12, to Union Square and Washington Square Park. Both are in New York and both contain memorials (multiple statues in Union Square and a monumental arch devoted to Washington in the park that bears his name). But anyone who has visited them knows that their memorial function is now pretty much limited to names, sculpture and inscription. Today, they serve multiple functions, as a stage for performance, home to a popular green market, a refuge for the homeless and restless, a place to walk dogs, daydream and let your little monsters run wild.
So Arad and Walker have worked hard to keep the memorial site open to the city, unbounded, neither raised on a plinth nor set into a frame. Streets that were closed off decades ago to build the superblock World Trade Center are being reopened as part of the larger redevelopment of the site. And the original idea in architect Daniel Libeskind’s master plan for the redevelopment of the World Trade Center, which called for setting the memorial in a 30-foot depression, was successfully scuttled. Although the eight acres of plaza that contain the memorial and the museum (designed by the Oslo-based Snohetta firm) will eventually be hemmed in by new high-rises (including towers by S.O.M., Norman Foster, Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, Fumihiko Maki and Kohn Pedersen Fox), many of the most successful squares in cities around the world are hemmed in without being closed off.
So it’s conceivable that one day not so far in the future someone new to New York, some aspiring banker or editor or new immigrant, might happen on the memorial by accident, pass by the thousands of names cut into the bronze panels that line its vast pits, marvel at the giant sheets of water that seem to plunge into an abyss, and think, simply: Cool.
At which point, one can say of the memorial: Job well done. If that seems cavalier about the meaning of Sept. 11, the loss of life, the grief of families, it’s worth remembering that the actively healing part of a memorial often has little to do with its form or design. Today, with America defined by fractiousness and anger, the healing is all in the fight that precedes the construction. It is the controversy, the anger, the recriminations and ad hominem attacks that help many people move past grief.