One prominent relative of a fallen firefighter feared “an attempt to establish a hierarchy of loss.” But many of the family members were enraged by Arad’s initial plan to list the names randomly. “The haphazard brutality of the attacks is reflected in the arrangement of names,” wrote Arad and Walker in their 2004 design statement. “No attempt is made to impose order upon this suffering.” Instead, they proposed using “meaningful agencies,” grouping names in ways that reflected bonds of friendship, family or collegial relations.
But it seems that “imposing order on suffering” is exactly what people want, or need, and that one way to feel that order has been imposed is to impose one’s will on other people. The families fought back, and eventually a compromise, suggested by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, was reached: Names would be grouped by which tower people worked in or which flight they were on when the planes crashed, with first-responders grouped together. “Meaningful agencies,” worked out with a complicated computer algorithm that processed more than 1,200 requests for proximity filed by family and next of kin, were then found among these large subgroups.
Arad’s initial idea was better, but now it’s over, and the names have been cut into bronze. Heating and cooling elements keep the plates at a comfortable-to-touch temperature year-round. Lights and mirrors underneath make the names glow at night. The bronze panels have been carefully arranged and sized so that people in wheelchairs should have a reasonably good view of the water voids, which descend in two stages, 30 feet into a granite-lined basin, and then into a smaller 30-foot shaft, almost to the bedrock beneath Manhattan. From the top of the plaza, it seems the water is descending to infinity.
Soon, the fight over the names, and someday even the endless squabbles over the larger World Trade Center redevelopment, will be forgotten. All the lost opportunities, the hope that there might be a cultural center at the site rather than just office space and a museum, will no longer feel so bad. Eventually, even the names of the dead will be mostly forgotten, as anonymous as the names on an old marble obelisk marking the Civil War dead in small towns over much of America.
If the fountains of Arad’s memorial are still running — and given how balky and complicated to maintain fountains is, that’s a big if — they will probably inspire feelings of awe, and pride, in people who know the events of September 2001 only as a few paragraphs in the history books. The plaza where the twin towers once stood will have been deeded back to its rightful owners, who will look at the enormous waterfalls and think: Is this a great city, or what?