The Architecture of Loss

By Glenn Frankel
Sunday, September 10, 2006

WHEN THE TWIN TOWERS FELL, Masayuki Sono was standing alongside fellow workers at a small architectural firm in midtown Manhattan staring at a television. He had visited the buildings many times, had friends who worked there. He felt powerless to help them. He closed his eyes and walked away.

The following year the borough of Staten Island staged a contest to select a design for a memorial to its dead. Sono, then 32, is a painter and an architect, but he had never attempted such a project before. Still, he felt compelled to offer a tribute to his city and his friends. These weren't soldiers who had gone off to battle but working people on their way to a day at the office. Sono wanted to honor them not with flags, eagles and patriotic kitsch but with something from ordinary life. There were 179 entries from 19 countries. Sono's winning design consisted of two thin, white, granite structures that curl like origami wings and reach toward the sky. He describes them as postcards. "I didn't want anything too grand or abstract, just something very direct, almost childlike, a common object used all around the world," he says. "People can see various things in it, use their own imagination and find different meanings."

For all of its complexity, 9/11 was a simple act of terror: the hijacking and weaponizing of four commercial airplanes to destroy symbols of America's economic, military and political power, killing in the process 2,997 office workers, rescue workers, police officers, firefighters, air passengers and crew members. Almost from the minute the black smoke and human dust cleared, people began to talk about how to commemorate the event, how to impose a sense of meaning and logic on a moment of blood, fire, chaos and death. Abraham Lincoln had done it in 1863 with just 272 words at Gettysburg, another scene of American destruction, memorializing the dead and challenging the living in a speech that has outlived memories of the battle itself. In this postindustrial and postmodern age, we are using granite, steel, glass, cyberspace, music, film and, sometimes, our own bodies to remember September 11.

There are many monuments to the dead of 9/11. Some are the works of governments and institutions -- vast, ponderous lumps designed by professionals and chosen by committees of the great, the good and the well-connected. Some -- like Masayuki Sono's "Postcards" -- turn out to be graceful, moving expressions of collective loss and will. Others are pretentious, overwrought and over-thought, with spontaneity and creativity methodically drained from their concrete veins.

And there are works of individual expression and imagination. Some are banal, sentimental and derivative, with lots of American flags and depictions of the twin towers, ungainly concoctions that won't show up in anyone's museum catalogue. Yet many are profoundly poignant, unspeakably moving.

Let's pause for a moment at a memorial atop Lookout Point at Eagle Rock Reservation in West Orange, N.J. From this vantage point across New York Harbor, hundreds gathered to watch the burning and collapse of the twin towers 15 miles away. Now there is a bronze statue of a bald eagle with an eight-foot wing span perched on a tree, a book with the names of the dead from Essex County, a wall with the names of all of the 2,997 victims and a girl clutching a teddy bear. On one side of the display is a firefighter's helmet; on the other a police officer's hat. Off to the side a teenage boy holds a lantern and looks out toward the skyline. Along a path are seven dogwood trees, one for each of the four hijacked planes, the two World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon. The memorial was built with private funds and opened just 13 months after the attacks. Nothing terribly subtle or ambiguous here. Just raw emotion on public display.

Or on Long Island, where the centerpiece of the 9/11 memorial garden at Farmingdale State University is a life-size bronze sculpture of a German shepherd rescue dog cautiously inching down an I-beam toward a firefighter's helmet.

Or farther south to Windward Beach in Brick, N.J., where a bronze statue of an "Angel in Anguish" draped over a tableau of the New York skyline commemorates the township's eight dead. Or all the way to Quantico, at the FBI training facility, where replicas of the twin towers and the Pentagon preside over memorial shards from each of the disaster sites on the ground in front.

There is a half-acre memorial garden of trees, bushes, stonework and flowers on a power line easement on Ivanhoe Lane in Alexandria, where homeowners have built a modest tribute to the dead with the help of local businesses. There is a grove of trees in Massachusetts, one for each victim of the two flights that took off from Boston and hit the World Trade Center. There's a lone bench and flagpole on the boardwalk in Atlantic City named for Victor Saracini, pilot of United Flight 175; a kidney dialysis wing in Ethiopia named for Yeneneh Betru, a pulmonary specialist who died on American Airlines Flight 77; 33 acres of farmland in Massachusetts to honor John Ogonowski, pilot of American Airlines Flight 11 and a fourth-generation farmer. There's a mural on a garage door in Brooklyn, N.Y.; a tattoo on a man's arm of angel wings and the twin towers; a pickup truck and a semi and a yellow Volkswagen Beetle all daubed in patriotic colors. And each year someone, somewhere organizes a field of flags on the anniversary date, with one flag for each of the victims.

Even a weapon has served as a memorial. Wilton Sekzer, a retired New York City police officer and Vietnam veteran, reportedly asked through a friend to have his late son Jason's name inscribed on a bomb to be dropped in Iraq. It was duly written on a 2,000-pound guided device that targeted a division of the Republican Guard east of Baghdad, according to the Capital Times of Madison, Wis. (Sekzer later wrote that he felt betrayed after President Bush denied he had ever suggested a link between Saddam Hussein and 9/11.)

"Americans do not believe things they can't see," says Yaron Ezrahi, a political scientist and philosopher in Israel, a country with vast and intimate experience in memorializing victims of war. "They discard metaphysical claims. These memorials are trying to rescue 9/11 from the surreal. They're an attempt to create an authentic object, to turn a terrible, monstrous catastrophe into something more manageable and understandable."

So much of our post-9/11 world remains in dispute: Civil liberties are up for discussion; airport security seems to grow more oppressive, and expensive, by the week; the war on terrorism appears to have taken a wrong turn somewhere on the road to Baghdad; Democrats and Republicans argue over who's tougher than thou. Americans don't even agree on what happened on that dark day. According to a recent Zogby poll, 42 percent of those surveyed believe "the U.S. government and its 9/11 Commission concealed or refused to investigate critical evidence that contradicts their official explanation of the September 11th attacks."

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