The Architecture of Loss
The need to make sense of 9/11 has produced a stunning array of memorials, from tattoos to towering beams of light to cyberspace tributes. Some lasted only briefly. Others will bear witness for generations

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."

The site of the twin towers remains embattled. The property's owners proposed a 1,776-foot-high office tower dominating the Manhattan skyline. But after its inception, the Freedom Tower had to be redesigned as a virtual fortress because New York City police experts feared it could be vulnerable to a truck bomb attack. Just who wants to be the first to report to work on the 80th floor?

After four years of acrimonious public debate, a jury of experts settled upon a memorial titled "Reflecting Absence:" two square, one-acre twin reflecting pools marking the footprints of each tower, with the names of the victims inscribed at the water's edge. Another panel proposed a vast underground memorial museum and exposed slurry wall from the original site. But relatives of some of the victims objected to the museum, which was designated as an International Freedom Center and would have featured landmarks in the historical struggle for liberty, including the fight against slavery and the civil rights movement. The relatives deemed it politically correct, unpatriotic and lacking in respect for the victims. New York Gov. George Pataki pulled the plug last September, declaring he would not "tolerate anything that denigrates America . . . or the courage that the heroes showed on Sept. 11."

The lack of consensus is no surprise to Robert Jay Lifton, author of psychological studies of Hiroshima survivors (Death in Life) and Vietnam veterans (Home From the War). "I don't think people ever come to anything like a unified position about a memorial," he says. "After all, there's contentiousness about the meaning of the event. And the meaning of the memorial itself -- is it to reflect on these matters or to celebrate heroes and condemn enemies? There's a certain sense in which no memorial can ever capture the depth of pain that people experience."

Lifton was at his home in Wellfleet, Mass., on the morning of September 11, and, like millions of us, he watched the disaster on television. "I immediately thought about Hiroshima, and I quickly discovered it was not just I. A lot of people used the Hiroshima analogy -- even the term Ground Zero was a nuclear term. It's the imagery of extinction, of everything being destroyed."

As governments and public institutions struggle to come to grips with divisive issues, Lifton says, it's left to individuals to pay homage to their loved ones. "What I found in Hiroshima was that people experience the greatest sense of authenticity with a very personal kind of memorialization. Many had shrines in their homes, and some might go out quietly on the date and reflect on a wife or husband or child in the place where that person was killed. It's the very personal, idiosyncratic responses that often are the most satisfying."

In New York, impromptu shrines and memorials sprang up almost from Day One. A museum in SoHo presented portraits of the victims in an exhibit called "Here Is New York: A Democracy of Photographs," and people lined up around the block. The New York Times's daily publication of "Portraits of Grief" -- thumbnail sketches of the dead that emphasized their personal traits and individuality -- captured the public imagination.

One of the series' avid followers was rock star Bruce Springsteen. He discovered that 158 of the victims were from Monmouth County, N.J., where he lives, and that a surprising number were his fans and the people he had long written about: aging baby boomers, many of them blue-collar workers, with families and mortgages and deferred dreams. He recorded an album called "The Rising" that expressed a sense of loss, vulnerability and redemption. In its songs, people lay down their lives for fellow workers; police officers and firefighters sacrifice themselves. Springsteen's album helped turn 9/11 into a celebration of working-class solidarity and reminded us that America is, as the Economist magazine put it, "a country driven by the aspirations of ordinary people rather than the designs of elites."

It was the ordinary people aboard United Airlines Flight 93, 40 passengers and crew members, who banded together to thwart their captors and probably saved the Capitol, the likely target, from the same fate as the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The 1,700-acre crash site in Shanksville, Pa., is sacred ground, as hallowed as that other battlefield in southern Pennsylvania, Gettysburg.

Rep. Charles H. Taylor (R-N.C.) found out how dangerous it is to mess with the public need for commemoration. As chairman of the subcommittee that controls appropriations for the Department of Interior, he held up funding for the Flight 93 memorial for two years, suggesting that it was overly grandiose and costly to taxpayers. In May, Republican House leaders, fearful of political embarrassment with an election year fast upon them, compelled Taylor to cave and approve the first $5 million to purchase the land.

But, while the feds were lagging, a cinematic memorial emerged. To make the docudrama "United 93," director Paul Greengrass interviewed more than 100 people, used unknown actors and real-life pilots and air controllers, including Ben Sliney, head of the FAA command center, who took the decision to shut down American airspace on September 11. Some movie theaters pulled the trailer, reporting that even a brief preview made some viewers weep with fright. "I don't think people are ready for this," said a Manhattan theater manager.

But many of the relatives of the victims endorsed "United 93," and critics praised its raw realism. "If we airbrush the fear and terror out of 9/11, then we're not going to learn the lessons of it," Greengrass told one interviewer. Above all, the film vividly captured one of the truisms of 9/11. "Any of us could have been on that plane," said Christian Clemenson, the actor who played Thomas Burnett, one of the passengers who is believed to have stormed the cockpit.

Some of the most poignant memorials exist in cyberspace. The Library of Congress early on tallied 2,700 memorial Web sites. Many have long since gone inactive, but those that remain offer a place for friends and relatives to mourn. On the Web site of the new Pentagon Memorial ( Wendy Ploger Chamberlain writes of missing her father, who had recently remarried and was on his way with his new wife to Hawaii for a honeymoon on American Airlines Flight 77, hijacked and flown into the Pentagon. "There were supposed to be many more tennis matches and conversations about remodeling their house and hearing about the next patent he was working on.

Simple things: Christmas, birthdays, drinking beer and watching him light his cannon on the 4th of July. I do these things with him now, but only when I'm asleep, only in my dreams."

Other postings have been more bitter than poignant. On the personal tributes board of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund (, one anonymous entry is titled "Very pissed . . . NYPD."

He writes: "This time last year i was digging with my bare hands to find anything or any one still alive, i am still very angry and disturbed. i personally searched thru rubble and found nothing more than bones. i dont feel like we are even, i dont feel satisfied, im sorry to feel this way but i was there and i have friends that died there and i worked there until may, i'm still pissed off. God bless the victims one and all."

The work hasn't ended. Masayuki Sono, designer of the Staten Island memorial, originally embedded some 260 rectangular "stamps" in the interior walls of his monument, one for each of the dead from the borough, each stamp inscribed with the name, job title, company, date of birth and the victim's profile. But he's had to add a few more names to include those who were born on the island or had spent part of their lives there. The Staten Island toll now has reached 272.

A few weeks after the towers fell, Sono went out to Ground Zero with members of his architectural firm to help survey the damage. The plaza that he used to cross on his way to the lobby to grab an elevator up one of the confident towers was obliterated. Nothing was recognizable. "It was a terrible feeling," he recalls. "I tried to find the place where I used to stand, but I couldn't."

Sono's memorial, and scores of others dotted across America, provide a new place to stand.

Glenn Frankel is a Magazine staff writer.

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