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Emotional Depths, Aesthetic Heights
Architects' Passion Spurs Memorial's Winning Design

Timothy Dwyer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 25, 2003

Where did it start? In the kitchen, which isn't really a kitchen at all but a space to stand next to the refrigerator and stove and a narrow counter that separates it from the rest of the apartment that is not much bigger than the master bathrooms they build in houses these days.

Julie Beckman was standing there, chopping vegetables for dinner, the sound of the knife on the cutting board bouncing off the too-close walls of the second-floor apartment on Amsterdam Avenue.

Keith Kaseman was sprawled on the couch, mentally spent from a long day at the drawing board.

Beckman looked up from her work and asked whether he'd seen the Web site announcing a design competition for a Pentagon memorial for victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. She said she had an idea. But that was all she said.

He mumbled something or other about not actually seeing it, but said he'd heard about it.

And that was it, the extent of the conversation. She went back to chopping, and he stayed on the couch, too tired to think.

They were so busy they hardly saw each other for the next two or three nights. When they finally got a break, they went for sushi at Tomo's, a neighborhood hangout on Broadway. "So can we talk about this?" Beckman said out of the blue, and she pulled out her notebook, which was almost always with her. She already had some sketches about a memorial.

Kaseman pulled out his notebook, which he always carried and considered to be "golden," meaning highly personal like a journal or diary. He, too, had done some sketches and had written some words, such as respect and contemplation.

They spoke for a few minutes, amazed that they were on the same track. Beckman looked at Kaseman and asked: "So, should we do this?"

A plane. A building. Ordinary people doing ordinary things, men and women in military uniforms and civilians, too, sitting at their desks, talking on the phone, thinking, breathing, sipping coffee. Travelers setting out on a perfectly cloudless day from Dulles, executives, lawyers, married couples, children, beginning a journey, some for business, others for pleasure.

How to remember the people, that moment, that day, the most unimaginable day in the nation's history, how to mark the place and time, that is what Beckman and Kaseman -- architects, partners in life, whose only previous joint design project was a loft bed for their tiny apartment on the Upper West Side -- set out to do.

But how?

They wanted to create a space like none other in the world, a place with evidence of life: water and trees and gravel that crunches even under the tiniest feet, somewhere for people to gather and remember and reflect and cry and pray and sit in leaf-filtered sunlight on special resting spaces that seem to come magically out of the gravel and hang over 184 pools of water -- one for each lost soul -- that reflect beams of sunlight back toward the sky and also reflect the faces of visitors, a place as unimaginable as the day itself.

Their decision to enter the Pentagon Memorial design contest was a personal one. Both had seen the attack on the World Trade Center twin towers from the streets of Manhattan.

Their story is about two people, one from North Dakota, the other from New Jersey, with dreamers' hearts and inventors' minds. It is also a story about human creativity and the evolution of an idea, about how the Pentagon memorial grew from a spark of inspiration to the winning entry in a design contest open to anyone in the world.

When Beckman, 30, and Kaseman, 31, decided to enter, it was not to win. Neither dreamed that they would. For Beckman, it was a chance to heal wounds that still had pained her nearly every day since Sept. 11. For her boyfriend, it was a chance to be part of the conversation of how to deal with that day in September. For both, it was a chance to invent something together and, once they began to read about the innocents killed that day, a chance to share something with those who died and their families.

"The only thing we can pay our respects with are our thoughts," Kaseman said.

Kaseman was in eighth or ninth grade, riding his bike with a pal in Norman, Okla., where he spent summers with his father, when they spotted what looked like a castle.

They jumped off their bikes and pushed through some bushes to get a better look. Kaseman, who always had doodled and dreamed about inventions, was mesmerized by the cylindrical design topped by a spiraling roof held in place by suspended cables. He was a child of the Dakota Badlands, and this house was like nothing he had seen.

Years later, he was a freshman sitting in an architecture class at North Dakota State, looking at slides of buildings, when on the screen flashed the very house he had seen that day while riding his bike.

It was the Bavinger House, designed by Bruce Goff, a self-taught architect known for his unique designs of residential buildings.

At that moment, looking at Goff's structural invention, Kaseman decided to become an architect. He thought it would be cool to create things. Even today, Kaseman has a boyish wonderment about life and things and how they are made and fit into the world. He later transferred to Arizona State University, graduating in 1995.

Beckman, who grew up in Parsippany, N.J., and her father used to make tiny furniture for her Snoopy dolls. In the summer before 10th grade, she was assigned to read Ayn Rand's "The Fountainhead." Beckman read the phone-book-thick novel almost nonstop, finishing it in two weeks.

Beckman was inspired by the novel's main character, Howard Rourke, a counterintuitive architect who fights for his ideals. She wanted to be the female Howard Rourke, fighting for what she believed in and creating things in a way no one has thought of.

Her ambition to invent was nurtured at Bryn Mawr College, where she enrolled in the school's Growth and Structure of Cities Program, which combines architectural history, design, fine art and urban studies. She spent a semester in Florence, where her love for architecture blossomed under the influence of Old World design. For her senior thesis, she designed a community center in West Philadelphia, working with residents and students in the low-income neighborhood.

Kaseman and Beckman met on registration day at Columbia University's architecture graduate school after being introduced by an acquaintance. They became instant friends.

Kaseman, who wears black-rimmed glasses and whose thoughts come out in rat-a-tat bursts, was new to New York. After graduating from Arizona State, he spent 21/2 years in Prague working for an architectural firm. Prague was the first cosmopolitan city he had lived in, and he was ready to absorb as much of New York and East Coast life as he could.

He liked that Beckman was a Jersey girl who knew her way around New York and could serve as his tour guide. Not long after they met, she restricted him to one Jersey joke per day. That policy is still in place.

"You're taking me to Hackensack?" she sang out, recalling his eagerness to visit places that are not on most Michelin tour guides.

Their two years at Columbia seemed like one long day. Studio work exhilarated both -- the all-night brainstorming, creating, laughing, refining raw thoughts, all carried out with a stereo blasting in the background.

They graduated in May 2001 and decided to live together at Beckman's apartment. Kaseman had a job lined up with a firm in midtown Manhattan, and Beckman soon got a job with an architectural company in Brooklyn Heights.

On Sept. 11, they both went to work. Beckman went to Lower Manhattan to meet her boss and to look at a YMCA being built on 14th Street. She came out of the subway on Seventh Avenue. She was supposed to meet her boss in about an hour -- between 9:50 and 10 a.m. -- and she looked at her watch and said to herself that she'd be right on time. She started walking east toward the building site. When she got to Sixth Avenue, she saw a group of people clustered on the corner looking south. She looked downtown and saw a gaping hole in the north tower of the World Trade Center with smoke billowing out.

"Oh my God," she said, "What in God's name happened down there?"

For two weeks, Beckman and Kaseman talked about whether they should enter the competition. Kaseman was working 14-hour days to help design a park with outbuildings on Long Island. He told Beckman he was concerned he might not have the energy to work on the Pentagon project at night.

Kaseman felt ready for a challenge. She was working eight- to 10-hour days, but the projects she was designing all seemed to be the same. So they'd come home at night and talk about the competition, debating whether to enter. They liked that it was free and "blind," meaning the judges would not know whether entries were from world-famous architects or nobodies. They also liked the fact that there was a deadline, Sept. 11, 2002. They had been itching to work together on a project.

"The last thing any of these victims would have wanted," Kaseman said, "was people to be stressed out about working on something for them. So we made a pact, in their honor, to just always have discussions over a glass of wine or dinner."

Most of the time, they'd walk down two flights of stairs and walk to a small restaurant on the corner, Max SoHa, that served Italian food.

"Are you really serious about this?" Beckman asked him one night. "Do we want to do this?"

"There's no harm in registering," Kaseman said.

So a couple of nights later, Kaseman came home and told him that she had done it -- she had gone online and entered the competition, coming up with the name Kaseman Beckman Amsterdam Studios.

"We are signed up," she said, singing out the word signed.

"We're really going to do this," Kaseman said. "Cool."

They'd get home from work at 8 or 9 most weeknights and head downstairs to Max SoHa for a glass of wine and a bite. They'd brainstorm and draw, often finishing each other's thoughts out of habit, until midnight, when the place closed.

They agreed that the design had to reflect the magnitude of the day of the attacks and had to provide comfort. It also must have individual memorials that, together, would give the site a collective feel, instead of building one large memorial surrounded by water or grass.

Three elements of design were essential, they decided early on: water, trees and a place for visitors to sit.

"For me," Beckman said, "one of the first things I was thinking was that it should be a place where, say, a mom and her kids could go on a Sunday afternoon to be near the husband and the father and how we could make it a very welcoming and inviting place. . . . So they could go for five minutes or a couple of hours and sit and read a book. . . . So the idea of someplace to sit was there from the get-go."

Water had to be present, they decided, because it would create a peaceful atmosphere.

But the decision about the shape, size and placement of the water element dogged them. At first, they thought about having one large pool in the middle of the site. But after much discussion, they threw out that idea because they believed it could have a discriminatory impact. They were concerned that families whose individual memorials were not close to the water could interpret the placement as a snub.

So then they thought, Why not create a thin pool of water tracing the flight path of the plane toward the Pentagon? The path of the plane was set forth as a possible element of design that the families had included in the competition guidelines. Some families, they would find out later, said that once the repair of the Pentagon was completed, it was so well done that no visual reminder of where the plane had hit the building remained. The water on the flight path would serve a purpose, but it did not rule out the possibility of upsetting families whose individual markers were not near the water.

They put the water issue aside and focused on how to create individual memorials for people they never knew -- 59 passengers and crew members on American Airlines Flight 77 and the 125 who were in the Pentagon -- ranging in age from 3 to 71. Beckman wanted to create 184 markers to convey something specific about each victim. She spent hours reading about them and was coming to know them as individuals, rather than as names on a list.

But how to do it? That was the question they had the most difficulty answering.

They'd go downstairs to the restaurant and try to hash it out. They had promised themselves that they would work without anxiety and stress, but both had crept in.

Finally, it hit them.

They couldn't do it, not in any practical way. All the memorials would have to be designed the same.

Once they made that decision, the anxiety lifted. It was a step forward.

They looked back at the basic elements they had agreed on earlier: water, trees and seating. Gradually, a design emerged. Why not make the markers a place to sit? Yes, that would work. Why not put water with each marker, that would make each one special. And instead of planting trees randomly over the site, why not give each marker its own tree?

Finally, four or five weeks after they'd shared rough thoughts from their notebooks over dinner, they had a plan.

Their work space changed from the cozy restaurant to a desk in their cramped apartment. They worked side by side at two computers, building a three-dimensional model of their ideas.

They settled on a design for the markers, a cantilevered bench made of anodized aluminum that would rise out of the ground.

Each bench would jut out over the individual pools of water, which were connected underground and filled with purified water that would recirculate to avoid mosquito breeding. Each would have an engraved name plate on the end over the water. Benches honoring those who died on Flight 77 would point one direction and those commemorating the Pentagon victims, the opposite. Their intent was for visitors to have the sky in the background while reading the names of those on the plane, and to have the Pentagon in the background when reading the names of victims who worked in the building.

They refined the plan on the computer. And last Sept. 9, the night before they had to ship it to Washington for the competition, they took one last look.

There was one other thing they had promised themselves. "We are going to look at it, and if we are not 100 percent proud of this effort, this idea, then we are not going to pay the $ 300 to have it printed," Kaseman said. "We didn't want to contribute anything to this serious conversation that we didn't believe in."

The next day, they brought their design on a computer disc to the printers. And it didn't print. After Kaseman rode his bicycle 30 miles in the Manhattan heat and humidity, back and forth from the printers to his apartment, making adjustments on the program, they finally got it to print, just barely making the shipping company deadline.

On Sept. 11, they went to a concert in Central Park marking the first anniversary of the attack on the United States. They met some friends who hadn't seen them since midsummer. They told them about the competition and listened to the music and thought that they had really done something. They had contributed an idea, a creation, to the national conversation about how to remember those who were killed on that unimaginable day. And they had done it together, as a team and a couple. For them, that was enough.

A month later, Beckman and Kaseman had returned to their daily routine and the Pentagon Memorial Competition was rarely a part of their daily consciousness. In their minds, their participation ended the day they shipped off their entry.

On Oct. 9, Beckman returned a call to Carol Anderson-Austra, who works for the Army Corps of Engineers in Baltimore and who was project manager for the Pentagon Memorial Competition.

Andersen-Austra asked how she was doing.

"Fine," said Beckman, who thought maybe the call was to report that something was wrong with their entry.

"Well, you're going to be really fine when I tell you that your design was chosen as one of the six finalists," Anderson-Austra said.

Beckman's hands started shaking. She tried not to scream into the phone. She listened as she was told that they had beaten out 1,120 entries. She listened to a description of the other finalists -- all were young and unknown.

When Anderson-Austra called the other finalists, they were equally as shocked. Nearly all had similar reactions: that they had entered the competition primarily for themselves, not with the idea of actually winning. One finalist told Anderson-Austra that she had almost decided on deadline day not to send in her entry and just to hang it on a wall at home. It was that personal.

The six finalists went to Washington on Oct. 25 to visit the memorial site, present their designs and talk to families of the victims.

Anderson-Austra said the meeting was stressful for the young finalists and for the families, who were just 13 months removed from that terrible day.

Each of the finalists was awarded $ 20,000 to fund a more detailed version of the entries. Dec. 20 would be the final deadline.

Relatives of victims urged Beckman and Kaseman to add a perimeter bench, a place to sit for people who might not be comfortable sitting on an individual marker, and to serve as a security buffer between the memorial and the Pentagon. The families also suggested placing the markers for the children -- which Beckman and Kaseman designed to be smaller than the others -- at the memorial's entrance.

They incorporated both suggestions.

For the final presentation, they made a scale model of one of the cantilevered memorial units, out of the same anodized aluminum that the real ones would be made from. They carted it to Washington on Dec. 20 in a borrowed pickup, making the deadline by a half-hour. They drove to a friend's house in Washington. Kaseman kicked off his shoes and put his head on a pillow. He woke up 17 hours later.

They went back to New York and, once again, quickly returned to their daily routine. The final judging was not scheduled until Feb., and then it would be an additional week before the winner was announced, so there was no reason to think about it or worry.

At 4:30 p.m. Feb. 26, Beckman was at work when her phone rang. She worked in an open office where everyone around her could hear just about every word of every conversation.

It was Anderson-Austra, and Beckman thought she was calling to follow up on a media-related conversation they'd had the day before.

"Julie," said Anderson-Austra, "can you be very quiet?"

"Yes," whispered Beckman, worried that her colleagues would overhear.

"Well, you guys are the winners," Anderson-Austra said. "And you'll have to come to Washington. . . ."

Beckman didn't hear any other words. She felt lightheaded, almost as if she were having an out-of-body experience. Anderson-Austra was still talking about what they would have to do, there'd be a news conference. And Beckman's co-workers were looking at her and saw the strange look on her face and they knew the deadline for the competition was near and had been asking her about it all the time and now they were giving her the thumbs-up and thumbs-down and she just stared off into space, not saying anything into the phone at all.

"Are you OK?" Anderson-Austra asked.

"When am I going to talk to you again?" Beckman asked.

"I'll call you tomorrow and let you know if you need to be at the press conference," she answered.

And as Beckman hung up the phone, she said to herself: "What press conference?"

Anderson-Austra swore her to secrecy. She could tell no one, except Kaseman.

So she dialed his work number, and when he answered, she said in a very quiet and calm voice: "I just got a call from Carol and, um, we won. You cannot tell anybody. You cannot tell anybody!"

Kaseman looked around the open office and said quietly: "I'm going to step outside, and I'll call you back on my cell."

She hung up and her phone rang again.

It was Anderson-Austra.

"I am so glad you called me back," Beckman said, "because I have no idea what you said to me."

In July, they're moving to Washington to begin work on the Pentagon Memorial, which is expected to be finished in the fall of 2004. The cost to build it has been estimated at $ 5 million to $ 7 million, to be covered by private donations.

Beckman and Kaseman are moving out of their tiny apartment, the place where their idea was born that night as Beckman stood in the kitchen, which is not really a kitchen at all but a place to stand and chop and dream up ideas that no one has had before.

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