Creating a Place Like No Other

Pentagon Memorial designers Julie Beckman and Keith Kaseman describe their journey and their inspiration to enter the Memorial design competition. Video by Whitney Shefte/washingtonpost.comPart Two
By Nick Miroff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Pentagon Memorial was designed in a studio on Amsterdam Avenue in Manhattan, but not the kind with skyline views or a brass nameplate on the office door. No, the 280-square-foot studio apartment where Keith Kaseman and Julie Beckman were living at the time was decidedly more modest than that.

Kaseman and Beckman were a young couple barely out of graduate school in 2002 when they made the rough sketches of what would become the nation's first major September 11th memorial. Their lone architectural collaboration to that point had been a loft bed, which let them cram their desks and computers into their apartment's shoebox-like confines.

Their imaginations, though, had moved on to bigger things. The still-raw images and emotions of Sept. 11, 2001, that had hung over the city and their lives since they watched the towers fall. A Web site they had seen about a worldwide design competition for a memorial at the Pentagon, one that would consider any entry and judge blindly, unconcerned with famous names or industry status.

It seemed like a way out, at least for them and maybe for others, too, from under a pall.

Beckman and Kaseman's proposal landed in a pile with 1,125 other entries from more than 65 countries -- big firms and unproven dreamers like them. Where death and anger and sorrow had left deep scars, Beckman and Kaseman envisioned something redemptive, a memorial that could be at once collective and individual. A single, elegant form. Natural elements like trees, water and stone. Somewhere to sit and think that would be respectful and open, solemn yet stirring.

A place like no other, they told each other.

Beckman got the phone call in late February 2003 from the Army Corps of Engineers. "You guys are the winners," the woman on the phone told her.

Beckman couldn't remember anything she said after that. And it would only get more surreal.

Within days they were en route to meet with Pentagon officials and stand before the TV cameras for a news conference. They did not even have a name for their design firm, so they thought of their tiny apartment and called it Kaseman Beckman Amsterdam Studio, KBAS for short.

Nearly six years later, Kaseman, 36, and Beckman, 35, are married and living in Philadelphia. Beckman teaches at the University of Pennsylvania; Kaseman teaches at Penn and at Columbia University. They still call their firm KBAS, only now it is an abbreviation for Kaseman Beckman Advanced Strategies. They can't even use the word architects in the title of their firm because they never finished their formal internships.

Still, their careers have come a long way from Amsterdam Avenue, professional growth commensurate with the responsibility of a $22 million project involving dozens of companies, hundreds of workers and countless incremental advances.

And today, their long-shot idea is a real, physical place. This morning at 9:37 a.m., seven years from the moment American Airlines Flight 77 slammed into the Pentagon at 550 mph, Kaseman and Beckman's two-acre, parklike memorial will be dedicated at the site of the impact.

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