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Creating a Place Like No Other

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.

The ceremony is expected to draw 20,000 invited guests, including Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, who is the keynote speaker, members of Congress, military personnel, survivors of the attack and family members of the victims. And when the memorial opens to the general public this afternoon and visitors begin to stream in, they will find a place unlike any other in the Washington region.

As intended, the central feature is not a single object but the repetition of one: 184 cantilevered, stainless-steel memorials, one for each of the victims, rising up from the ground as if taking flight. Kaseman and Beckman call the 14-foot, 1,100-pound objects "light benches."

Each bench is mirrored in a pool of trickling water that runs its length and contains an underwater light to shine on its steel underside at night, setting the entire site aglow. Visitors will walk among rows of memorials on a bed of fine gravel, hearing each footstep, as they wander among paper bark maple trees that will grow to form a light-filtering canopy.

Kaseman and Beckman wanted to create a place where families could be comfortable, where they could sit for hours and find solace.

"That is how it started," Beckman said. "A place to sit. Some shade. Some water. It grew from there. If this place is like no other, we needed a form that wasn't something you'd see in your daily routine."

Light Benches

One day in late July, while inspecting progress on the memorial, Beckman saw for the first time what happens when bright sunlight hits the water that courses in the pools beneath the benches.

Glinting off the surface, the light produced a shimmering effect akin to what one would see on the bottom of a swimming pool on a sunny day. From bench to bench, the play of light was repeated over and over, at different angles, directions and wavelengths. The effect was mesmerizing.

"It's like there's energy running through them," Beckman said, appearing as awestruck as the construction crew around her.

She had seen the benches on paper and computer screens for years but had not envisioned this interaction of light, water and steel. Snapping pictures with her cellphone, she dialed Kaseman in Philadelphia. "It's amazing," she told him. "You've got to see this."

The couple met on the first day of graduate school at Columbia University.

She grew up in the New Jersey suburbs and was inspired to pursue a design career in high school after reading Ayn Rand's "The Fountainhead," about an innovative and persevering young architect who defies convention.

Kaseman, the son of an Air Force officer, grew up mostly in North Dakota and speaks in the easygoing style of a hip professor, interjecting "dude" or "man" even when discussing the "layers of specificity" of a project or its "interrogative" qualities.

But the couple's decision to enter the memorial design competition was no academic exercise. Beckman watched from the sidewalk at Union Square on Sept. 11, 2001, as the second plane exploded into the South Tower of World Trade Center. She met Kaseman at his office in Midtown shortly after, and by the time they made it home along Amsterdam Avenue, the streets were so empty they could walk right down the middle. That night, they watched TV and wept.

Like other New Yorkers and Washington area residents, the "dizzy, blurry" day was never far from their minds after that. It was there in the newspaper headlines, on the missing person posters plastered around the city, and in the haunting sound of ambulance and police sirens. The city was still on edge, and they were, too.

"You could read it on people's faces, knowing they were thinking about the same thing," Beckman said.

When the Pentagon design competition was announced, it gave them a place to channel those swirling emotions. "It was like therapy in a way," Beckman said. It gave their grief an outlet, a purpose.

After they'd won, they quit their jobs and went on a vacation to Belize, knowing that it would be their last chance to breathe. An overwhelming undertaking would be waiting for them at home. And when they got back, they packed up the studio apartment on Amsterdam Avenue and moved to Alexandria to get started.

Partnership

To the engineers, contractors and Pentagon employees who have worked with them, they are often referred to as "Keith-n-Julie," as if they are a single entity. They are partners in life and in their profession, finishing each other's sentences and sharing every aspect of their work. "I couldn't imagine going through this alone," Beckman said. "We always keep each other in check."

They have worked with more than 30 companies to execute their design, but Beckman and Kaseman said they have always been treated professionally, despite their age and relative inexperience.

"From day one, we were at the table with every conversation and every company," Beckman said. "We were the ones that had to explain how this thing was going to be made. So people took us seriously."

More importantly, she said, "the families put faith in us right away." When family members from the Pentagon Memorial Fund, which has sponsored the project, needed to be consulted on some aspect of its construction, they often deferred to the designers, asking, "What do Keith-n-Julie want to do?"

The couple has taken technical problems as obstacles to overcome, rather than as reasons to compromise their design. For instance, to keep the water in the pools from freezing and to filter out dirt and leaves, a heated, gravity-aided pumping system has been installed.

Specially placed walkways have made the site accessible to the disabled. And a sloping "age wall" serves a conceptual and practical purpose: as a visual cue indicating the range of victims' ages while shielding visitors from traffic on Route 27 and the clamor of delivery trucks arriving at the Pentagon.

A few bumps delayed the project's completion. The initial concept for the benches -- each made from a single wishbone-shaped steel piece that would be identical below and above ground -- had to be altered after a year of failed attempts to prevent the metal castings from warping.

Spelling errors were mistakenly engraved into the granite blocks at the site's entrance. A plan to have 184 trees was scrapped out of concern that if each tree were assigned to a victim, the death of a tree would be too painful for family members, whom Kaseman called "the heart of this project at every level."

He and Beckman have channeled their commitment to the families into the enforcement of exacting standards for the memorial's construction. "We have to look every family member in the eye and be comfortable telling them that we've done everything possible," Kaseman said.

Both were inspired by Maya Lin's design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, also the result of an open design competition. They wanted to create a similar sense of "timeless" and "level of interpretation" at the Pentagon site, Kaseman said.

And unlike most of the region's other monuments and memorials, the Pentagon Memorial has been built at the site of the event it commemorates. For Kaseman and Beckman, that means that it should not only honor the dead but also tell the story of what happened -- and do so without words.

In their design, Beckman and Kaseman have oriented all of the benches along the exact path of Flight 77, arranging them according to whether victims were killed in the plane or in the building. If a visitor is reading the steel nameplate and the Pentagon is in the background of their view, that person died in the building; if the sky is in the background, the person died on the plane.

Some may be troubled by such reminders of the attack and by the grim memories they trigger. But Kaseman and Beckman consider it essential to the tribute. "Part of paying respect is to understand and remember what happened," Beckman said.

"Not that tragedies have to be constantly remembered. But part of tragedy is understanding what happened," she said.

Completion

A few yards and a fence will be all that separates visitors to the site from U.S. military headquarters. But the Pentagon has agreed to keep the memorial open year-round, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There will be no checkpoints, no gates and no entry fee. Tourists and visitors won't find any brochures or interpretive guides to explain the memorial or its symbolism. This too is by design.

Because the events of Sept. 11 represented "an attack on free thought," Kaseman said, the memorial is inspired by values opposed to extremism and intolerance. Its lack of signs and rigid symbolism is an affirmation of democratic ideals.

"We wanted to invite people to think but not tell them how to think or what to feel," Kaseman said. "The memorial gives you enough of a story to set you on your own process of discovery and interpretation."

Kaseman and Beckman have conflicting emotions about the project's completion. They have spent almost their entire professional careers on the memorial, and now the time has come to move on.

They have a few projects going, including a design for a memorial in Texas for victims of the space shuttle Columbia disaster, but they are also ready to take time off and travel. And curious to see how the public will respond to the site.

Will the country embrace it as a national Sept. 11 memorial, given that sites in lower Manhattan and Shanksville, Pa., are unlikely to open for several years? Will the site help rekindle the sense of unity and community that Beckman and Kaseman could feel on the streets of New York after the attacks?

They've had little time to consider these things. The project has been so engrossing, Beckman said, "it's been easier to stay down in the details."

"At this point," Kaseman said, "we're just really looking forward to the place existing. Simply existing."

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