Fallen Water

reflections on the 9/11 memorial competition

by by Timothy Nassau

Although it was not sent in the mail, on April 28, 2003, you received an invitation. “On behalf of all New Yorkers,” it read, “we welcome your participation in the World Trade Center Memorial Site Competition,” signed: George E. Pataki and Michael R. Bloomberg.

The competition to design a memorial for 9/11 was run by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, a company set up after the attacks to plan and fund the many projects for rebuilding the downtown area. No restrictions were placed on who could submit a design, but each proposed memorial had to satisfy five conditions: it would honor all the victims of both the 1993 and 2001 attacks; it would be an area for peace and contemplation; it would provide a space for the victims’ survivors; it would house the unidentified remains from the World Trade Center; and it would highlight the footprints of the towers. The winner would be selected by a 14-member jury comprised mostly of artists, architects, academics, and city administrators,including former Brown president Vartan Gregorian.

Over 5,200 submissions were received from 63 countries and 49 states (Alaska, for the curious). Eight finalists were announced on November 19, 2003 and given time to expand on their original ideas. The winner was revealed on January 14, 2004.

Reflecting Absence, the National September 11 Memorial, opened on Sunday for families of the victims of the 9/11 attacks. The public was let in on Monday, though visitors must reserve tickets online.None are available before October but, even without seeing the memorial in person, it will be hard to avoid its image over the next few weeks. Ten years have passed since the events Reflecting Absence commemorates, and the personal memories of the attacks that Americans formed during those years now have a counterpart in the collective memory the memorial embodies. As time goes on, it may become increasingly easy to rely on Reflecting Absence as a guide for how 9/11 should be remembered. Before that process gets too far underway, it should be acknowledged that there were 5,200 other paths it could have taken. These are a few of them; the title of each designis followed by the names of the designers and where they are from.

Untitled, Sally Phillips, Purchase, NY
Untitled, Michael Odzierejko, Poland

In addition to the five requirements of any submission, there were nine “guiding principles,” the last of which was that the memorial “evolve over time.” For the majority of submissions, for all the people who proposed buildings, statues, or some combination of the two, this must have seemed daunting. Yet a few solved the problem very elegantly. Sally Phillips’s memorial submission consists of the phrase “PLANT APPLE TREES IN THE MEMORIAL SITE AND YOU BRING PEACE” repeated six times. Michael Odzierejko’s submission contains only the text “SEQUOIAS AMERICA” alongside several beautifully drawn pictures of two trees, one in each tower’s footprint. One image shows the trees in full bloom, covered in leaves; in another, the same trees are bare and charred. It seems the latter is how he intended them to be for the memorial.

The original proposal for Reflecting Absence made no mention of trees. However, over 250 have been moved to the September 11 memorial grounds “from within a 500-mile radius of the World Trade Center site, with additional ones coming from locations in Pennsylvania and near Washington, D.C.,” according to the memorial’s website. The trees will form a field of informal rows on the memorial grounds. In addition to the swamp white oaks, the “Survivor Tree,” a single Callery pear tree had been placed on the site, near the two pools. On the day of the attacks, the tree was discovered at Ground Zero, charred and stripped of all its leaves, but still alive. It was moved and nursed back to health and has now made its homecoming.

Moving a tree with a trunk that is between eight and ten inches wide, the size of a young white oak, requires a machine that weighs 14,000 pounds and is 13.5 feet tall. At that width, the size of the root ball that needs to be dug up is approximately 12 times the trunk diameter. Without a large fraction of the root system, it becomes less likely the tree will survive in its new home.

Sally Phillips’s exact vision is unknown because her submission contains no images, but since she calls for the planting of apple trees, transplanting would be unnecessary. New Yorkers, rather than waking up this week to a miniature forest fully formed in the heart of their city, would see just an empty patch where, upon closer inspection, tiny buds are peeking out. Michael Odzierejko’s sequoias could be transplanted; the same machines that transport missiles sometimes move very large trees.

These two submissions do evolve over time, but neither indicates how they would meet the five main requirements. It might not be that hard, though. For example: one might carve the names of the dead into the trees as, sometimes, lovers do.

THE SPIRITUS: A Spectral Hotel, Paul Laffoley and Joan Ratcliffe, Boston, MA
In 1908, Antonio Gaudí was commissioned to build a monumental hotel on the land where the World Trade Center would later stand. For unknown reasons, the project was aborted and only a few sketches pay testament to its existence. The designers of this memorial call Gaudí’s hotel an “architectural ‘ghost’” and propose to give it a material form where it was originally intended to stand, not as a “skyscraper” built of glass, girders, and reinforced concrete, but as a “space modulator” made of steel pipes and wire, a ghost turned skeleton like the Eiffel Tower or Giacometti’s Palace at 4AM. 

Another material is specified: live plants. The designers write of their desire “to show the vegetative image of Gaudí’s hotel” and they say that the architect planned his hotel as “a new plant form,” but what that means is not explained. Perhaps the plants would grow up from the bottom, clinging to the pipes and slowly filling in the gaps of the structure, as if a green blanket had been draped over it. Or perhaps they could be housed within it, free to stretch their branches through the holes in the hotel, free and enclosed simultaneously.

This design itself is now just one more architectural ghost. So too are the Twin Towers, though in a different sense, having died rather than never being born. When the Twin Towers fell, they became, at 1,350 feet, the tallest buildings in America ever to be destroyed, and the second tallest in the world. The tallest, at 2,121 feet,was the Warsaw Radio Mast which collapsed in 1991. Before 9/11, the record in America was held by the Smoky Shot Tower, which stood at 700 feet. The tower was destroyed in 1957 when “Smoky,” a 44 kiloton nuclear bomb, was detonated at its tip. The Spiritus plays with these kinds of absence, one ghost commemorating another by not quite being there.

Rebuilding New York, Art Lohsen, Alexander Stoddart, Michael Franck, James McCrery, Michael Ray, Charles Bergen, Elizabeth Ruedisale, C.J. Howard, Julia Hughitt, and Abdul Muzikir,
Washington, D.C.

On August 22, 2011, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington D.C. was opened. It features a statue of the civil rights leader emerging from a giant stone, as if frozen in Carbonite. For every American memorial that is figurative, there seems to be one built around the same time that is not. The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial stands opposed to the abstraction of the September 11 Memorial as the Korean War Veterans Memorial differs from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial or the Lincoln Memorial from the Washington Monument.

The monument proposed by Art Lohsen and company consists of two robed women: Clio, Muse of History on the left, Mnemosyne, Muse of Memory on the right. Clio holds a tablet and Mnemosyne a torch, so that history may be read by the light of memory. Together these women, their dress, the things they hold—they hearken back to the Statue of Liberty, who in turn is described by the designers as a derivation of the Greek Tyche, the “Civic Goddess.” Other references cited further establish the tone, drawing on the great monumental traditions of Greek and Soviet art: “the Tyrannicidesgroup at the national Museum of Naples… Vera Mukhina’sWorker and Collective Farm Girl, the colossal group set on top of Boris Iofan’s USSR Pavilion at the Paris Exhibition of 1937.”

Between the two statues there is a space of emptiness. Within that space, resting on the ground, there is a catafalque, a platform for a dead body or a casket. Rising up next is the Torch of Memory, held out by Mnemosyne. The vertical axis terminates, say the designers, “at the pinnacle of the recovered transcendental vertical in the new, sky-scraping building,” referring to One World Trade Center.

If a victim’s family saw this memorial, maybe they would feel comfort imagining their loved one resting between these two figures, rising through memory into the sky. The two women, though archetypal and made of stone, exude reassurance through their nobility. When the Lincoln Memorial, also of Greek influence, was dedicated on March 20, 1922, the president’s only living son was in attendance. Perhaps when he saw the statue of his father, he desired nothing more than to sit on his lap.

Reflecting Absence, Michael Arad and Peter Walker, New York, NY

Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox once got lost in a blizzard. They wandered blindly for several hours, crossing and re-crossing the tracks they had made. Later, when they had left their disorientation behind, rain filled their footprints and formed the 10,000 lakes of Minnesota.
Today, Ground Zero has become a forest. What was once there has disappeared, leaving its footprints behind. The events that occurred there remain incredibly complex and abstract. Why not say that a giant passed through?

This is what will actually occupy that ground. Where each of the Twin Towers stood there is now a square pool of water about an acre in size. The sides of the two pools are formed by what have been billed as the largest man-made waterfalls in America. The water flows down the sides and rests in a depression several feet in the ground, forming a reflective lake. Then, in the middle of the pool, the water falls through a much smaller square-shaped hole and disappears from view.

[You can see all the World Trade Center Site Memorial Competition submissions at:]

TIMOTHY NASSAU B’12 is out stealing your trees.