Saturday, September 17, 2011

9/11 Memorial

I've had a busy week, so it's only now that I'm able to talk about the 9/11 Memorial, which I was very fortunate to have visited with my friend JF this past Tuesday evening, two days after the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.  When the memorial first opened this past Sunday, it was for family members of the victims, but it is now open to the public with time-reserved tickets for which one makes a donation.  You can click here to reserve your ticket, but right now as I'm writing this post there are no tickets available until the evening of November 28.  I won't go into details here about all the information you would want to know about the the project itself because all of that is discussed on the 9/11 Memorial website.

The memorial encompasses eight acres of the World Trade Center site and was designed by architect Michael Arad and landscape architect Peter Walker, who were selected after an international design competition was held.  You enter the site through a circuitous route that includes an airport-like security checkpoint, employees and NYPD officers continuously monitoring the activity of those waiting to enter and checking tickets frequently along the way.  Once you enter the site, it strikes you as being largely an urban green space.  The ground is laid with stone and there are swamp white oak trees everywhere.  As of right now, they are still young trees, but as they grow they will create a beautiful canopy of leaves that will provide a lot of shade and rustle in the wind in a way that adds to the overall serenity of the plaza.  Framing the two pools are bronze plaques on which appear the names of all of the victims.  The names are stenciled through the bronze rather than engraved into the surface.  Their names themselves commemorate their memory, but the empty space in the letters of their names also suggests their eternal spectral presence at the place where they died. As night falls the names glow from an interior light source that makes their absence more uncannily present.

The North and South Pools themselves are nearly 1 acre each in size and are situated where the actual twin towers themselves stood.  They are enormous in size.  Pictures such as these that I took do not begin to do the pools justice in terms of understanding how large they are.  You truly do have to experience them first-hand.  They are the largest man-made waterfalls in the U.S., and they are quite beautiful.  We're so used to memorials being statues or monuments that occupy our space, objects at which we look up and around, that to see these as waterfalls reaching downward into the Earth is disconcerting at first.  And yet the invisible presence of the towers themselves remains before you, since you cannot enter the space itself, and they still become a three-dimensional object occupying the visitor's space.  Indeed, the entire 9/11 Memorial reflects presence and absence, in the names stenciled into the bronze, and in the way the waterfalls work.  The waterfalls are simply beautiful.  The sound of water truly has the power to soothe, and to watch the water fall is relaxing.  Like with the stenciled names, as night falls the waterfalls are illuminated and they take on a new sensibility in how they are appear.  The water itself pools toward the center, where an empty crater sucks in the water like a vortex.  Your eye cannot help but be dragged to that central point, and it's quite painful to look at it, because you cannot see where the water goes, and you know in your mind and heart what lies there and what it represents.  It is depressing, to say the least.  But at the same time, I said to JF that perhaps part of what we're meant to realize as well is that the emptiness, like in the Taoist/Zen Buddhist tradition, also can be seen as the source of life and new beginnings.  The air we breathe and the space between each one of us is incapable of being comprehended by our five senses, and yet without air/space, we cannot exist.  It is the pith of our vitality.  The craters then do represent the sense of loss and can be seen as death, but in much the same way that the towers still stand before us as invisible presence, so too are what they represent, symbols of healing and rebirth that reach heavenward like the towers of light that have been projected each year over the past decade.

Because the entire area surrounding the 9/11 Memorial is still under construction, there is a lot of noise surrounding the plaza, which unfortunately interferes with the serenity the memorial is meant to suggest.  Once the construction stops, however, it will be the place of peace it is meant to be.  Surrounded by office towers, including the so-called Freedom Tower that will be 1776 feet high when complete, the plaza runs the risk of turning into a picnic spot for workers at lunchtime.  It seems unlikely that they will be able to monitor the memorial plaza with timed tickets forever.  At some point it probably will open completely to the public, but that may be many years from now.  JF and I were also concerned that the ridiculous red, white, and blue lights and the gargantuan American flag on the under-construction tower put too much emphasis on the memorial as a patriotic space and thus detract from the true meaning of the memorial, which is spiritual, not nationalistic, in nature.

The most incongruous part of the memorial, however, has to be the museum they are constructing on the site.  The building itself is dynamic in its design (the picture here shows a view from the South Pool looking toward the museum), but as you get closer, looking through the glass-plate windows you can see remnants of the steel girders from the towers, calling out to the viewer like the guardians of a shrine.  Even worse, a 9/11 "gift shop" (I'm not sure what else you can call it) already has opened up outside the exit.  We walked in just to see what it was about, and I'm not joking when I tell you that I wanted to vomit.  I'm not sure what repulsed me more: the actual commercialization of this tragedy into a money-making opportunity, or the line of people waiting to purchase t-shirts and souvenir books. While I imagine people think they're supporting the memorial itself, the entire shopping experience--and by extension the museum itself when it opens--simply cheapens the entire sense of peace and serenity that the pools and plaza are meant to convey.  (Just reading about some parts of the design for the museum makes my skin crawl.)  As JF and I both said, it's simply too soon for a museum.  The memory of the events are too raw and too recent for everyone.  They should have waited a generation before embarking on a museum.

When all is said, however, the 9/11 Memorial itself truly is a beautiful, serene place.  Living in a concrete/steel/glass environment like we do here, having such a large space devoted to the memory of the victims of the attack, but also providing a place for rest and contemplation about life, is a progressive testament to the heart of NYC.  Like the tree leaves that will change color in the fall, die in the winter, and return in the spring, life does go on here in NYC, but now we have a spot where we can stop every once and awhile and think not only about life but how we want to live it.

(To see more of my pictures of the 9/11 Memorial, click here.  Note that I own copyright on these photos. You may use them for personal interest or educational purposes, but please credit me, Roberto C. Ferrari, as the photographer and provide a link back to bklynbiblio or the Picasa collection itself.  Thanks.)

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