The State of Sept. 11 Commemoration in Lower Manhattan

Sept 11 Memorial Plaza rendering
Rendering of the National September 11 Memorial The museum entrance is at the top center. Rendering by Snøhetta / via
Sept 11 Memorial Plaza rendering
Rendering of the National Sept. 11 Memorial: The museum entrance is at the top center.
Rendering by Snøhetta / via

As we approach the 13th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the World Trade Center site is finally coming together and settling into place. The National September 11 Memorial opened in 2011, 2014 is the first year the National September 11 Memorial Museum is open, and the primary skyscraper, One World Trade Center is close enough to completion to give a clear sense of its design. I visited the complex last week to explore the official, permanent commemorations of September 11, and to think about how successful and appropriate they are. The answer, unsurprisingly, is that it’s complicated.

The visit to the Memorial site—I won’t call it “Ground Zero” because of the implicit pseudo-militarism—lurches between extremes in a way that’s certainly affecting, but which feels manipulative more than authentic. The balance is off between the calm, contemplative spaces and the intermittent over-stuffed torrents of violent and painful imagery.

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Mostly, everything is just a little too boring, a little too, if not quite proverbially designed by committee, then calculated to satisfy a dull committee. The World Trade Center buildings, the memorial plaza, the museum: all just a little too forgettable. That is, except for two relatively small spaces deep inside the museum. One of these, the “Memorial Exhibition,” focuses on the individual people who were killed; it is elegantly and movingly just right. The other, the “Historical Exhibition,” a tour through the details and events of September 11 specifically, does many things well, but ultimately emerges as overwrought, busy, sometimes trite and sometimes, horribly, needlessly lurid.

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One World Trade Center

The most regrettably boring element of the complex is the skyscraper One World Trade Center. As originally conceived by architect Daniel Libeskind, who did not ultimately design the building, but did develop the master plan for the site, it was known, ludicrously, as the “Freedom Tower,” a name that still persists here and there, but no longer officially. Having watched One World Trade Center rise these past years, I’ve never found it satisfyingly visually distinguished; there’s nothing strictly wrong with it, it’s just forgettably anodyne and a sorry missed opportunity for a great building.

Libeskind’s penchant for numerological flourish did persist, and the tower is famously 1,776 feet high, a triumph of ostentation and literalness over creativity and sensitivity. Erecting the phallically tallest building in the U.S. there is childish, distasteful and potentially dangerous. There were so many other possible, more interesting directions in which to take the construction of World Trade Center office space that the less said about what’s now towering over lower Manhattan, the better.

The National September 11 Memorial Museum

Sept 11 Museum Foundation Hall
Cavernous Foundation Hall
Photo by Tom Hennes/Thinc Design / via

Before getting to the Memorial and Historical Exhibitions in the museum, visitors move through a sort of super-gallery of destroyed columns and aestheticized twisted metal. There is an icy glamour to this vast, cavernous empty volume of space, a profoundly odd choice for a museum so fraught with heavy emotional substance. Still, some of the visuals in this “Foundation Hall” are dramatic: 3-dimensional beams made of multiple sheets of several-inches-thick steel bent like wire, a segment of the radio antenna from one of the Twin Towers to give a sense of scale, a partially crushed fire truck. Huge expanses of the “slurry wall,” which held back the river during the Towers’ construction as well as after their collapse, are exposed and remarkable, but seem more geared to a museum of civil engineering than to this memorial to September 11. The fire truck, an elegiac column decorated by rescue workers and several other items are certainly poignant and vital memorial artifacts, but the overall effect focuses all of the attention on the architecture rather than the human tragedy. I’ve written about this same misplaced emphasis on the buildings in relation to the “Tribute in Light” annual installation around the time of the September 11 anniversary.

Sept 11 Museum artworks
Spencer Finch’s and Tom Joyce’s artworks in
the National September 11 Memorial Museum
Photo by Jin Lee / via

Two monumental commissioned artworks cover a wall in this large open space at the heart of the museum. Spencer Finch’s Trying to Remember the Color of the Sky on That September Morning is composed of 2,983 individual blue monochrome watercolor drawings, representing the number of people killed on September 11 and during the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Each square drawing, arranged in an expansive grid, is a subtly individual shade of blue, visualizing the contingent and personal nature of subjective memory. It’s an excellent work of public art. Though not technically public art, since it’s deep underground inside a museum with a steep entry fee, that’s clearly how it functions. It manages to be simple and accessible while still moving, beautiful and exactly the right tone for the institution.

The second artwork, installed in the middle of Finch’s blue grid, is Tom Joyce’s line from Virgil’s Aeneid: “No day shall erase you from the memory of time.” This installation is less effective. Aside from the word “memory” and the vague idea of ancient Roman poetry seeming, I suppose, generically memorial, it has very little to do with anything. Joyce is a blacksmith, and he constructed each of the letters from steel salvaged from the ruins of the Twin Towers, but there seems to be no reason why this quotation as opposed to literally any other, and it rings empty in the museum. (Classicists have noted that, in the context of the Aeneid, this particular line is wholly inappropriate to the Memorial Museum.)

Sept 11 Museum Historical Exhib
The dizzying accumulation of artifacts in the “Historical Exhibition”
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty / via

The contrast between the austere, spare spaces like the Monument plaza or the Foundation Hall and the intense, hyper-emotional immediacy and acute narrative drive of the two relatively small “Exhibitions” is too jarring. The Historical Exhibition, especially, surrounded as it is by the extravagant emptiness of the rest of the museum space, feels pornographic in its insistence on showing and showing and showing, and forcing direct confrontation with a dizzying accumulation of images and information and artifacts crowding the already compressed space around the visitors. There is so much to see in this exhibition and so many quotidian objects recovered from extraordinary circumstances to highlight visitors’ empathy with the tragedies of the original owners. Personal items (backpacks, work IDs, eyeglasses, shoes, etc.), crushed cars, photographs, video displays, steel columns and on and on are installed floor to ceiling in often—but not always—tasteful evocations of the unfolding of time on the morning of September 11, 2001. It is overwhelming and disorienting, this over-abundance of stuff and information; eventually it becomes desensitizing. This exhibition could have been more thoughtfully edited by the curators; the excess of the installation deadens the impact.

The National September 11 Memorial

Back outside, the Memorial has much to recommend it. It’s a large plaza—eventually to be ringed with office towers and structures not yet all built, so the ultimate effect of the full tableau is not evident for now—with the double focus of two square waterfall fountains occupying the exact footprints of the Twin Towers. There are some rows of trees and some low benches, but it is a sparse and restrained park, which works to a successful, open effect, echoing some of the larger spaces inside the museum. (Some landscape architectural renderings show the trees grown in as a lush canopy, and if that does happen, I imagine that will alter the effect and create a much less austere, more bucolic park.) Around the edges of the fountains are graceful bronze plaques with the nearly 3,000 names of those killed on September 11, 2001, at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and near Shanksville, PA, as well as the names of the six people killed during the bombing of the World Trade Center in February 1993. There’s an ingenious organizational system for the names, grouping them in a way that keeps people who knew each other in proximity, rather than, say, a simply alphabetical list. The plaques are numbered and indexed in a way that makes it easy for visitors to find loved ones’ names.

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For all the memorial’s elegance, though, there’s a nagging sense that it represents an unfortunate misunderstanding of the lessons of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, DC. Like the September 11 Memorial, the Vietnam Memorial is built down into the ground rather than rising in a monumental edifice, which is more common for memorials (even on the National Mall). Additionally, care shown for ordering the names on both memorials is refreshingly sensitive. Lin, also avoiding empty alphabetization, listed the casualties in the order in which they were killed, creating a tragic narrative that has proven extraordinarily moving over the decades.

Nonetheless, the simplicity and modesty of the Vietnam Memorial is what is missing at the World Trade Center. The September 11 Memorial has a grandeur and a corporate sleekness that takes away from the emotional effectiveness. I suspect that visitors looking for specific names of loved ones will have a satisfying experience with the fountains, but visitors without a personal connection will have a more difficult time connecting. One last point: the spectacle of the water falling 30 feet from ground level, and then, from there, simply disappearing down a smaller hole at the center suggests an upsetting symbolism that the designer can’t reasonably have meant, but which persists all the same. At the Vietnam Memorial, it is the visitors who walk down a gentle slope and then make their way back to ground level as they emerge from the other side.

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Conclusion: Skip the Movie

The memorial complex at the World Trade Center site is surprisingly well considered and executed, despite some notable and important flaws. Considering the political tenor of the country since 2001 and the socio-political discourse around the events of September 11 and the United States’ subsequent behavior, flawed-but-well-done is dramatically better than I expected going in.

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However, there is one strong caveat to the success of the memorial and museum: Every 20 minutes, every day, the museum screens a film Facing Crisis: America Under Attack in the auditorium. This movie “explores the events of 9/11 from the perspectives of key decision-makers,” including interviews with former President George W. Bush, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

This movie is nothing short of grotesque. Watching this smug cavalcade of sociopaths is so shocking and so unbearable that it threatens to overshadow the many modes of commemoration that the museum does present intelligently and well. The obvious joy these “decision-makers” take in casting themselves (fraudulently) as heroes on September 11 is difficult to watch. Their unrepressed fantasies of violence and exploitation are the crux of the film. Bush and Rice seem disappointed they didn’t get to order any passenger airplanes shot down after all of U.S. airspace was closed on September 11. Bush giddily describes how he got to be a war-time President despite not having campaigned on it. Giuliani practically salivates over getting to talk about the man he saw jump to his death from one of the Twin Towers.

The museum’s careful job of avoiding domestic politics throughout the institution is ruined by this appalling abomination of a movie. It casts a specter of bad faith over everything else at the museum; it’s a genuine scandal that the movie is part of the visitor experience.

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