The Magazine

Monumental Loss

The unbearable lightness of the Pentagon memorial.

May 29, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 35 • By CATESBY LEIGH
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HARRIED DESIGNERS, and the number crunchers breathing down their necks, are hacking away at plans for the World Trade Center Memorial, struggling to fit this bloated, billion-dollar, largely subterranean leviathan into the $500 million budgetary straitjacket prescribed by Governor George Pataki and New York's mayor, Michael Bloomberg.

But apart from the staggering expense, the six-acre antimonument's conceptually and spatially sprawling design basically follows the familiar postmodern recipe, enshrining "loss" through a combination of therapeutic landscape elements with documentary displays ranging from architectural remnants to videotape. It is most unlikely this will be an inspiring venue, but at least it might benefit from mandatory simplification.

The real surprise is that an altogether more bizarre September 11 memorial is in store for us, and where you might least expect it: at the Pentagon. Here, two thirtysomething architects, Julie Beckman and Keith Kaseman, envision a two-acre park dotted with scores of paperbark maples and 184 "memorial units"--benches 13-and-a-half feet long, each cantilevered like a diving board over its own little pool of water--in memory of the victims of American Airlines Flight 77's immolation.

Fundraising for this $22 million memorial has proceeded at a far from stellar pace over the last three years, with just over $10 million raised to date. But the official groundbreaking will take place next month, with completion anticipated in September 2008.

The Pentagon Memorial will be situated 50 yards or so from the now-reconstructed façade that the jetliner demolished. (The site previously served as a helicopter landing pad.) Each memorial unit's location within the park is coordinated in relation to two axes, one corresponding to the year of a particular victim's birth, the other to the day of birth. The cantilevered benches face towards the Pentagon or away from it, depending on whether the victim was on Flight 77 or in the building. At night, the Memorial Fund's website helpfully explains, the illuminated pools will "indicate an abstract demographic cross-section of the victims, showing the random nature of the September 11, 2001 attack on the Pentagon."

Do such trivia have anything to do with a proper memorial?

It gets worse. The park will be covered with stabilized gravel, with each precast, stainless-steel bench-cum-pool set within a pair of stainless-steel timeline-strips crossing the site on the birth-year axis, and parallel to Flight 77's fateful path. The smoothed gravel finish on each memorial unit will maintain a visual continuity with the ground. Epoxy polymer concrete will bind the gravel to the stainless steel--with the concrete (the architects have written) "seemingly 'freezing' the gravel in place and floating it above the light pool."

Frozen gravel? Can they be serious? Absolutely. Their memorial park will boast a gravel carpet that appears to peel up and morph into the multitude of diving boards. It all sounds like a House and Garden editor's hallucination.

The long perimeter benches and the "age wall" enclosing the park will be clad in stone of the same gray and light-brown hues as the gravel. The "age wall" will extend along the western border of the memorial in an irregular arc, facing Route 27, the arterial highway running between the Pentagon and Arlington Memorial Cemetery. The wall will grow by one inch for each year of the victims' ages, or from three to 71 inches. Inside this wall there will be a bench with birth years inlaid between pairs of steel timeline-strips; likewise the perimeter bench across the park.

Apart from the curious sculptural gesture of the memorial units, the memorial design boils down to factoids: The victims' dates of birth, and where they were at the time of the crash, plus the flight path. This conforms to the documentary, "value-neutral" tenets of postmodern memorial design. The memorial units--dubbed "light benches" before assuming their bureaucratic appellation--are variations on the 168 chairs at the Oklahoma City Memorial, where the chairs are arranged in rows corresponding to the number of victims on each floor of the Murrah Federal Building.

Should memorials amount to furniture, even if it resembles diving boards? That's just one of the questions the Pentagon Memorial project raises. Another is how on earth this design got selected in the first place.