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.

In the aftermath of September 11, an Army Corps of Engineers landscape architect, Carol Anderson-Austra, served as project manager in charge of selecting the site for the memorial, "educating" a Family Steering Committee of about a dozen family members of victims about memorial design, and organizing the design competition. She hired two modernist apparatchiks to serve as competition advisers: Reed Kroloff, former editor of the defunct Architecture magazine and now dean of Tulane's architecture school, and Mark Robbins, dean of the Syracuse architecture school.

Anderson-Austra spoke in soothing maternal tones about the jury selection process during a telephone interview. "We were looking for a certain kind of background, expertise, sensitivity, integrity. A certain combination of heart and brain," she said. "Sensitivity" and "an emotional connection" to the memorial project were crucial, she emphasized. The guiding assumption was that "if the families did not think it was good, and if the design community internationally did not think it was good," the Pentagon Memorial would be a flop. "It had to speak to those two groups and the world at large," she added.

Actually, it's the "world at large"--meaning the public--that's getting the short end of the stick with this project.

Design professionals--"public artists," architects, and landscape architects, all of them modernist--constituted a majority on the panel of 11 competition jurors and one alternate. Terence Riley, at that time director of the department of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art, served as chairman. The jury's lay members included former defense secretaries Harold Brown and Melvin Laird. The classical tradition, representing thousands of years of accumulated design knowledge, shaped the great monumental vistas in and around Washington. But its exponents had no voice on the jury.

The Family Steering Committee, two of whose members also served on the jury, issued a statement urging the competition entrants "to search your souls and envision a memorial that inspires visitors to contemplate what the attack means to them personally, to us as family members, to the community, to the country, and to the world."

The committee also declared that "the memorial should instill the ideas that patriotism is a moral duty, that freedom comes at a price, and that the victims of this attack have paid the ultimate price. . . . Our loved ones' deaths have ended the ripple effect of their lives touching many others through the universe; their loss has created an incalculable emptiness."

The statement concluded: "We challenge you to create a memorial that translates this terrible tragedy into a place of solace, peace, and healing."

Quite an agenda. But the therapeutic mission was plainly paramount. Not surprisingly, the six finalist schemes that emerged from a field of 1,126 submissions all focused on "loss" or "absence," and all of them were of the same reductive, conceptualist ilk.

One finalist offered a wall slab with pieces missing to reflect the absence of the victims. Another (prior to its modification in time for the second jury round) called for a sunken precinct with a long table and 189 empty chairs--meaning chairs were included for the five hijackers!--with a shiny wall slab reflecting the reconstructed Pentagon façade and bearing an existentialist quotation from the Chilean Stalinist poet Pablo Neruda.

A scheme that dripped with sentiment involved 184 glass slabs on which moisture would condense so visitors could finger-write or draw their feelings. Another consisted of a pavement studded with 184 oxidized-steel boxes resembling flight-recorder boxes on airplanes (the proverbial "black boxes," which are actually orange) with dinky pools inside the concrete-lined boxes and, beneath the pools, mementos etched in mirrors or embedded in protective glass. The sixth finalist scheme stood apart by offering a single marble mound that would serve as an empty pedestal--for the memorial visitor.

One participant who never stood a chance was Dino Marcantonio, a classicist now practicing in New York. His entry consists of a handsomely massed and decorated marble cenotaph, crowned with eagles. Unlike the profusion of memorial units, the cenotaph would offer passing drivers a readily legible landmark, an important consideration at this site. A pair of marble lions in front of the cenotaph faces a reflecting pool enclosed by rows of cherry trees, while the memorial precinct is itself enclosed by a handsome wrought-iron fence with limestone piers capped by finials and urns.

Marcantonio's memorial conforms to the classical idea of design as an intimation, in symbolic form, of a transcendent realm that endows our brief earthly sojourns with meaning. His cenotaph speaks not only to the lives lost on September 11, but to our republic's sustenance in times of trial by high ideals. And it's precisely the artistic embodiment of such idealism, employing fine materials and a humanist idiom everybody understands at an instinctive level, that would allow his Pentagon Memorial to stand for the ages.

In contrast, meaning is not intrinsic to the Beckman-Kaseman design, but rather amounts to whatever significance the visitor might happen to pin on it. Aside from the eccentric sculptural gesture of the memorial units, we are left with biographical data and environmental phenomena such as surface ripples in the pools and the gentle gurgling sound of water passing over a weir into the circulation system, or the nifty shadows cast by the paperbark maples, which exfoliate their bark, upon maturity, in a delightfully picturesque manner--and in winter shed small leaves that could make grounds maintenance a pain.

The main idea behind this design seems to be that the memorial units, with the names of their loved ones inscribed on the benches' front ends, will help the bereaved reach closure. The precedent is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Mall, with its multitude of names listed in the chronological order of death. But leaving aside the fact that the chevron-shaped Vietnam memorial is spatially compact, clearly focused on its vertex, and handsomely inserted in its landscape setting, it is becoming increasingly clear that the therapeutic culture's dominion over memorial design since Maya Lin's triumph has swiftly degenerated into a tyranny. This tyranny suppresses any expression of civic idealism, let alone spiritual destiny.

The therapeutic and documentary elements on the Ground Zero memorial menu include a vast, leafy plaza with waterfalls spilling into the huge twin-tower voids; a subterranean mezzanine with parapet-walls inscribed with the victims' names girding the waterfalls; a subterranean multimedia museum exceeding 100,000 square feet that includes vestiges of twin-tower foundation slabs and an exposed segment of the slurry wall that held back the waters of the Hudson when the towers collapsed; a monolithic cenotaph, with an opening to the sky punched out of one of the twin-tower pools above; and refrigerated containers with victims' unidentified remains that would be visible from an adjacent chamber reserved for family members.

At this writing, the question is how the restricted budget will modify this depressing menu, whose underground elements have raised security concerns.

In Somerset County, Pennsylvania, the competition-winning Flight 93 National Memorial design aims at connecting visitors with a vast 2,200-acre landscape surrounding the crash site, as well as putting landscape features to therapeutic use. A shiny minimalist tower with 40 aluminum wind chimes to commemorate the 40 victims will mark the entrance to the tract. A couple of miles away, a large grassy bowl will be ringed by memorial groves of maple trees (40 groves of 40 trees) and abutted by a field with the hemlock grove where the crash occurred. Visitors will view the crash site from a stark slate-paved plaza. Walls are arranged near the site to indicate the flight path.

As at Ground Zero and the Pentagon, this $57 million memorial sprawls: There is no symbolic focus;there are no heroic elements, which is unfortunate when the passengers' bravery prevented Flight 93 from wreaking havoc on Washington; and nothing transcends the natural realm, or the realm of fact.

The problem is that the memory of those who died on September 11, and the trauma the terrorist atrocities caused, is ephemeral. And these memorials--the World Trade Center Memorial is scheduled for dedication on September 11, 2009, and the Flight 93 memorial two years later--are destined to be ephemeral themselves. Beckman, who sounds like an intelligent and diligent professional, says that the Pentagon Memorial will be engineered to stand for at least 100 years--no small feat, given the inordinately complicated business of circulating, filtering, and heating the water for the pools year-round, not to mention supplying electricity for the lights inside them. One wishes the academic wisdom informing her earnest efforts were more profound, because it's going to take a whole lot less than a century for the memorial units to wear out their welcome.

At least Anderson-Austra acknowledges the longevity issue. But she comes up with a hackneyed rationalization: Down the line, the Pentagon Memorial and others of its ilk will serve as expressions of the culture of their time. In terms of enduring significance, so far as she is concerned, they need aim no higher than that. Is the public realm well served by such an outlook?

It's a small consolation that taxpayers won't foot the bill for the Pentagon Memorial, where even a $10 million maintenance endowment will be raised from private sources. (The National Park Service will be responsible for maintenance of the privately funded Flight 93 memorial, while taxpayers will be stuck with a hefty chunk of the Ground Zero memorial bill.) And what a pity that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld--who, along with his wife Joyce, has contributed $200,000 to the Pentagon Memorial Fund--signed off on the jury's decision, if only because the competition process was a travesty. With the country on the verge of war in Iraq, he obviously had more pressing concerns.

Yet the fact remains that only enlightened patronage is going to redeem public art and architecture in America from their currently debased state. The Pentagon has blown a big opportunity to exercise such patronage.

Catesby Leigh is author of the forthcoming Monumental America.