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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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.