September 2, 2011 8:52 pm

The remains of that day

Ten years on, the victims of 9/11 have been memorialised at the site of the former World Trade Center. The winning design was chosen from more than 5,000 submissions – so what makes a successful memorial?
Simon Schama at the 9/11 memorial on the site of the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center, New York

Simon Schama at the 9/11 memorial on the site of the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center, New York

What are public memorials for? Are they meant to perpetuate the sorrow of loss; pay a debt of respect, or set a boundary about grief by turning it to public reverence? Must their primary obligation always be to the immediately bereaved? Should such places be no more than a site where those victimised by slaughter can find consolation in a community of mourning? Or is a public memorial, by definition, created to make something more universally redeeming from atrocious ruin? Does remembrance invite instruction or forbid it? Should it make mourners of us all; bow the heads and stop the mouths of all who stand before it? Is it greatly to their credit that Presidents George W Bush and Barack Obama will stand at that haunted site on the 10th anniversary and not utter a word? Or is that silence a missed opportunity for reflection?

For some of us these will never be purely academic questions. I was in New York on 9/11 and in London on 7/7. I am a citizen of both of these unapologetically secular, mostly tolerant, rowdily cosmopolitan cities that the exterminating apostles of destruction chose as their target. I am at home in both places: I think of them as “the mansion house of liberty” – in John Milton’s fine phrase from Areopagitica, the poet’s passionate 1644 defence of freedom of publication – and the temerity of that liberty was, in the mind of the murderers, cause enough for immolation.

Like so many others, I knew someone who was the victim of the massacre. She was not a close friend but the sister of one of my closest; a woman our family knew well from firelit evenings in a Massachusetts suburb, someone who had taken my children in her arms, had shoved cupcakes into their crumby mouths, who was the epitome of humane affection. Ten years on, without any effort whatsoever, I can close my eyes and see her face, hear her soft voice and register the warmth of her distinctive presence. My 9/11 will always be more than a news event; it will always bear the imprinted portrait of the wide and gentle face of the murdered Laura attached to it. But Laura’s own family, especially her distraught sister Terry, a good strong intelligence, has from the start, been determined to make something more from her tragedy than agonised remembrance. Journeying to Iraq, talking to people who have undergone their own forms of undeserved assault, Terry has wrestled with understanding.

At the World Trade Center site this week, I search for Laura’s name, cut into the blackened bronze lip that overlooks the cascades of the 9/11 memorial, pouring into the two immense basins of grief that outline the phantom towers. The names file endlessly along the perimeter, gathered, by wish of their families, in what the memorial’s designers call “meaningful adjacencies”, which, in English, means in groups of passengers, fire-fighters, office colleagues – the working cells of the human beehive. It is those waves of names that drift through the place like spirits. The memorial’s architect originally wanted them to be inscribed on the granite walls of the cascades, washed by the fall of his tear-drop waters. But that would have been a victory for classical aesthetics over simple emotion; it would have made them remote from their nearest and dearest who, rightly, insisted they be lifted to the living space of the memorial plaza, accessible to touch, to the fingertip trigger of love’s memory.

Does that suffice, for decency’s sake? Or do we owe it to their sacrifice and to our own future to make a translation from yesterday’s torment to tomorrow’s resolution; and bend ourselves to something more thoughtful than the periodic brandishing of the military fist? At the risk of vulgar presumption, ought we to meditate on what, exactly, it is about the free life of a democracy that we would defend to the death in the face of theocratically sanctified mass murder?

The competing claims of lamentation and instruction were embodied in the guidelines provided for the memorial by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation. Every victim of the attacks – in New York, Washington and aboard flights 11, 77, 93 and 175, as well as the six casualties of the abortive bombing in 1993 – was to be given recognition. Provision was to be made for visitation and contemplation, and the footprint of the towers was to be left forever exposed. More sententiously, the document also called for a work that evoked “the historical significance” of 9/11 and which would create “an original and powerful statement”. It was this last invitation that unloosed gushing fountains of quasi-spiritual vapour, even among the finalists chosen – from more than 5,000 submissions – by a panel that included Maya Lin, designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and the great African-American sculptor Martin Puryear.

Gisela Baurmann proposed a Memorial Cloud; its “top surface ... a translucent bandage healing a wound ... during the day the cloud like an undulating veil, a sinuous surface forming cathedral-like vaults”. Pierre David prefaced his plan for A Garden of Lights by declaring, in the breathless manner usually reserved for the trailers of disaster movies, “There was a last hour, a last minute, a last second, that 2,982 stars went dark”.

World Trade Center, destroyed 10 years ago©Getty

World Trade Center, destroyed 10 years ago

But even these overwrought exclamations pale in comparison with some of the more egregious submissions (which can be read in their entirety on the WTC website); including a “enormous white marble Carrrara rock” suspended 30ft above the ground on a titanium chain; a colossal question mark entitled Who Did That? What Did That?, and, most appalling of all, a proposal featuring 25ft-long sculptures of silhouetted bodies “punched out of stone ... hurtled as if in a trajectory or force field ... These silhouettes,” explained Eric Staller, who came up with this ghastly notion, “will be perceived as floating or flying forms in space at peace.” Well, no, Eric, they won’t.

By comparison, Reflecting Absence, the project of architect Michael Arad and landscape designer Peter Walker, is a model of moral tact and poetic indirection. A play of dialogues lies at the heart of their design: between the deep granite well of sorrow and the animated plaza filled with the living, between the fugitive quality of the waters and the regenerative growth of the hundreds of swamp oaks planted about the upper level. Arboreal resurrection is a commonplace of memorials – though no bad thing for that – and very often as here (as at the deeply moving Oklahoma City National Memorial to the victims of the 1995 bombing), features a single “survivor” tree (in this case a Callery pear) that acts as a living, vegetable hero of the blast. But the trees are planted in relentless military rows, which, together with the tomb-like granite slabs dotted around the plaza, make that space more dutifully mournful than you would wish, especially since the deciduous oaks will be little more than bare branches during the long months of New York’s merciless winter.

It’s hard, amid the welter of construction noise and the relentless testing of the emergency public address system, to conjure up the tonal character that will compose the memorial’s tragic euphony: the soughing of Hudson valley winds through the foliage, the muffled downrush of the waters. The falling that is inescapably at the heart of the remembrance is echoed poetically in the 30ft drop of the cascades. Bravely, instead of allowing those waters to collect and recycle from a limpid pool, Arad has them drain away into abysmal sinks, a darker stain of granite than the basins, akin to the unfathomability of the desolation. Notwithstanding their name for the memorial, perhaps Arad and Walker understand that, by definition, absences can never be mirrored except as phantom visions, so that the reflection triggered by their work, however unforced, will be more philosophical rather than optical.

But what form will that reflection take? Arad and Walker understand, I think, that multitudes will come to the memorial, unphilosophically, first and foremost as an act of empathy; to suffer vicariously terror and pity; and then to share in common elegy. But, inevitably, people, especially from beyond New York, will be drawn to experience the history-shudder that comes from walking on a site where an act of unconscionable horror took place. The shock will be sustained in the on-site museum housing explanatory materials and a collection of remains: scorched phones, ragged fragments of clothing and personal testimony. The museum will not open until 2012 but its graceful armature, at once luminous and hard-ribbed, is already apparent and something of a reproach to the nondescript towers rising around it. And it has at its core something of a transformational marvel: twin surviving steel columns about 70ft tall, coloured a burnt coppery hue and surmounted with a distinctive webbed “trident” that forms a kind of heroic capital. The first thing any visitor to the museum will see, the columns will, like the pear tree, be taken to heart as emblems of unbowed endurance.

But how eloquent can dumb steel be? Is there something else to be said? For, truly, there are no value-neutral memorials. One of the most grandiloquent, the Lincoln Memorial – designed by Henry Bacon and dedicated in 1922 – in Washington DC, is dominated by the martyred president, literally colossal in stature but also in the ideals he articulated. He is seated as if in profound thought; and the most solemn of those thoughts are duly inscribed on the walls of his enshrining temple. Not far away is the most recent addition to Washington’s monumental statuary, in the form of a 30ft-high statue of Martin Luther King; inaugurated, appropriately, by the first African-American president.

Memorialised heroes could be wordy or mute. But how to remember Joe and Jane? It was only when the 20th century ratcheted up the scale of atrocity that high and mighty minds gave systematic thought to what forms the remembrance of ordinary mortals might most decently take. After the first world war, there was already some sense of the incommensurability trap, that traditional figurative monuments with their dauntless bayonets were somehow feebly inadequate to the scale of the tragedy. How could the dead, whether of an annihilated city or a slaughtered army, be represented as unbowed in bronze when they had been bloodily exploded in the Flanders mud or entombed in the burning wreckage of Coventry or Dresden?

The aptest responses were those that either abandoned figuration for a kind of elemental simplicity – like the Grave of the Unknown Warrior buried in Westminster Abbey in 1920 – or else aggressively distorted it in keeping with the wounds inflicted on the classical ideal of the human body by modern savagery. Pablo Picasso’s Guernica – created for the pavilion of the beleaguered Spanish Republic at the Paris Exposition of 1937 – continues to be harrowing because its Cubist language for once stopped being a medium for formal ingenuity and instead carried the sense of art, as well as humanity, helplessly imploding. Ossip Zadkine, a Jewish survivor of both world wars, was commissioned by another Jewish survivor, Dr Gerrit de Wal, owner of the Bijenkorf department store, to make a memorial to the incineration of Rotterdam by the Luftwaffe and in The Destroyed City produced an unsparingly confrontational sculpture, a limb outstretched to the merciless sky, both defiant and vainly protective.

The 9/11 memorial site

Where the towers stood

But there have been annihilations so total, such as the Nazi genocide of European Jews, that any sort of figuration has invited bathos. The most successful memorials have instead been emblematic inversions of what was destroyed – such as Rachel Whiteread’s monumental, millennial Vienna library of negative-cast books, or summarising analogies – such as the Berlin Holocaust Memorial’s ramped field of 2,711 stelae erected in 2004, beckoning the visitor into a descending, darkening universe of interminable tombs. The thoughtfulness with which Peter Eisenman and Buro Happold rose to a daunting commission did not preclude one of its organisers from describing it as a “tourist magnet”, nor does it stop children from using it as a hide-and-seek playground. Whoops come from the world of the dead.

In the hands of the uninspired, of course, poetic abstraction can be as inadequate as cartoonish figuration to the work of giving shape to emptiness. For the vocabulary of abstraction – hollowed spheres and discs, the brutally soldered girder, the lacy spray of spokes – has been so depleted by over-use as to risk innocuousness. For the London 9/11 Educational Project (for which I am an adviser) Maya Ando has fashioned a sculpture, also from ruined columns, that no one, I think, could accuse of being an abstraction of convenience.

The urge to say something moves restlessly amid the ruins. But in the case of 9/11 some of the proclamations have been numbingly banal. Daniel Libeskind, whose original design for a “freedom tower” complete with a “wedge of light” to be illuminated every 9/11, has been disastrously compromised by the requirements of commercial space and defensive security – claimed that retaining the slurry wall that prevented flooding from the Hudson River – would reveal “the heroic foundations of democracy for all to see”. More fatuous still is the obsession with the tower’s toothpick mast mast reaching 1,776 feet as if one measures the genuine grandeur of the Declaration of Independence by the altitude of a skyscraper.

If we must speak as well as weep, then let us speak thoughtfully as befits the magnitude of the onslaught on the “mansion house of liberty” and the enduring nobility of the ideals that the 9/11 terrorists were so avid to demolish. Of those ideals none, wrote Milton, were dearer than freedom of conscience. His vision of a “vast city, a city of refuge” where “there be pens and heads ... sitting by their studious lamps, musing, searching, revolving new notions and ideas” utterly unchained by guardians of conformity, is New York, is, at its best, the American Republic. And Milton’s passion to dissociate sin from crime, to deny the state any authority in matters of belief – “The State shall be my governors, but not my critics,” he wrote in Aeropagitica – had an American heir, albeit in the anti-urban person of Thomas Jefferson. So if we wish – and perhaps we should – to make a 9/11 memorial not merely out of concrete and cascades but from the living body of the idea that most clearly separates us from the death-drive of the intolerant, let it be Jefferson’s, written for an Act for Establishing Religious Freedom in Virginia, drafted in 1777, that “truth is great and will prevail if left to herself [for] she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error and has nothing to fear from the conflict unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate, errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them.”

And there is another high principle, dear to New Yorkers, abhorrent to the armed evangels of purity, be they fanatical jihadi or racist Nordics: one on which the immigrant Republic of the United States was founded: pluralism. The survival of that ideal lives on at the memorial, and not in any tablet of text but in the names inscribed on its rim, the neighbourliness of the beautiful impurity of cosmopolitanism: Shakhar Kumar; Whitfield West Jr, Marianne Liquori Simone, Helen Crossin Kittle and Her Unborn Child. The world music of those names is perhaps all the eloquence we need.

Simon Schama is an FT contributing editor. He will give the John Harvard memorial lecture, on the idea of toleration, at London’s National Theatre on Monday 5 September

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