Free Falling

Free Falling

I was in New York last week.  The BF and I were staying in midtown and ambled down to the 9-11 memorial on Tuesday.  It’s been several years since I’ve been to Ground Zero, and I was interested to see how the memorial was coming along.

(I did my senior thesis at Indiana University, lo, these many years ago now, on monuments and memorials — they combine a number of enduring interests for me: art and architecture, the language of shapes and symbols, poetry (visual and otherwise), finding the universal in the particular and vice versa, official versus vernacular narratives, death, heroism, and the mystery of memory, to name a few.)

I must say, I was impressed.
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When a memorial like this works it works on an elemental level.  It speaks to something universal that has been experienced in a profoundly personal way.   All great art works like this, but memorials and monuments like this one reach deep into us for their power and resonance. They don’t seek to bring an artist’s vision to us, but — quite the opposite, they allow us to pour our vision into them.

Maya Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial — “the Wall” — has pretty much been the standard by which we’ve judged all such monuments since.  The stark symbolism of her original drawings is still arresting:


It tells its story — and it is really but a chapter in a much longer story, a universal story — in a language so direct it will be decipherable for millennia.
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Maya Lin’s War Memorial derives much of its power — and its ability to speak to us as it does — from its context.  The audacity of this memorial is hard to overstate, and it marks, quite literally, a turning point in our history.  The scar is there, exposed still, and will remain for future generations.

The 9-11 Memorial borrows some elements, to be sure, but is, thank goodness, no mere regurgitation of Maya Lin’s brilliant work, which countless war memorials around the country have cribbed.  The 9-11 Memorial had a different set of challenges altogether, but the spirit is definitely kindred.

The site itself is the biggest challenge.  It remains to be seen how visitors on a pilgrimage to the site (and it isa pilgrimage site) will be “handled” going forward.  As it is getting from the ticket center to the entrance to the memorial requires a hike, several security checks, and several ticket and ID checks.  All of which is part of the legacy of the events of that day, and is, in some ways, performative — a ritual, blunt as it is, that is meant to convey both the seriousness of the event and the idea of a space of continued extreme surveillance.

This is “attention to memory” in action, you could say.  And while the level of control is pretty clearly pathological, I think it’s understandable in the dual context of millennial hysteria (which we are still very much in the thick of and which many of us will likely not live out) and a shared tragedy of the magnitude of 9-11, which utterly re-wired our culture.

The space has yet to fill in.  While presumably this is what it will look like in a couple months…

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…right now it looks like the moon.  A landscape of desolation, brown lawns and dead trees, with visitors wandering like wraiths in a Gustave Doré etching, only not as well-dressed.  Fitting somehow, but not the intended effect, I don’t think.

Visitors are easily drawn to the two enormous pools (“Reflecting Absence”) which you could say is the memorial proper.  And while people’s behavior in such places is always a revelation, the memorial does a lot to mitigate the garden variety idiocy that any public space seems to inspire these days.

The BF was all of 15 on 9-11.  I feel dirty even saying it.  It’s hard for me to get my head around it, frankly.  While I had the task of integrating the reality of that event into an already pretty well-rooted worldview, it was a formative experience for him.  Neither of us knew anyone personally who perished in the Twin Towers, but the event and its reverberations struck close to home nonetheless.

His mood was solemn and contemplative, appropriately enough, but there were others who seemed thrilled to be there, posing before the pools flashing sideways “v”s and big cheesy grins.

Luckily the effect of those 52,000 gallons of water per minute crashing down those 30-foot walls into an abyss an acre wide is precisely as intended.  The thunder of the waterfalls drowns out just about everything else, creating a contemplative space in the middle of bustling lower Manhattan.

There is something, obviously, very calming about the sound of water falling.  But it’s also a curiously direct metaphor in this case.  In the footprints of the fallen Towers.  We all remember watching in horror as people just like us, whose names are inscribed there, fell, many having leaped their deaths rather than perish in the flames.

The choice to go with this design was courageous, I’d say.  Because in the silence of the noise of the space we’re staring right at the truth of what happened.  It’s not only vaguely evocative, it’s a performative metaphor.  Water, that element of life, makes it safe for us to contemplate not just death, but the deaths of those whose names are memorialized where they fell.

The memorial does this with such single-minded simplicity — working with very stark elements — it’s really a marvel.  It’s not only readily graspable, but its “universalism” works as part of its narrative as well.  Its symbolic language is very elemental, “primitive” even, and the marvel of it is that through all the flak we had both the good sense and sophistication to go with simplicity.  A healing clarity results.

The pool runs under the names of those who died in the Towers.  Its symbolic source is there in the narrow, highest tier, the names hovering above it, where the water is placid, hardly a ripple.  It silently flows over the edge, where (through the wonder of modern hydraulics) it becomes a thundering waterfall, crashing the thirty feet into a basin, where it then flows inexorably into the abyss at the center.  No one standing at street level can see to the bottom of this abyss.

That narrative, offered without frills or pretension, coupled with the sheer magnitude of the pools, accounts for the monument’s power.  You have only to look at awkward overgroping monuments to shared tragedy likethe Oklahoma City National Memorial (which commemorates the 1995 bombing), to see what a muddled narrative can do to a memorial.  The memorial is (helpfully) referred to on the official website as “the outdoor symbolic memorial” and includes so many very particular non-intuitive elements, it can hardly be “read” without copious annotation.


What is obvious to the “initiated” will be cryptic in time, and the use of the elements — water and stone, earth and orchard — are not intuitive enough to have the kind of impact similar elements have at the 9-11 Memorial site.
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The Oklahoma City site, I think, may struggle too desperately with the fear of forgetting, which is a latent element in all memorials.  And part of what makes the 9-11 Memorial different is the absence of that particular struggle, the certainty (in other words) that what happened there will never, could never be forgotten.  Of course that’s sheer chutzpah, but that’s why New York is New York and Oklahoma City isn’t.

The 9-11 Memorial seems to recognize that, aside from sheer acreage, less is more.  It is always a question how to honor individuals in a mass tragedy.  The 9-11 memorial handles this intuitively, and the rest flows from there (literally and metaphorically).

There will no doubt be other monuments to pop up over time on the site memorializing aspects of the tragedy, as at the Vietnam Memorial the more “traditional” representational monuments, the heroic Women’s Memorial and  the “Three Soldiers,” by a runner-up to Maya Lin’s design, which depicts three soldiers glaring in disbelief at The Wall as if to say, “can you believe that shit?” were put in after protests.

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But I think the 9-11 Memorial achieves something quite extraordinary on its own.  It gives us a place in the midst of a shared tragedy to contemplate our shared fate.

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