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Reflecting Absence: Designing the National 9/11 Memorial

New York's dramatic memorial for victims of terrorism faced many challenges


National 9/11 Memorial, waterfall, names Thomas Suhr, Engine 23, Thomas Joseph McCann

National 9/11 Memorial waterfall

Photo © S. Carroll Jewell / Jackie Craven
9/11 National Memorial with the engraved name of Diane Hale-McKinzy

9/11 National Memorial with the engraved name of Diane Hale-McKinzy

Photo © Jackie Craven
9/11 National Memorial with a white rose placed upon the engraved names

9/11 National Memorial with a white rose placed upon the engraved names

Photo © Jackie Craven

Nearly two years after the September 11 terrorist attacks, New York developers announced a challenge: Design a memorial for a shocked and grieving nation.

Anyone could enter the competition. Entries poured in from architects, artists, students, and other creative people around the world. A panel of 13 judges reviewed 5,201 proposals. It took six months to select eight finalists. Behind closed doors, one of the judges, Maya Lin, praised a simple memorial originally titled Reflecting Absence. The architect, 34-year-old Michael Arad, had never built anything larger than a police station.

Michael Arad's Vision

Born in London, Michael Arad attended high school in Mexico, served in the Israeli Army, studied at Dartmouth College and Georgia Tech, and eventually settled in New York. On September 11, 2001, he stood on the roof of his Manhattan apartment building and watched the second plane strike the World Trade Center. Haunted, Arad began sketching plans for a memorial long before the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC) launched their competition.

Arad's concept for Reflecting Absence featured two 30-foot deep voids, symbolizing the absence of the fallen Twin Towers. Ramps would lead down to underground galleries where visitors could stroll past cascading waterfalls and plaques engraved with the names of those who died.

The design, Arad later told Places magazine, drew inspiration from the simple, sculptural work of architects Louis Kahn, Tadao Ando, and Peter Zumthor.

Although the judges admired Michael Arad's entry, they felt that it needed more work. They encouraged Arad to join forces with California landscape architect Peter Walker. By all reports, the partnership was rocky. However, in Spring 2004 the team unveiled an expanded plan that incorporated a scenic plaza with trees and walkways.

Early Renderings for the 9/11 Memorial

Trouble Looms for the 9/11 Memorial

Critics responded to the 9/11 Memorial plans with mixed reviews. Some called Reflecting Absence "moving" and "healing." Others said that the waterfalls were impractical and the deep pits hazardous. Still others protested the idea of memorializing the dead in a space located underground.

To make matters worse, Michael Arad butted heads with architects in charge of New York reconstruction projects. Daniel Libeskind, master planner for the World Trade Center site, said that Reflecting Absence did not harmonize with his own vision. J. Max Bond, Jr. and others from the Davis Brody Bond Aedas architecture firm came on board and tweaked Arad's memorial design--against Arad's wishes.

After stormy meetings and construction delays, cost estimates for the memorial and the museum soared to nearly $1 billion. In May 2006, New York Magazine reported that "Arad's memorial teeters on the brink of collapse."

Michael Arad's Dream Triumphs

Compromise is the cornerstone of every great project. Like Libeskind's dramatically altered Freedom Tower, Reflecting Absence has seen many transformations. It's now known as the National September 11 Memorial. The names of those who died are inscribed on the bronze parapet on the plaza level, instead of in underground galleries. Many other features that Arad wanted have been modified or eliminated. Still, his core vision--deep voids and rushing water--remains.

Architects Michael Arad and Peter Walker worked with a water architect and many engineers to construct the enormous waterfalls. Family members or victims remained actively involved as they deliberated over the arrangement of the engraved names. On September 11, 2011, ten years after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, a formal dedication ceremony marked the completion of the National 9/11 Memorial. The underground museum building and pavilion by Snøhetta are expected to open in the Spring of 2014.

Learn About the National 9/11 Memorial

The September 11 memorial site is designed to honor the nearly 3,000 people who were killed in New York, Pennsylvania, and at the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, and also the six people who died when terrorists bombed the New York World Trade Center on February 26, 1993. More generally, the National 9/11 Memorial speaks out against terrorism everywhere and offers a promise of renewal.

To learn more about the evolution of the National 9/11 Memorial, see the beautifully illustrated National Geographic book A Place of Remembrance. (Compare Prices) Also browse the links at the bottom of this page for information about September 11 monuments and reconstruction plans.

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