Breaking Ground: Adventures in Life and Architecture
By Daniel Libeskind
(Riverhead, 288 pp., $27.95)
'The most conspicuous thing about memorials is precisely that one does not notice them," Robert Musil famously wrote. We can walk along a street every day for months, getting to know each crack in the sidewalk, and yet be astonished one day to discover a plaque announcing that "from eighteen-hundred-something to eighteen-hundred-something-else the unforgettable Someone-or-other lived and worked here." Yet memorials, Musil continues, must not be allowed to fade into the background, because that would dishonor the very people they are intended to commemorate. He calls for them to be more "vigorous," lamenting that in comparison with the developments in other fields, the art of memorial-making is lagging behind. "Anyone can stand quietly on the street and allow people to steal glances at him; today we must demand more from a monument.… Why shouldn't the bronze-cast hero at least resort to the outdated gimmick of tapping his finger against a windowpane? Why don't the figures in a marble group turn towards each other, like the better-made figures in shop windows do, or at least open and close their eyes?" The very least one can ask, in this "age of noise and motion," is that memorials bear mottos such as "Goethe's Faust is the best!"
Musil recorded these observations in 1936, three years before the start of World War II, a cataclysm that precipitated dramatic new developments in the art of memorial-making. The genteel, quotidian examples that inspired Musil's irritation—the subtle plaque on the side of an apartment building, the equestrian statue honoring some captain or other—are no longer what spring immediately to mind when we think of memorials. Someone walking the streets of Vienna today is equally likely to come upon one of the city's more than forty monuments commemorating the Holocaust, which take the form of everything from a giant rendering of Orpheus visiting Hades to a stark mausoleum by Rachel Whiteread. Graphic testimonials to the most horrific events of the twentieth century now pockmark Europe: the illuminated pit lined with empty shelves on Bebelplatz in Berlin, where the Nazi book-burning took place; the enormous statue of six mourning human forms with a slice hacked out of them rising above a hill south of Krakow that was once the site of a labor camp; not to mention the remains of the death camps themselves, the most eloquent (if unintentional) memorials of all.
America has hardly been immune to the epidemic proliferation of memorials, but here the rash has appeared in a milder form. Like those of prewar Vienna, our memorials observe the protocols of a genteel society: rather than howling faces or gashed bodies, tasteful abstractions invite us to contemplate death and destruction. The Holocaust memorial in Baltimore is a concrete wall that sits considerately off the beaten tourist track on a corner in the city's rundown downtown. Denver's monument to the massacre at Babi Yar consists of two enormous chunks of polished granite. In Boston, six illuminated glass towers are delicately inscribed with the names of extermination camps.
The memorial that both epitomizes and surpasses the American style of tasteful abstraction is, of course, Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which in its starkness and its specificity reaches an emotive depth that its imitators cannot fathom. Lin's memorial, which is among the most visited sites on the National Mall, consists of a series of black granite panels arranged to form a V-shaped wall that appears slowly to rise from the earth before sinking into it again. The panels are inscribed with the names of the 58,245 soldiers who died in the war or who are still missing. A part of the reason for the success of this memorial is that it addresses what is implicitly lacking in American monuments. The memorials of Europe are often located directly on the sites of the events that they commemorate. But American soil was remarkably unsullied by the depredations of the twentieth century; and so it is no wonder that our public art looks upon these crimes with a greater level of abstraction—a remove that Lin's memorial, in its subtle and yet penetrating way, manages to overcome.
With the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, all that changed. In less than two hours, sixteen acres of Lower Manhattan became the city's, and the country's, newest graveyard. The former site of the World Trade Center will forever bear the marks of the greatest number of American deaths to occur on native soil since Antietam. The memorial that will eventually be built on the site—and, starting just days after September 11, it was the nearly universal assumption that something would have to be built there—will be a place of pilgrimage for generations to come.
As befits our memory-obsessed society, the dust from the towers of the World Trade Center had hardly settled before speculation had begun regarding what would take their place. But with the selection of Daniel Libeskind as the designer of the site's "master plan," New York lost whatever chance it had to honor its dead properly. In one way, Libeskind was an obvious choice: his designs to date, which consist mainly of a handful of museums in Europe and America, are nearly necrophiliac in their reverence for death. No matter what the subject, he steeps his buildings in morbidity and commemoration. But his work combines its memorial tendencies with a vulgar didacticism that goes beyond even the lurid sloganeering that Musil imagined. For all the visual power of Libeskind's architecture, it finally shows very little respect for the dead whom it so ostentatiously remembers.
THE COVER OF Libeskind's slick new memoir depicts the architect as a young boy posing with a spade. The trendy half-size dust jacket, which wraps around the binding below the photograph, renders the skyline of Lower Manhattan as Libeskind's master plan for rebuilding Ground Zero envisions it, dominated by his 1,776-foot-high Freedom Tower and four shorter skyscrapers spiraling up to meet it, the curve outlined by their roofs intended to reflect the shape of the Statue of Liberty's torch. As the juxtaposition of these images suggests, Libeskind's self-promotional, megalomaniacal, and pathologically narcissistic book posits as its central theme the idea that the project of rebuilding Ground Zero, like the commission for the Jewish Museum in Berlin, was his destiny, foreordained by his childhood experiences, by the course of his career, and perhaps also by a higher power. But the cover image has another implication that Libeskind probably did not intend: the boy with the spade appears to be actually digging up the skyline, destroying his own creation.
Libeskind takes pride in calling himself "more cornball than cosmopolite," but since childhood he has been something of a globetrotter. Born in Lodz in 1946 to Polish Jews who spent the war years in the Soviet Union, he was a child prodigy on the accordion, winning a scholarship that led the family to immigrate to Israel when he was eleven. They came to New York two years later, and in his public statements about the World Trade Center project Libeskind has often recalled his first vision of the city with the Statue of Liberty rising before it, an image "so iconic that at times it feels as if I assumed it from an old RKO newsreel." The Libeskind family's tale of immigration is nearly as iconic: his father worked as a photo-offset stripper, and his mother, who in Poland and Israel had operated a corset-making shop, found a job in a sweatshop dyeing fur (which contributed to her eventual death from cancer). The family lived in an Amalgamated Clothing Workers' Union housing cooperative in the Bronx. Daniel attended Bronx High School of Science, where he first studied drawing seriously. He met Nina, his future wife, when they were both counselors at a Yiddish summer camp, and they married soon afterward.
LIBESKIND’S MEMOIR IS silent on the first phase of his career, which he spent, in the words of one critic, as a "peripatetic teacher with a portfolio full of elaborate, impossible sketches." The story of his professional life, as he tells it, begins in 1988, when he was living in Milan and "running a happily iconoclastic alternative architecture program out of our home." One day he received a letter inviting him to enter the competition to design what was then called the "Jewish Department of the Berlin Museum," which he greeted with his trademark fervor. "Within seconds I knew: This was a message sent directly to me." Alas, not so directly: the letter had been delayed in the post and the deadline had already passed, but Libeskind managed to beg his way into the competition.
At this point the architect had yet to have a building completed. "I was an architectural theorist and an academic … I had been more interested in ideas and abstract concepts than in the utilitarian aspects of the field," he says. This background served him well in his design for what would become the Jewish Museum, for with this project he created the signature synthesis of highly conceptual gimmickry and morbid historical obsession that would become his brand, and the key to his popular appeal. He started by subverting the rules, rejecting the very idea of a "Jewish department":"I would offer a design that would architecturally integrate Jewish history into Berlin's rich, multitextured history and enable people, even encourage them, to feel what had happened." (Libeskind points out, correctly, that the phrase "Jewish department" was anachronistic and spectacularly insensitive, as it was the "Jewish department" of the Gestapo that was charged with carrying out the Final Solution.) He looked up the addresses of ordinary Jews in the city's Gedenkbuch, or memorial book, and plotted them on a map along with the addresses of famous intellectuals. The result, he found, formed the pattern of "a distorted Star of David over the map of Berlin," and this shape inspired the building's form. The report that accompanied Libeskind's model, called "Between the Lines," was written on musical notation paper and mimicked the structure of the Gedenkbuch; and he decorated the exterior of his model with a collage of names from the book. Unable to resist a single opportunity for a symbolic gesture, he chose 6,000,001 as his identifying number for the competition.
Libeskind could not have made his intentions any clearer: his building is not a Jewish museum, it is a Holocaust memorial. Its most radical feature is a series of "voids" that cut through the building and are visible but inaccessible: one of them is paved with countless tiny screaming metal faces, an installation art project. The "Staircase of Continuity" dead-ends into a blank white wall. The "Holocaust Tower," ninety feet tall, is neither heated nor cooled, and lit only by a narrow slit in the roof. In the "Garden of Exile and Emigration," plants are placed out of reach in forty-nine tall pillars (forty-eight to represent 1948, the year Israel was created, plus an extra for Berlin); the garden's foundation is "oddly tilted, making visitors feel disoriented, even seasick." And the museum has no front door: you enter through the Baroque building that housed the former City Museum, then descend to three passageways (Libeskind calls them "axes") below street level. Lest the symbolism of these elements not be obvious enough on its own, the building is strewn with placards announcing, "The architect Daniel Libeskind intends …" or "The architect Daniel Libeskind believes.…"
In some ways Libeskind's style is nothing new: he sits firmly in the tradition of architecture parlante, or "speaking architecture," buildings whose structure literally enacts a function or a program, as in the eighteenth-century architect Ledoux's whimsical designs for the town of Chaux, in which the hoop-makers were to be housed in structures shaped like wheels and the brothel was shaped like a giant phallus. But rather than a speaking architecture, Libeskind's is a feeling architecture. "I don't concentrate solely on what a building will look like, I focus also on what it will feel like," he explains:
Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, and the other great modernist masters argued that buildings should present a neutral face to the world, but theirs is a philosophy that feels almost quaint now. Neutral? After the political, cultural, and spiritual devastations of the twentieth century, is it possible to embrace an antiseptic reality? Do we really want to be surrounded by buildings that are soulless and dull? Or do we confront our histories, our complicated and messy realities, our unadulterated emotions, and create an architecture for the twenty-first century?
One need not share Libeskind's hostility to modernism (at one point he writes that "a cool box building has no place in this world") to agree that the Jewish Museum probably would not have been well served by a Bauhaus design. His belief that buildings should be inspired by a sense of place and an understanding of history, that they can have a spiritual resonance that reflects the "constellation of realities and invisible forces" that shape our lives, is ambitious and sincere, if largely uncontroversial.
But demagogic emotionalism is not the only alternative to diffident formalism. And there is something disturbing about the programmatic didacticism of Libeskind's "emotional architecture." He does not wish only to provoke feelings; he wants also to dictate them, to control them. He leaves nothing to chance: every corner, every angle is exploited for the greatest symbolic value that can be derived from it. This is not limited to the Jewish Museum, the clunkily allegorical elements of which have an almost parodic, Bunyanesque quality. For the Felix Nussbaum Haus in the northwestern German town of Osnabruck, which honors the German painter who died in Auschwitz, he designed a six-foot-wide passageway to depict "the compression of experience." Typically, the building puts its visitors through an elaborate dance of re-enactment. "Once you are inside, it's easy to lose your orientation; you follow labyrinthine corridors, and you come to dead ends," Libeskind writes. "Often you are forced to retrace your steps.Lest it sound like work, I should add that people tend to find the experience uplifting and memorable." But do they remember anything of the art hung in that six-foot corridor? With all Libeskind's insistence on emotion and experience, his buildings actually discourage reflection. They seek only to overwhelm.
THE JEWISH MUSEUM opened to the public in September 1999. It stood empty for two years, but still it was (and remains) one of Berlin's most popular cultural attractions. "Berliners understood the building, deep in their hearts," Libeskind writes. "They stood in the Holocaust Tower, silently, many with tears in their eyes. They studied the staircase, and knew why it dead-ended at a blank white wall." Some argued that the museum should remain empty, allowed to stand on its own as a memorial to the Holocaust. "Libeskind has to a great extent usurped the original purpose of the building, producing a memorial scheme that overwhelms all other references and purposes," Martin Filler wrote in these pages, expressing admiration for the museum's emotional force but skepticism about "how well this extraordinary architecture serves the complex purposes of this institution."
Of course, serving the institution's purposes was the furthest thing from Libeskind's mind. His design actually forced the museum to change its purposes, evolving from a "Jewish department" of a municipal museum to become "Jewish Museum Berlin: Two Millennia of German Jewish History," a vibrant cultural institution of its own. On the face of it, there is nothing wrong with this: Libeskind used his creative force ingeniously to effect progress in the creakiest of city bureaucracies. At the same time, though, there is something grotesque about turning a Jewish museum into a Holocaust memorial. The implicit argument of Libeskind's building is that the history of the Jews in Germany is best understood from the standpoint of the Holocaust: a doomed progress to a catastrophic end. The Holocaust-related elements of the building are heavy-handed and overdetermined, but they are also viscerally powerful—so much so that they make the rest of the long and rich story of German Jewry appear mere prelude, a long parenthesis.
And that is precisely the problem with Libeskind's work: his show-offy style, which preeningly calls attention to itself, demanding that the viewer see only the architecture and nothing more, actually obscures the lives that it intends to commemorate. In a museum honoring a neglected artist, Libeskind designed a gallery that forces the art to be hung in a manner that makes it impossible to see. And with the Jewish Museum, meant to celebrate the saga of Jewish life in Germany, Libeskind made it impossible to reflect on anything other than the Holocaust. The building's fatalistic argument—its sensation of Jewish doom, of the inevitability of Auschwitz—is macabre and insulting and untrue. And for all its "voids" and "axes," its intentional discomfort and its induced claustrophobia, one has very little sense from Libeskind's building that the Holocaust was not a crime against nature, but an event that brought terrible suffering to millions upon millions of people.
THERE IS HARDLY a page of Libeskind's book on which he does not mention September 11. He may have felt the Jewish Museum commission to have been his destiny, but he views his role in the rebuilding of Ground Zero with an unparalleled messianic fervor. By the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks, however, there was still nothing approaching a consensus about how, or even whether, the site of the World Trade Center should be rebuilt.A power struggle had developed between Larry Silverstein, the developer who had signed a ninety-nine-year lease on the Twin Towers just weeks before the attacks and now demanded that any plan for the site must replace the ten million square feet of commercial space to which he was entitled, and the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, the agency created by George Pataki to oversee the planning process, which favored more flexibility in the planning. In July 2002, the LMDC unveiled a preliminary group of six designs for the site. These plans—each of which included a transit center, a series of bland-looking office towers, and a perfunctory memorial—were uniformly denounced by the media and the public. They revealed "a breathtaking determination to think small," wrote Herbert Muschamp, The New York Times' architecture critic. "Don't come looking for ideas that reflect the historic magnitude of last year's catastrophe.… What you see, instead, are proposals for real estate development."
Two months later, Muschamp invited Libeskind to join a panel he was convening at the Venice Biennale to discuss the future of Ground Zero. He had already picked a group of architects, including such usual suspects as Richard Meier, Rafael Vinoly, Zaha Hadid, and Rem Koolhaas, to create designs for Ground Zero to be featured in a special issue of The New York Times Magazine. Looking at the architects' creations previewed at the panel, Libeskind recalls, he was overcome with the "sickening thought" that
something was wrong with what we were looking at. Really, very wrong.
So much was being said about what had happened at Ground Zero, but so little was being conveyed by the architecture itself. Almost three thousand people had died, and we were treating the site of the tragedy as a tabula rasa, a clean slate to be filled with fashionable buildings.…The designs were so current, so smart, and everyone was feeling so very, very clever.…
Invited to the podium to speak, Libeskind stood silently before the room with his head in his hands for several minutes. Finally, he said that what the site needed was "a more profound indication of memory.… Glossy, contemporary, ironic, self-satisfied architecture isn't the answer."
As fate would have it, Libeskind had been invited to serve on the jury for the World Trade Center competition, but a prior commitment made it impossible for him to attend the meeting. And so he entered the competition instead. The challenge, as the LMDC had set it, was to come up with a master plan "that would address both the philosophical and the emotional questions raised at the site … while tackling critical practical problems raised by the destruction of the towers": the re-creation of a transportation hub, the re-integration of the site into the rest of the city, and, not least, the replacement of the already infamous ten million square feet of retail and office space.
One would have expected Libeskind to subvert these criteria, as he had in his Jewish Museum design; and if anyone had a chance of convincing the New York bureaucracy that office space should not set the terms for the rebuilding of Ground Zero, it might have been him. Instead, he seems to have decided that it was wiser politically to leap to the challenge. He re-read the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Visiting the site, he was powerfully impressed by the slurry wall, part of the buildings' foundations, which still stood in the pit: a giant dam made of concrete that safeguarded the Twin Towers from the waters of the Hudson. "It was haptic, tactile, pulsing, a multi-layered text written in every conceivable language," he writes. The wall, he felt, contained yet another message for him: "In refusing to fall, it seemed to attest, perhaps as eloquently as the Constitution, to the unshakable foundations of democracy and the value of human life and liberty."
And so Libeskind's plan, which he grandiosely titled "The Heart and the Soul: Memory Foundations," included the requisite skyscraper, but it also looked "down, into the pit, because I felt that was where the memory of the site also resided." As with the Jewish Museum, he left no opportunity for commemoration unexploited. The plan, rendered in slashing white lines on black paper, began by envisioning a memorial site that would preserve the original "footprints" of the Twin Towers, leaving their foundations exposed, with a walkway along the slurry wall—"revealing the heroic foundations of democracy for all to see." The next drawing, titled "September 11 Matrix," depicted the memorial site with what Libeskind called "Heroes Lines to Ground Zero," which would incorporate the routes taken by firefighters, police, and other rescue workers into pathways leading outward from "September 11 Plaza," to be located at the intersection of Fulton and Greenwich streets. A bigger plaza, called either "Wedge of Light" or "Park of Heroes," was situated so that it would be bathed in sunlight every September 11 from 8:48 a.m. (the moment the first plane hit Tower One) until 10:28 a.m. (when the second tower fell). Finally, the skyline, which the plan referred to as "Life Victorious," would include a group of five towers, set in a spiral shape and each gradually increasing in height, up to the focal point, an asymmetrical "Freedom Tower" of which the spire, rising to 1,776 feet, would visually echo the Statue of Liberty's torch, visible directly across the harbor.
Again, what distinguished Libeskind from his competitors was his design's powerful memorial focus: it turned every aspect of the site into an opportunity for commemoration, every detail of the disaster into an object of architectural allegory and illustration. And in so doing, his book takes great pains to emphasize, it spoke to New Yorkers' hearts. After the seven shortlisted plans were presented to the public at the Winter Garden in December 2002, Libeskind writes, he was swarmed by the victims' family members, many of whom, he says, later would become his personal friends.Doormen would call out to him as he walked down the street; even the customs inspector who stamped his passport at Kennedy Airport offered his support. (Libeskind's book is full of insufferable anecdotes testifying to his proletarian appeal, from a glass-cutter who says his work on the Jewish Museum "reached the limits of my profession" to the security guards who never fail to greet Libeskind with encouraging words.) "You could tell by the sustained applause and tears that this is what people really wanted, and what New York needs," Ada Louise Huxtable wrote in The Wall Street Journal. "Forget the additional time and expense of a competition, nothing will ever be better than this."
In fact, the competition did continue for several more months, finally coming down to Libeskind and a group called THINK headed by Rafael Vinoly, whose design included a pair of open-scaffolding towers that would house cultural spaces. Libeskind's plan was not unanimously favored. Muschamp called it "predictably kitsch" and "startlingly aggressive … a war memorial to a looming conflict that has scarcely begun." A television news poll showed that 13 percent of New Yorkers preferred Libeskind's plan, 15 percent preferred the THINK team's, and 70 percent did not like either one. The LMDC eventually chose THINK, but Pataki himself overruled them to name Libeskind the designer. (Libeskind presents Pataki's support of his plan as partially due to the influence of the lawyer Eddie Hayes, a friend of Pataki's who intervened on his behalf, and emphasized to the governor his and Libeskind's common culture as immigrants from Eastern Europe. One suspects that this might not be the full story, and in his new book Sixteen Acres: Architecture and the Outrageous Struggle for the Future of Ground Zero, Philip Nobel makes a good case that campaign contributions to Pataki from Ronald Lauder may have had something to do with Libeskind's selection.)
In any event, it quickly became clear that Libeskind's master plan would be understood as only a loose guideline. David Childs of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill was named lead designer of the "Freedom Tower," and the final design—the result of months of wrangling between the two architects—bears little resemblance to Libeskind's original. The only battle that Libeskind won was his literalist insistence that the tower remain 1,776 feet tall, although Childs, understandably, found the symbolism architecturally irrelevant and jingoistic. The alterations made to the skyscraper wiped out the "Park of Heroes." And it turned out that the "Wedge of Light," as Libeskind had planned it, would be partially shadowed by the planned construction of a hotel, a revelation that, embarrassingly for Libeskind, was reported on the front page of The New York Times' Metro section. The design for the memorial itself, which was chosen in a separate competition, fills in part of the pit Libeskind had left open and forces the removal of a cultural building that Libeskind had wanted to cantilever over the site. Libeskind either downplays or ignores these setbacks in his book, which reproduces his original design for the skyscraper and other buildings as if no modifications had been made. Philip Nobel renders a more sober verdict. "Daniel Libeskind, in the end, left almost no mark; his political capital was spent," he writes. "From the moment he wowed the Winter Garden with his first presentation, [he] lasted a year and a day in the process."
FOR ALL LIBESKIND’S pomp and circumstance, there is no denying the fact that his plan for Ground Zero does seem to have spoken to many New Yorkers on a visceral, even profound level. Its most striking elements—the excavation of the foundation pit to reveal the slurry wall and the safeguarding of the towers' "footprints"— reflect a respect for the gravity of what happened at Ground Zero that simply putting up a new skyscraper would not. No matter what the ultimate verdict is on whatever buildings do get built, Libeskind cannot be accused of being a proponent of "clever" architecture.
In fact, one of the problems with Libeskind's architecture is that it is not clever enough. It does not take architecture seriously—as a medium, as an art in itself rather than a vessel for allegory. Libeskind pays lip service to the idea of respecting his sites, but in fact he never offers an architectural reason why his skyscraper should be 1,776 feet tall. (He argues that the 2,000-foot tower that Childs proposed would dwarf the rest of the skyline, but it's hard to think that his own—more than 400 feet taller than the Twin Towers—would not have the same effect.) The symbolism derives from the peculiar narrative that Libeskind has imposed on the site, just as the "voids" scattered through the Jewish Museum have no purpose architecturally other than to dramatize his vision of the Holocaust. With so little interest in the artistic integrity of his creations, Libeskind cannot be called an architect so much as a mnemonic engineer.
AND YET AT the same time Libeskind's architecture is doomed by its relentless inward focus, its inability to look beyond the physicality of his structures to achieve some appreciation of their historical and cultural context. This is most breathtaking in his discussion of September 11, which he seems to consider as great a tragedy for the World Trade Center itself as for its inhabitants. He knows the anatomy of the Twin Towers as if it were his own, but he mentions the thousands of lives lost on September 11 in only the most perfunctory way. "Buildings have hearts and souls, just as cities do," he writes. "We can feel the memory and meaning in a building, sense the spiritual and cultural longing it evokes. If you doubt that, think about the heartbreaking immensity of the loss when the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center collapsed." At one point he even interprets the movie The Shining as a prefiguration of September 11: "The repeated, deadly visions of the pretty twin girls have struck me as visions of the Twin Towers themselves."
But buildings did not die on September 11, people did. It seems there could be nothing more banal than such a statement, and yet it must be said, because the designer of the Ground Zero site seems to imagine it as a memorial to dead buildings. This is no accident; it reflects a belief that is intrinsic to Libeskind's understanding of architecture. The first page of his book contains the extraordinary statement that "When we consider history, what we see before us are the buildings": Versailles as an emblem of the French Revolution, the Colosseum to represent Rome. But this is not, to put it mildly, a universal truth. Most of us envision first the actors who created that history, even if we do not actually go so far as to picture Louis XIV or Julius Caesar. What we remember first are their ideas, their actions—not their physical creations.
Libeskind was right to rebel against the idea of treating the site as a "tabula rasa to be filled with fashionable buildings." Memorials—and he is right, too, that the function of Ground Zero is most importantly as a memorial—serve a crucial function in shaping the collective memory of a nation. By providing a public space for people to gather with the common purpose of remembering a tragedy, they encourage the creation of a common narrative of the past. But with their aggressive imposition of their own emotional narrative, Libeskind's designs thwart the natural process by which a people interprets and embraces a memorial. For all his encomia to the American spirit, he fails to recognize that we cannot be told how to think about September 11, either as individuals or as a nation. Perhaps someday the pit at Ground Zero will seem an appropriate emblem of the foundations of democracy, and the Freedom Tower a natural outgrowth of the terrible violence that occurred at the World Trade Center; but not yet.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, with its simple angled lines and seemingly interminable list of names, is deliberately and explicitly without an agenda. By allowing each visitor to have his or her own personal experience there, it actually enabled a nation divided by the war to find a single point of common mourning. So, too, with the Gedenkbuch that was once Libeskind's inspiration: it forces no structure beyond the alphabet, embodying at once the specificity of personal suffering and the abstraction that remains when narrative is removed. (September 11 had its own Gedenkbuch, the "Portraits of Grief" published by The New York Times, which offer the briefest capsules of the lives of those who perished.) And so, too, or at least one can hope, with the memorial design that has been chosen for Ground Zero, which politely ignores Libeskind's overdetermination and imposes its own exquisitely subtle form: two reflecting pools that will lie in the footprints of the towers, with a park above. In the end, the best and most lasting memorial may be one that is immaterial, even unnoticeable.
This article originally ran in the February 7, 2005 issue of the magazine.