Visiting the 9/11 Memorial today for the first time, I was overcome by the suggestive simplicity of the two watery pits. The minimalist design powerfully conveys the tragedy of that day of infamy while also invoking the deep sense of connection and unity we New Yorkers shared with each other and with a shocked and sympathetic world in the aftermath of the attacks.
Built on the footprints of the towers, the square pools each cover an acre. The vastness of the empty spaces reinforces our sense of loss. Architect Michael Arad successfully met the challenge of representing absence by drawing our eyes irresistibly downward through the emptiness to the darkness of the void.
Thousands of spouts line the perimeter of the cavities, channeling water into linear cascades, like the lives that plummeted downward with the fatally wounded buildings. The individual lines of water meet on the flat bottom where they pool together until they flow into a bottomless pit and plunge into darkness. The roar of the falling water fosters a meditative silence, insulating the observer from the everyday noises of the surrounding city. Even the incision on the enclosing parapet of the names of all the people who died that day and in the 1993 bombing evokes absence. The letters pierce the bronze completely, outlining the empty spaces formed by the names of the missing.
But in the darkness of night, hope is rekindled by the lights that glow from underneath through the cuts. The people who gather day after day to gaze downwards together are survivors who carry on the business of living. Workers in the surrounding buildings will come down to eat their lunches, sharing the surrounding leafy grove and establishing a community within the memorial.
I felt the strong presence of Maya Lin, whose design for the Vietnam War Memorial was chosen in a blind competition when she was still an undergraduate. Lin cut a gash into the earth that bears the name of every fallen soldier. Arad too was young and (relatively) unknown when his design won the competition. Arad is Israeli and Lin is first-generation Chinese-American.
Initially, I was struck by the irony that these two monuments, each commemorating an event so meaningful to Americans, were both conceived by individuals whose roots are not American. And then I remembered— their “foreignness” is the very essence of America.