October 11, 2011
Exactly one month after the official opening of the commemorative monument at Ground Zero by president Obama and his predecessor Bush and former mayor Giuliani I had the occasion to visit.
The gatekeeper for the site of the Twin Towers managed to shift us into an earlier time slot than previously allotted to us. We waited for our turn with American tourists from all over the nation and some foreigners. The groups waited between those tubular cattle railings which seem to be a normal ingredient of American life today. One is subjected to the security ritual of today’s airports, identification, separated search of all luggage, the stripping off of shoes and belts, radiation by a scanner, frisking. One is basically treated like a prisoner, assumed a criminal before proven otherwise. It brings to mind how much our democratic society has been changed by terrorism.
Not much guidance was given but the security was friendly.
One meanders through a maze of wire nets towards the area where building is completed. I noticed workmen having a break on unfinished sites and treating the constant flow of visitors as eye-candy. I think they feel uplifted by the knowledge to work on something of uncommon importance.
Then suddenly you find yourself in the space where the towers stood before. A vast plaza. All around anonymous skyscrapers rise up and mirror each other (and the sky) in the always harshly brilliant light of New York. I had been expecting to confront a plenitude of national symbols, but hardly a sign. Only somewhere against a neighboring building an enormous Stars and Stripes. The first impression is one of emptiness. And silence.
New York is a noisy city and you notice the low sound level. Then you hear a constant rustle of water, the rushing of a fall, and before you know how you got there you are staring into an enormous cavity, a gigantic square emptiness, the footprint of the disappeared building.
It measures forty by forty meters, enough to feel distanced from the other side. A dark mass of water falls down into the depth on all four sides in uninterrupted flow. The water falls into a basin that in its center again has a rectangular opening, where the image of falling waters repeats itself, this time, it seems, to finally disappear in the depths and the darkness, as if falling toward the center of the earth.
You have been attracted by the sound of falling water, but stopped by a bronze balustrade, that frames the whole circumference of the disappeared tower. A tilted bronze slab extends at the level of the hip and on it are inscribed, fraised or punched, in negative letters, the names of the almost three thousand victims. At night lights shine through them from underneath, so that the names remain also legible in that darkness. But in daytime they are empty letters in bronze that stress the absence of so many individuals, of so many names, from so many families and so many countries. Under this continuous common doorplate flows the water. You can, if you feel like it, dip your hand into the gushing water and (as it were) send a message to nowhere or to the disappeared, all in accordance to your beliefs.
Quite a number of people come there to look for the name of an absent one, they caress the name, place a flower in one of the letters, or make a copy by rubbing the name on paper. You then become aware that indeed there is no burial place for the majority of the dead, they have been squashed and pulverized. This cemetery cannot provide more than a memory of their names.
There are thousands of names, more or less ordered in the time sequence of their arrival at their last workplace. The cleaners, the office people, the firemen dashing to and fro. Also the victims from the planes are recorded. Two mothers among them with their unborn children. Also the dead at the Pentagon.
Enough victims have been made to fill another bronze rampart around a second identical pit, which also has been transformed into a waterfall. The Twin Towers have been changed into two enormous absences, two voids, like an unstoppable crying fit about something that got lost forever.
This more than life-size emotional outburst would perhaps have become unbearable if it had been limited to water and stone alone. The Southern and Northern basins lie indeed in an extended piazza of grey granite, with only cubes as seats and benches of the same stone. But hundreds of oak-trees have been planted, at first sight at random or in an irregular way. In the course of time white American swamp oaks will soften the hard edges with their trunks and canopy. This green ceiling will make the view even more horizontal, as the bustling presence of the skyscrapers above will be attenuated. Small strips have been left open in the granite floor and in these only grass and ivy grow. From the edge of the plaza the narrow strips of green become rare towards the basins.
The ivy and grass together with the oak-trees convey a feeling that there exists not only death and destruction, but also rebirth and growth.
This masterpiece of minimalist architecture is the gift of the young Israeli-American architect Michael Arad and the American landscape architect Peter Walker. Perhaps it will eventually never be more efficacious than today; the rebuilding is still incomplete. Workers are still building the Freedom Tower of 1776 feet and the reflecting entrance for the underground museum, which has been conceived by a Norse consortium. It may add something spectacular, but also in bad taste. For the moment the spectator can participate without disturbance in the loss of many and admire the reticence of both commission and execution.
After the cemeteries in Northern France on the battlefields of the First World War designed by Edwin Luytjens, and the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington of Maya Lin, the National September 11 Memorial of Arad and Walker presents a third impressive example of the way a democracy can honor its soldiers and citizens.