Memorial design fails the test

Tuesday, January 20th, 2004

I am a New Yorker, a writer and former firefighter, not an expert on architecture. But I think somebody has to speak up for first responders about the memorial that is being planned at the World Trade Center site. A lot of them are disappointed.

They're not alone. In all the commentary on the design, I have not seen one article that could be called a rave. Everyone has an objection, or at least a reservation, about the square pools surrounded by trees. It is minimalist architecture that is supposed to inspire Americans for generations to come. In fact, it is pulp architecture that, like pulp fiction, is a secondary thing.

I know that I have lost sleep in trying to reconcile myself to the decision of the mostly arts-community crowd that made up the Lower Manhattan Development Corp.'s panel of 13 jurors.

Why did we rush into this decision, particularly when so many people and editorialists do not approve with a full heart of the final choice? And why are so many of us acquiescing? This is, after all, a memorial that should make an artistic statement that lasts for hundreds of years.

We are in the middle of a culture war in America, and the memorial design must be seen in this context. It's a culture war that separates the design committee from most New Yorkers.

The post-modern minimalists have won for the moment. And although my mother taught me not to cry in my soup, I feel a responsibility to weigh in on this subject before the construction begins, for this memorial will be a structural wall of our civilization as it builds for the future.

Will we build beautiful buildings, or will we have square minimalist constructions, designed in the tradition of the Bauhaus school by people who disdain the classical forms?

Maya Lin, a leading member of the jury, created the Vietnam Memorial, a large and imposing representational gravestone. Yet the design for Ground Zero will not contain any representation of the events of 9/11. (Yes, there will be a museum of artifacts, but I'm talking about the design itself.) She was the major supporter of what was chosen, and she is certainly at the top of American architecture's new pecking order. But the consequence of her thinking has left us with what are essentially crying pools where presumably we will want to be exclusively sad.

Lin and the rest have not given us an environment of memory where we may be strengthened in our resolve to protect our way of life. Where we might be angered by the brutality of the attack on our soil. Where we will be inspired by the heroism of many who, like the first responders, were in those buildings caring about others more than they cared about themselves. Where we can teach our children about the historical truth of so many beautiful and inadequately protected lives taken by Islamist extremists. In short, where we can remember the significance of that day as it existed for so many of us.

Because of what we all went through in America on 9/11, we deserve great architecture and great sculpture at the memorial. If we can create powerful buildings to house our art - think, for example, of Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum - we can do as well in remembering our loved ones.

Gov. Pataki and the selection jury will not escape a true analysis of what they have done. History will catch up with them. They've won a battle in the culture war, but the war is not over.

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