Memorials Without a Memory
by DENNIS SMITH
NY Times — November 11, 2003

The Florentines of the 15th century did not trust Filippo Brunelleschi, who kept secret the details as he went about building the world's largest dome. They had good reason to be skeptical, actually, as Brunelleschi was a goldsmith and sculptor who had never before built a building. In one of the great mystery stories of art history, the people of Florence had to wait 16 years to see if the 37,000 metric tons of material would hold together. The Florentines were a fortunate people.

New Yorkers of the 21st century are not so fortunate. In trying to find an adequate way to memorialize the immensity of Sept. 11, 2001, our leaders have failed. After four months of meetings so secret that even Brunelleschi would have been impressed, the eight designs selected as finalists have now been released, and it is clear that the dome of our intentions has collapsed before the first contract is signed.

In considering these designs, the striking aspect is their sameness. The jury, 13 good and faithful human beings, volunteered long hours to study more than 5,000 submissions, but their choices show a limited imagination. Perhaps this shouldn't be a surprise: the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, given a broad field of thoughtful New Yorkers from which to put together the panel, chose jurors primarily from within the narrow confines of the arts community.

So what sorts of ideas do we end up with? They have to do with light, hanging light, falling light, diluted light, drowning light. And also with stones that are crying, sky-reflecting water pools, floating gardens, bridges placed like bandages, cut fields and an apple orchard. The universal elements - air, water, earth and light - are celebrated. Nature is celebrated. Nowhere is there a representation of a human being.

Names, yes: some 3,000 names cut into different kinds of material. But the designs of names seem more the legacy of Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington than of the event to be remembered. None of the designs conveys the strength and spirit of the American personality, as represented by the kind of men and women who not only know how to suffer but who, when times are tough, will also step up and say, "Follow me."

In introducing the finalists last week, Vartan Gregorian, the former president of the New York Public Library and leader of the jury, and John Whitehead, head of the development corporation, alluded to a mindfulness of history and our heroes. But why talk about history and heroes, and then dismiss them entirely? The search for diverse input, it seems, stopped at the doors of our firefighters and police officers. There is not one man or woman in a position to represent the interests of the first responders, not one juror in any way connected to the more than 400 brave souls who chose to go into those buildings to help people who desperately needed them.

Where are the images of people who will inspire the generations to come, the images of valor of the kind that has carried heroes, saints, imams, rabbis, priests and generations of warriors forward through the last three millennia of artistic endeavor? Think of the Parthenon, Trajan's Column, the Arc de Triomphe, and what those images tell us. And then ask, why have we put our country's most important remembrance of 9/11 into the hands of a few people, who will now choose for us from among eight designs that look more like trendy hotel lobbies than awe-inspiring monuments? Is there not one among our leaders who can remember that Michelangelo and Leonardo were inspired by Brunelleschi, that there are thousands of similar inspirations throughout history, that the effect of the present on the future is the definition of history?

It is time to stop and reflect before we are committed to one of these finalists. Instead of rushing forward with an arbitrary mid-December deadline, we should consider many potential designs in an open forum, as we did after the initial designs for the rebuilding of the World Trade Center were met with public dismay. We should put, say, some 200 of the designs submitted to the jury on public display, and hold town-hall-type meetings at which people from other walks of life can have their say. If New Yorkers will not do so, Congress and President Bush should insist on a role in choosing the monument. This memorial is not just a local commemoration; it will be the standing symbol of a national tragedy. It is time to think more deeply about how we want to remember Sept. 11, 2001.

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