The power of design was made evident to me once again when I visited the recently completed National September 11 Memorial at the World Trade Center site in New York.
When you get to the site – which is surrounded by seven skyscrapers in various stages of construction – your visitor pass is inspected and you enter a long line of switchbacks that, after about half an hour, leads into a small lobby where you pass through x-ray machines – as if you are boarding a plane – and
then go out again down a blue walkway, around a corner, to the park itself,
which is a geometric expanse of granite pavers and lawn under a forest grid of swamp white oaks. (The Memorial museum is not yet finished.) Ahead are the two vast 200 feet-square, 30-feet deep pools — one tracing the footprint of the north, the other, the south tower of the World Trade Center. Wide balustrades — dark bronze waist-high, slightly tilted tablets inscribed with the names of those who died in the towers, at the Pentagon, and on Flight 93 — rim the top of each thundering cascade.
Architect Michael Arad had wanted the names to line walkways behind the falling water at the bottom of each pool, which would have turned the water into a veil of tears and would have given each visitor a more private experience, but security concerns made this impossible, hence the inscribed slabs at the top.
The sound of the rushing water and the sheer expanse of dropping space draws you ineluctably to the edge. It is the 21st century equivalent of Frederick
Church’s famous painting of Niagara Falls of 1857 (image courtesy The Corcoran Gallery of Art). The scale of the opening and the volume of the water is mesmerizing. But now it’s not just the power of nature we
are witnessing but the power of human nature we are enshrining. My first thought was that the design is too repetitive but then I realized that it isn’t — since the names are all different — and anyway the towers were twins in presence and must be twins in absence. And at the center of each dark pool is a further, darker chasm, where you can’t quite see the bottom and the water falls into emptiness. Thus the monumental scale and the depth-within-depth describe the collective loss itself, both literally and figuratively.
The ingenious weir at the top turns the water into a painterly element.
The long airfoil shape made of comb-like tines breaks the sheet of water into individual strands that then recombine in a thin curtain of silver to flash in the sunlight. The weir also spreads the flow evenly, maximizing its apparent volume while minimizing actual water and energy use.
Landscape architect Peter Walker — who worked with Michael Arad — spoke of the way the design is about filling and emptying at the same time (as I mentioned in a previous post about Walker’s talk at the Monterey Design Conference), and this seems especially apt, for a memorial is about filling a void that cannot be filled and holding memories that must not be forgotten. This is abstraction at its most elemental and powerful — like nature itself.
In the Swim
On a lighter note, one of my daughters made me aware of another approach to water in New York that is both wonderful and crazy: the cross-shaped multi-purpose Plus Pool (four pools in one) designed to float in the East River and that is being proposed by Dong-Ping Wong of Family Architects, and Archie Lee Coates IV and Jeffrey Franklin of PlayLab.
They got hot last summer — “So we proposed a pool. More specifically, we proposed a pool that uses and filters the very water that it floats in. A pool that makes it possible to swim off the shores of New York, in river water, that’s clean.”
The engineering firm Arup devised a filtering membrane that makes the clean water possible.
And the four-part configuration allows for a variety of swimming styles.