Daréll Lourens visits The National September 11 Memorial and Museum at the World Trade Center site in New York City. It is a space alive with remembrance and renewal, respectively commemorating the six civilians killed in the World Trade Center bombing of 1993, and 2,507 civilians, 72 law enforcement officers, 343 firefighters, and 55 military personnel, who died on 11th September 2001.
The visit takes her on a journey seeking a deeper understanding of what it means to be a human being living in the increasingly global nature of human society at the start of the 21st Century.
I sometimes wonder: What type of person am I?
Arriving at the two great voids with their thundering waterfalls, absence is immediately visible. The overwhelming losses are given permanent presence and provide a place for contemplation and remembrance within this revitalised urban centre.
I was one of about 2 billion people—one-third of the world’s population—who watched the September 11 2001 tragedies, as they unfolded live on television and online. It was the most widely witnessed event in human history and remains an ingrained vision of chaos, ruin and unimaginable loss – even to someone who is not a U.S. citizen.
In 2005, the World Trade Center Foundation was set up to supervise establishing a memorial on the location of the Twin Towers and opened a worldwide design competition that received more than 5,000 submissions from 63 nations. The winning design by Architect Michael Arad and Landscape Architect Peter Walker entitled “Reflecting Absence”, is a 3 ha (8 acre) plaza with 400 trees that surround two enormous recessed reflecting pools. The twin pools occupy the exact footprint of the Twin Towers destroyed in the attacks and is edged on all four sides by gossamer-thin waterfalls spilling from 2.4 m (8 ft) wide channels at the plaza level. These are the largest man-made waterfalls in the North America, falling 9.1 m (30 ft) to a flat basin, and then another 9.1 m (30 ft) through a smaller square hole in the centre. Each pool holds 2.3 million litres (600,000 gallons) of water pumped at a rate of up to 115,000 litres (30,000 gallons) per minute and filtered at a rate of 23,000 litres (6,000 gallons) per minute.
The presence of water is incredibly important at the memorial. You have to have the means to reflect and these Niagaras of grief cascade perpetually, alluding in a subtle way to the collapse of the towers, drowning out the noises of the city, focusing the visitors attention to the memorial and providing an integrated public space that fosters meditation and contemplation within the city.
The names of every person who died in the 2001 and 1993 attacks are inscribed into bronze panels edging the Memorial pools, a powerful reminder of the largest loss of life resulting from a foreign attack on American soil and the greatest single loss of rescue personnel in American history. Each name is illuminated from within at night.
“I think what I wanted to do here is really encourage that moment of introspection and to bring people to the very edge of these enormous voids and reflect on what happened here that day,” says Michael Arad. “I think that these reflections are going to be very personal in nature. People will react very differently to these memorials. There’s not a single, universal and correct way to understand what happened that day. But what we’ve tried to build here, I’ve compared it in the past to a moment of silence. And how you use that moment of silence is very much a personal matter.”
Architecturally, the space feels like a catacomb. Once descending below ground there are 23,000 images, 10,300 artifacts, nearly 2,000 oral histories of those killed, and over 500 hours of video. It is nearly impossible to take everything in.
Alice M. Greenwald, Director of the Memorial Museum, explains:
The Museum’s core exhibitions are located at bedrock, seven stories below ground, allowing visitors to be in the very space where the Twin Towers once stood. Not simply located at the site of the attacks, the Museum occupies a space defined by in-situ historic remnants. Because federal preservation law mandated that those remnants be publicly accessible, the Museum has been built in a contemporary archaeological site whose authenticity of place has been fully integrated with the narrative that unfolds within it. Where most museums are buildings that house artifacts, this Museum has been built within an artefact.
Spencer Finch is the only artist, who was commissioned to create a new piece of art for the institution and it was likely the most memorable aspect of the space for me.
The work covers most of the central wall in the museum’s underground exhibition space. Though it may appear to be a stone mosaic, the piece is made up of individual sheets of paper that the artist has hand-painted in differing shades of blue with water colours. Each of the 2,983 papers represent one of the victims of the 2001 attacks and the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
Finch’s work, Trying To Remember the Color of the Sky on That September Morning, is inspired by this clear, intensely blue sky of that fateful morning, the kind of blue that pilots and meteorologists call “severe clear”.
“It had to be believable”, he said. “It had to be about that human quality of remembering, how it’s so fuzzy in some ways, and in other ways it’s so completely clear”.
Memorial museums have an unstable balance between education and emotion. Often they are activated not just by haunting reminders of the victim, but continuing anger at the perpetrator. Without exceptional restraint, they can catalyse new and ugly forms of nationalism.
As I walked away into Lower Manhattan, crossing the landscaped plaza of oak trees and two sculptural voids carved deep into the earth, I again could attest to the triumph of human dignity over human depravity and affirm an unwavering commitment to the fundamental value of human life.
To me this visit provided a case study in how ordinary people behave in extraordinary circumstances – their acts of kindness, compassion and generosity of spirit demonstrating the profoundly constructive effect we can have on each other’s lives by the choices we make, even in the face of unspeakable destruction.
The stories of the victims reminded me that most people are charitable, decent, courageous, kind, ingenuous, and simply to cherish the value of life and to not waste a minute of what you have.
Words and pictures: Daréll Lourens