The sacred spaces of 9/11
“We’ve all said that there’s a power to this place,’’ mused Jerry Spangler, the district attorney of Somerset County, Pa., referring to the field in Shanksville where United Flight 93 knifed into the ground on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, rattling the windows at his parents’ farm. Although the gash in the earth was filled within a month of the crash and the ground seeded with wildflowers, the field retains its hallowed status.
Sometimes the most powerful form of commemoration is to preserve the place where the event happened. The two 9/11 memorials opening to the public tomorrow take this approach.
“This memorial proposes a space that resonates with the feelings of loss and absence . . . ,’’ architect Michael Arad and landscape architect Peter Walker wrote about their design for the National 9/11 Memorial in New York City, which commemorates those who died in all three 2001 attacks as well as the victims of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Arad envisioned the footprints of the Twin Towers as enormous voids, which evolved into sunken pools lined with waterfalls. The memorial complex spreads out over eight acres - encompassing the pavilion of the 9/11 Memorial Museum, more than 400 oak trees, and a grassy glade - about half of the redeveloped World Trade Center site. The memorial plaza forms a green roof over the museum (opening in September 2012), a cavernous underground space that will display monumental artifacts, including ruined fire trucks and the 57-ton concrete “survivor stairs’’ used as an escape route.
When I visited about three weeks ago, the plaza was alive with workers in hard hats. Cranes, piles of gravel, and orange mesh fencing blurred the edges of the memorial and the adjacent acreage, on which several skyscrapers are rising. As the gigantic square pools coalesced from the chaos, their size was as dizzying as the height of the former towers: Four, 200-foot-long walls outline each one-acre pool. Only the North Tower Pool was operating that day. From a narrow moat lining the edge, or parapet, of each wall, the water dropped 30 feet into a black granite basin. In the center of each basin, the water flowed into a final square recess - a pool within a pool - descending to bedrock, 70 feet below the paved plaza. Years from now, when the construction din subsides, the falls will mask the street sounds in white noise. The designers envision the memorial as an integral part of the city, but like the meandering groves of oak trees - now about 15 feet high - the rushing water will help create a separate, sacred space.
Meanwhile, the oaks, which will grow to 60 feet, add a human dimension. Lines of them mark the wall of each former tower. The pools lie inside each footprint, symbolically bringing visitors inside the former buildings.
The waist height of the parapets also brings the scale within human grasp. Against their dark bronze surface, light picks out the incised letters of the victims’ names - 2,983 of them - inscribed on the parapets of the two pools. (Maps are available to help people locate names.) The North Tower pool lists the names of those who died in the building, including the people on Flight 11, plus the victims of the 1993 bombing. Seeing those names, lined out horizontally along one 200-foot wall - then another, and another, and another - allowed me to feel at least some measure of what happened here.
The emotional impact of seeing the callery pear tree, known as the Survivor Tree, came as a surprise. The only tree on the former World Trade Center site that is still alive, it has been nursed and replanted, and a healthy crown fans out from two-thirds of the trunk. The blasted side bears the blackened scars of limbs - a Venus de Milo in charred bark.
Nearby, strips of turf had just been unfurled behind the museum pavilion to form the Glade, a contemplative space with scattered seating blocks. The pavilion’s pearly exterior reflects the greenery. But its skin is also transparent. When the light is right, you can make out the arches from the towers’ lower facade rising again, inside.
Past corrugated-metal buildings and fundamentalist churches and miles of cornfields in southwestern Pennsylvania, the Flight 93 Memorial occupies part of a new national park on a former strip mine. The park will eventually cover 2,200 acres, posing a challenge of scale of a different kind.
“If we had tried to create something heroic, it would have been overpowered by the landscape,’’ said architect Paul Murdoch, a tall, slender man with gray hair and a handlebar mustache, who spoke at a ceremony on the day my husband and I visited, about six weeks ago. The site stretched beyond the black wall behind him, and an uphill slope, called the Field of Honor, rose gradually on the other side of the path where he stood. A trio of newly planted trees - sweet gums, which will flame like crimson torches in the fall - stood like sentinels beside a deck with benches facing the field. Eventually, landscape architects Nelson Byrd Woltz will plant 40 memorial groves of 40 trees each, commemorating the 40 Americans who died a few feet away after struggling to gain control of the plane. The jet, streaking toward Washington, D.C., with 7,000 gallons of fuel aboard, was heading for the Capitol, experts now believe. The passengers chose to launch a revolt. Although the terrorists rebuffed the first assault, the passengers were regrouping when the hijackers ditched the plane to avoid defeat. The jet struck at a 40-degree angle - almost upside down - at about 580 miles an hour, blasting a 40-foot crater into the ground. (The number 40 echoes uncannily.)
The scant features of the memorial etch this narrative into the ground. Because of the designers’ light touch on the land, and also because 40 faces have a chance of being remembered individually, this panoramic landscape feels intimately connected to both visitors and victims. People enter through a concrete gate that resembles a modernist coffee table writ large. From here they can stop at the deck with benches or follow a black path that traces the zig-zag course of the plane to a wall of white marble - 40 panels inscribed with the names of the victims. One end of the wall points to an enormous boulder marking the point of impact. Meandering paths will provide other access routes through the trees and fields, allowing for different kinds of experiences.
The wall was still going up then, and the visitors center had yet to be built. Meanwhile, visitors could view a temporary exhibit inside a metal shed erected by the mining company that owned this land. The exhibit, like the design, is guided by the theme “A common field one day. A field of honor forever.’’
Having spotted a sign for a Flight 93 Chapel at the top of the entrance road, we made a side trip to the steepled building, about two miles away. Outside, a garden enclosed a monument to the flight crew. A former Catholic bishop, Al Mascherino, led us inside the nondenominational chapel, where folding chairs faced a celestial mural. T-shirts, candles, and memorabilia - some things for sale, some on display - lined shelves on other walls.
Back at the memorial landscape, we stood in the fenced gravel parking lot where visitors can view the site during construction. A volunteer Flight 93 ambassador, Marlin Miller, explained that 150,000 visitors a year had gathered at such temporary viewing spots. “We try to help them understand what they’re looking at,’’ Miller said about the role of the ambassadors. That day most people had toured the exhibits, lingering over the stories of the passengers, before coming to stand at the fence. Few of them said much of anything.
Later, another ambassador, Donna Glessner, told me, “More than a million people have come just to stand and look at the crash site - they are content with what they find here.’’
Jane Roy Brown can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.