To my amazement, the 9/11 Memorial Museum is a place of memory and meaning as powerful as anything this country has produced since the Vietnam Memorial. It works because there is almost nothing there. Its emptiness is what impresses and weighs on you.
As I mentioned in my blog last week, a recent visit to New York confirmed my love of modernism in its most abstract, repetitive, reductive, and even gridded nature. The idea that the editing down and shaping of all our modern world’s complexity can be restrictive and even imprisoning might be pervasive, but it is also true that such an act of editing and limited representation can bring out clarity and even truth.
Around the Memorial, the gridded skyscrapers are, as I noted, more powerful than the silliness (a hard word to use for something so enormous, but I think the right one) of the Freedom Tower. At the base, Santiago Calatrava, FAIA’s Tiffany-priced and useless canopy for the PATH train station looks like the carcass of a dead turkey stuck between the high rises that ate it. The above-ground portion of the Memorial Museum equally appears to have been stomped on by those lumpen loads of corporate office space, having thus broken in the middle in such a way as to gesture wildly at nothing in particular.
It gets better when you get back to square one, or at actually two: the two voids rimmed by waterfalls that follow the contours of the fallen towers. It is unforgivable, however, that you are kept a dozen feet away from them by black stone rims etched with the dead’s names. Originally, the whole point was to go to the rim, both physically and spiritually, and then to descend to where you could see the sky and hope from behind the waterfalls. Unlike the grids of private skyscrapers, you would have been able to live this abstraction and thus sense absence. Now it is just a bigger and negative version of what is missing.
Get through the long lines for tickets and security, and the constricted entryway of the Museum, descend down escalators and stairs, and there you see it: the slurry wall that once kept the Hudson River at bay and now is the main material remain of the two towers. Here is the one place where a dynamic diagonal works: Snøhetta’s angled and off-set descent mechanism cantilevers you out over the void, offers you different angels from which to view and, when you look at this circulation machine from above, does offer a line of escape back out—although, in a let-down, you actually have to sneak out the side.
Once you are down there, space abounds. Dark, and very tall, the main hall is not a singular space, but that which is left over around the silos that define the Twin Towers’ former outline and now contain all that unseen water. Spaced through this ramble of emptiness are various remains—a damaged fire truck, twisted columns—that are beautiful in the manner of all ruins, only more so here because of their dramatic setting. They represent what was lost, though their power also focuses us on the most troubling aspect of this, as is the case with so many other effective memorials: it is the violence embedded in them, the presence of destruction and of death, that makes them so attractive as spectacles.
In that sense, the memorial space inside one of the tower bases offers a beautiful antidote: as you sit in a low-ceilinged room, unseen speakers read out the names of those who were lost, one after the other, while projections show snapshots and details of their everyday lives. Here you sense what was really destroyed: real and individual human beings.
By contrast, the main exhibit is as meaningless, cliché-ridden, and poorly designed as all such attempts to take both teachable and scripted moments of emotion out of tragedy. An audience-flow mandated labyrinth sends you past curving panels filled with text and photographs. You and your emotions are processed efficiently from the revolving entrance door to the exit.
The 9/11 Memorial’s most solemn space is off-limits to all but family: a guard perched on a stool bars the door to all but family members to the contemplation chapel behind the wall in which many remains are interred. The control is understandable, though poorly worked-out, and regrettable, as we cannot share this most intense confrontation with loss. Emptiness, loss, and the presence of what is not: These are what make the 9/11 Memorial Museum work.
Later that day, I paid a last visit to the Whitney Museum before it starts its move to the misshapen monolith—a perfect example of too much—that Renzo Piano, Hon. FAIA, has designed for it along the Hudson River. In the old Whitney, I sat in the room where Agnes Martin’s twelve-part 1979 drawing, The Islands, hung around me. Each drawing’s variation on a grid, carried out in pencil lines that at times almost seemed to disappear, were to me the ghosts of what was not there, either lost or still coming, but they were also scrims through which I saw Manhattan again. Its skyscrapers make us dream, its memorials make us remember, and its best art shows us the essence of our present.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.