When one lives in a city surrounded by water, this essential element often flows unnoticed until announcing itself by either performing tricks or misbehaving. Humans treat such sustaining elements with neglect, until a tragedy makes us notice. Architects and designers are then hired to make us look again and acknowledge something other than our own assumptions and memories. What is it about directed water that attracts and excites us, sharpens our attention yet relaxes our inhibition? In 2008, Olafur Eliasson’s The New York City Waterfalls elevated the East River in four sites, sucking its water upward so that it could fall into the actual river from above. A bewitchingly simple manipulation, it drew attention primarily to itself, the incongruity and logic of water on water, elevated and amplified by scaffolding.
The 9/11 Memorial, at the site of the former World Trade Center, has a very different intent, almost closing in on itself while also expanding the viewer’s sensibility. Each of the twinned memorials is essentially a four-sided waterfall descending in two levels, separated by an acre-large reflecting pool. The top falls are carefully channeled rivulets, individual strands falling into and uniting in the huge pool. The much smaller lower falls, constructed of granite tiles suggestive of a mausoleum, direct the water into sheets as it disappears into the lower chamber hidden from our elevated view. We cannot follow.
Visitors to the memorial snap photos, but such attempts seem doomed, the structure too deep and receding to be in the picture plane. High above on solid, dry ground, we cannot take in the entire thing. Perhaps that’s the point; it’s about planes, double meaning intended. We are not on the same plane as those who died, as they are far below now and you will not be allowed by their memorial’s depth to impose your living self. You will have to settle for the names of those who actually died here, their tilted plane of inscriptions blocking you from the depths. The memorial sinks into the earth, swallowing up the waters of sorrow, calling to mind not only tears but the oceans of water futilely sprayed by fire crews thirteen years prior.
These two footprints of towers no longer towering are pressed into the earth, where water now rushes into them, as water will do if allowed. We are reminded of the “slurry wall,” something few of us know of before the disaster, which holds the river back and on that day kept it from immediately engulfing the wound (and all of lower Manhattan). This footprint, this controlled flood, carries not only remembrance but prescience. As Hurricane Sandy made clear, future disaster lurks from water elevated through climate change.
The audacity of this memorial, after years of fury over memory rights and property rights, is to simply allow these huge holes to remain forever, pushing new buildings to the sidelines. The foundations, the wreckage, demands to be recognized. And we can only peer in, we cannot enter. What might feel inappropriately grandiose and exclusionary is instead an assertion of aesthetic and historic justice. We stare into the pit, forced to gaze over the names, touching them if only to get a better view, while around the memorialized scar work continues, on Santiago Calatrava’s grand (perhaps too grand?) transit center, another plaza, and of course other buildings. This memorial is part of New York City, after all. Will it ever be finished? Is it better to keep building, for to truly finish might signal a time to stop remembering?
The individual connection to the memorial has not been erased, only made into a more generative process. There are 2,983 people listed on the two sites of the South Tower and North Tower. I had my own disconcerting moment, discovering “Robert D. McMahon” as I leaned into the structure. The simple fact of his name’s affiliation with mine pushed me to find out more about him on one of the many archive kiosks ringing the site. A fireman born in 1965, he lived in Woodside, Queens, and died fighting the disaster that led to this memorial. Other names have roses stuck into them, indicating that today would have been their birthday. There are small signs asking that we report anyone scratching or marking the memorial. This is not about leaving a mark, but paying attention, and respect, to the site itself, and those whose deaths have already been engraved upon it.
One can’t visit a memorial like this and not think of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial, which changed forever the way loss represents itself, if we allow that absence to speak. There is the list of names, the massiveness, the brutal yet generative interaction with the earth itself, yet here we are also taken into the earth through the endlessly falling water, signaling not an end but a continuation of the victims themselves and the situations that led to their deaths. Prescience again; will the wars begun by this disaster ever stop?
Like many New Yorkers, I came to this memorial suspicious. Is it possible that after all these years of haggling, anything would be even close to adequate? This memorial washes, floods my cynicism away, but it doesn’t cleanse. Refusing jingoism, it is not a fist thrusting aggressively towards the sky. Yet neither does it simply “invite contemplation,” an anodyne suggestion too often affixed to modern monuments. The New York City 9/11 Memorial is, literally, a deep response, shutting us up but not shutting us down. We can attempt to gaze down into it, but it withholds, just enough.