Architect Michael Arad was 34 when he won the commission to design the most historic public art project of our time, the National September 11 Memorial. The Georgia Tech alumnus topped 5,200 entrants in an international competition in 2004 with “Reflecting Absence,” a vision that centers on water cascading into the two voids where New York’s twin towers once stood.
Arad had conceived the idea for the memorial, which opened in September, soon after he watched the airplane hit the second tower from the roof of his East Village apartment in 2001. It was something he did simply for himself, to honor both the lives lost and the strength of the community he had witnessed in the ensuing days.
Georgia Tech professor Douglas Allen saw his former student’s renderings among the eight semi-finalists’ projects in a newspaper. “I admired its clarity — the others were so overdesigned — and I remember thinking, ‘He just might win it,’ ” Allen said.
That, it turned out, was the easy part. Taking the concept from competition boards to a fully realized plan was an eight-year process wracked by emotions, politics, budget problems, bureaucracy and delays, not to mention controversies that made the acrimony over the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington look like a kindergarten tiff.
Allen, who was Arad’s favorite professor at Tech, would offer guidance and moral support throughout. It was fitting, then, that the Israeli-American architect returned to his alma mater recently to deliver the Douglas C. Allen lecture, to an overflow crowd, about the evolution of the design.
“It was a healthy but charged process,” said Arad (at right), exhibiting a hard-won equanimity. “Every tree, every paver, every detail was laboriously discussed and debated.”
No element, however, was more thoroughly researched or more fraught than the placement of the names of the 2,983 people who died in the attacks. Once the decision was made to engrave them on bronze panels on the lips of the pools, the challenge became deciding on the order in which they would be listed.
Arad had always wanted the arrangement to be determined by what he called “meaningful adjacencies.” That meant grouping firemen with their units, businesspeople with their colleagues and so forth. Complicating the placement was that many of the victims’ survivors had other desires as well — that siblings be together, for instance, or friends. There were 1,290 such requests.
Experts shook their heads. “They told me it was statistically impossible,” Arad said.
The dogged architect proceeded anyway. His team set up scale models of the panels in a room at his firm, Handel Architects, and made a card for each victim, bearing his or her name, which had been checked and double-checked for accuracy, group and special requests. One associate spent more than a year trying to figure it all out.
“It looked like that room in ‘A Beautiful Mind,’ ” Arad said, referring to the 2001 film about schizophrenic mathematician John Nash.
An algorithm for arranging the names became available halfway through the process, but it had limitations. It lacked visual judgment and did not adjust to make the spacing look good. That took the human eye.
“I realize now how naive and utopic it was,” Arad said. “But we succeeded. We satisfied all the requests.”
Along the way, he and the team learned the stories behind the special requests; visitors will be able to hear the stories at the site. Arad’s determination was well spent. The personal arrangement gives the list heart. As he said, “Its personalizes the abstract numbers.”
Most visitors will never know about the arguments and problems. They won’t know that the edges of the pool had to be reconfigured to enable wheelchair-bound visitors to see the waterfalls, or that every aspect of the waterfalls — the spray, the quantity of water, the way they fall (in rivulets through carefully spaced channels at first, than altogether halfway down) — was discussed and tested in order to achieve the desired effect. They will likely not notice that the lettering font is Optima, or care that the swamp white maple trees that dot the eight-acre plaza are more disease-resistant than the several choices that preceded them.
But all of those decisions, which encompassed landscape design, architecture, public art and graphic design, help to make the memorial the contemplative, affecting place that it is today. Having visited, I can attest to the ambiance that the scale, proportions, materials and the pattern of the trees create. The space projects gravity and dignity without resorting to gimmicks or theatricality.
Arad, who may have felt at the beginning like David confronting a Goliath of politicians, families, other architects and bureaucrats, now acknowledges the value and necessity of the team effort.
“I understand the importance of not falling in love with one permutation of a design,” he said. “I think it benefited from the investigation. Hopefully, I’m more willing to trust the idea of design as a process, a constant honing, editing, tweaking. It starts with an idea; the design guides it to completion.”
Yet his persistence and the clarity of his ideas paid off. “It’s still very much my vision,” he said. “It was always about my experience of New York City then: stoic, defiant, compassionate.”
He noted as well that the memorial, which is still secured by fencing because of surrounding construction, is not done. “I always wanted it to be part of the city, to reconnect the streets [that the super blocks of the Twin Towers had severed]. It should be part of the everyday life of the city.”
Public space, as Arad learned on September 11, 2001, is where people come together as a community. As he says, “Public space reflects the best values of democracy.”