Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Monuments have always been intended to embody the past and elevate the spirit, but the new $700-million National September 11 Memorial and Museum in Lower Manhattan is a downer in more ways than one. The same goes for the dismal architectural ensemble taking shape around it.

The original World Trade Center was plopped down like an enormous dystopian incubus on the fine-grained urban fabric of Lower Manhattan. Lest we forget, this district is a cradle of American civilization. George Washington’s first inauguration took place a short walk from the World Trade Center, on the porch of Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s long-lost Federal Hall. Many monumental buildings are located in the vicinity—City Hall, the New York Stock Exchange, Trinity Church, St. Paul’s Chapel, and Cass Gilbert’s soaring Woolworth Building and magnificent former U.S. Customs House, to name just a few. In this setting, the World Trade Center—notorious for its sterile, meretricious twin towers and desolate, wind-ravaged plaza raised above the surrounding streets—epitomized the post-war breakdown of American architecture.

How pathetic it is that the World Trade Center’s new iteration, including the memorial and museum, shows so little improvement over the original. Like its predecessor, the new World Trade Center confronts us with a panorama in which structural engineering and gigantic dimensions have trumped civic art and the human scale. It too is unworthy of its historic surroundings.

The failure begins with the memorial’s most important symbolic component, the gigantic one-acre pools in the footprints of the obliterated twin towers. On the perimeter of these vast cavities, water is forced through little weirs so as to fall thirty feet in textured sheets. It then spills into a second square void centered within each cavity’s concrete floor. And then it’s gone, just like the nearly three ­thousand souls whose names are inscribed on the bronze panels girding the footprints. The lower voids convey an impression of dark depth that deprives the visitor of any sense of cyclical renewal, any sense that the water will return. Instead it follows a linear path to oblivion.

Built on the basis of Michael Arad’s competition-winning design, titled Reflecting Absence, the result is brutally reductionist: There were towers, and now there are holes in the ground. There were people in the towers, but now many of them, too, are absent—gone down the drain, to judge by the spectacle before us. The waterfalls’ decibel level may be awesome, but the footprints’ symbolism most assuredly isn’t. This is because the 9/11 memorial relies not on symbolism but on sheer magnitude for its effect—the size of the footprints, the volume of water pouring into them, and the number of names on the panels—as if magnitude alone could endow it with sublimity. The memorial thus represents a failure of the imagination. It also demonstrates that in the absence of a sound symbolic orientation in the design of major ­memorials, conceptual drift can set in at exorbitant expense.

Sir Edwin Lutyens’s beautifully proportioned Cenotaph of 1920 honoring the one million dead the British Empire suffered in World War I provides useful perspective. This beloved limestone monument, situated in the middle of London’s bustling Whitehall, rises just thirty-five feet on a low podium measuring nineteen by twenty-four feet. The current cost of erecting the Cenotaph might be in the neighborhood of $10 million, masonry expert Dennis Rude, president and CEO of Cathedral Stone Products in Hanover, Maryland, estimates.

Austere in its design, the Cenotaph is truly monumental. It embodies the presence rather than “reflecting the absence” of The Glorious Dead to whom it is inscribed. The monument thus enrolls the dead in the lives of the living and those yet to be born. It is not didactic, and it is not celebratory. Yet a classical architectural vocabulary of sacramental origin allows it to evoke a spiritual or ideal realm that informs and sustains civilized life.

Civic monuments have traditionally been erected in honor of events, ideals, or people of a historic, exemplary, or heroic character. Their enduring presence in the life of the community is expressed figuratively or in abstract masses of a more or less anthropomorphic character. Victims whose lives were taken in some catastrophe have often been commemorated with plaques or simple monuments of a funerary type. An excellent example is the General Slocum Memorial Fountain, located in a park in Manhattan’s East Village. Erected in 1906, it commemorates the thousand lives lost, most of them women and children from German immigrant families on an early-summer outing, when the steamer General Slocum caught fire and sank in the East River. It was New York City’s biggest disaster, in terms of loss of life, prior to 9/11. A marble stele nine feet tall with a brief poetic inscription and two children carved in relief is enriched with a lion’s head spout and basin. Lutyens’ Cenotaph and the Slocum stele suggest that a simple but imposing monument situated in a park-like setting unencumbered by the twin-tower footprints or the documentary baggage of a museum would have been perfectly appropriate at Ground Zero.

The 9/11 memorial we got could not be as overwrought and underwhelming as it is but for the emergence in recent decades of a new commemorative genre, the anti-monumental memorial. Maya Lin led the way with her Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall in Washington. Unlike traditional memorials, anti-monuments eschew vertical orientation or thrust. They might even forgo a reliance on mass. Lin once described her design concept—black-granite panels arrayed along a chevron-shaped indentation in the landscape that grows steeper toward the middle—as “a wound in the earth that is slowly healing.”

Rousseau’s concept of civilization has created cultural space for the anti-monumental memorial. He thought human beings naturally good. Our tendency toward evil stems from a “fall” into civilization, which deforms us and obscures our natural goodness. As he wrote in the opening of Emile, his novel about education and the moral formation of young people for a new way of being in the world, “God makes all things good; man meddles with them and they become evil.”

Rousseau’s doctrine has major ramifications for the postmodern concept of memory and commemoration. The traumas that civilization inflicts on us—the horrific impact of wars and holocausts, bombings and mass shootings—linger on in our memories, especially when they claim loved ones. We must be healed. Of course, horrible events are part of the human condition. And monuments have long provided some measure of consolation by inserting individual suffering within the larger framework of a communitarian endeavor or identity. Philip Rieff might say that the community thus seeks to heal the wounded self through the monument. Lutyens’s Cenotaph does so by way of a classical symbolism that embraces not only the sense of enduring national dignity but of a spiritual destiny transcending earthly catastrophe. The anti-monument’s therapeutic aims, in contrast, rarely transcend the self.

Anti-monuments are better suited to catastrophe than triumph. They are often intended to calm the fever swamp of memory, while soothing the grief of those who’ve suffered loss. Natural elements such as water, trees, and shrubs often play a part, along with victims’ names inscribed in a way that invites touching, as with the bronze panels surrounding the 9/11 footprint-cavities. Such features can easily figure in a traditional memorial—recognition of nature’s restorative powers is at least as old as Psalm 23—but they can never constitute its heart and soul. The problem is that the therapeutic ethos originating in Rousseau’s take on the human ­condition impedes any monumental gesture toward transcendence.

Yet healing our wounded psyches is no longer deemed sufficient. For one thing, the healing can’t go on forever, whereas the memorial needs to remain relevant. So the anti-monumental memorial now entails a documentary program that, among other things, serves as a crutch in the absence of effective symbolism. More to the point, if the 9/11 memorial is to prevent memories of the terrorist atrocity from festering and breeding resentment or fanaticism, therapy must involve getting a grip on the facts, the real story. The documentary program, too, involves listing the victims’ names, as we see not just on the 9/11 panels and the Vietnam wall but on the 168 tall, straight-backed minimalist chairs at the Oklahoma City National Memorial or the 184 bizarre, diving-board-like structures, each cantilevered over its own little pool, at the Pentagon’s 9/11 memorial. Even more characteristic of the program are the multimedia museums at Ground Zero and Oklahoma City.

This memorial agenda of “healing” and “education” boils down to what we might call the therapeutic management of the collective memory. At Ground Zero, this agenda has been implemented by a phalanx of politicians, bureaucrats, corporate big-wigs, trendy designers, therapeutically-oriented social ­scientists, academically indoctrinated curators and preservationists, and, last but not least, activist family members. The retention of the twin-tower footprints contributed a great deal to the circumstances that led to the narrow-gauge, essentially inartistic memorial.

All of which helps explain why we have a proper monument at the firehouse across the street from Ground Zero, but not at Ground Zero. Installed on the firehouse’s façade in 2006, the figurative bronze frieze is fifty-six feet long and six feet high and portrays firemen in action on 9/11. It may be of modest artistic quality, but at least it represents a fitting tribute to 343 firemen who gave their lives at the World Trade Center. Their names are inscribed, by order of rank, at the bottom of the frieze. But it appears the atrocity hasn’t finished taking its terrible toll on New York’s bravest. At the end of July the New York Post reported that 863 firemen were stricken with 9/11-related cancers.

Including rosters of the dead in the design of memorials can be persuasively advocated as a matter of democratic entitlement as well as a source of consolation. But they have serious limitations as the focal point for a memorial, and not just because it can be hard to know the final toll. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund is now raising money for a $115-­million underground Education Center near Lin’s wall. The reason is simple: as time passes, the names on the wall inevitably lose their poignancy and attract fewer visitors.

If the 9/11 cavities with the Niagara-like din of their waterfalls are symbolically hamstrung, it must be confessed that the eight-acre memorial plaza verges on the bizarre. A crude minimalism dominates the plaza, designed by veteran landscape architect Peter Walker. The granite pavement is interrupted by seemingly random rectilinear strips of grass. Rows of swamp white oaks are likewise arrayed in rectilinear plots or square planters fed by elaborate subterranean irrigation systems. Benches are nothing more than rectilinear granite blocks. The anorexic modernist lampposts are rectilinear. The granite pavers are of course rectilinear. The oaks provide a green canopy, but they by no means compensate for Walker’s pathological emphasis of the plaza’s flat ground plane. A more informal, park-like setting—again, with a proper monument and without the footprint-cavities—would have been far preferable. Many 9/11 victims left no identified remains. The site should be viewed, among other things, as a final resting place. At the same time, an appropriate landscape treatment capable of withstanding huge numbers of visitors was not a simple problem, especially at this complicated site. Walker, alas, hardly scratched the surface.

At least the memorial landscape is well suited to the depressing assemblage of glassy towers taking shape around it; after all, it is intended to do double duty as a corporate plaza. The new One World Trade Center, designed by David Childs of Skidmore, ­Owings & Merrill, looms above on its 186-foot-tall, blast-proof, windowless cubic base of reinforced concrete decked out with stainless-steel slats and protruding vertical glass fins. Above the base rises a geometrically chamfered glass obelisk consisting of elongated isosceles triangles alternately pointing upward or downward. The truncated obelisk’s flat top is capped, in a way both formally and materially awkward, by an exogenous metal structure resembling a flying saucer that contains communications equipment; a needle fitted with a series of rings rises from this structure, attaining the “iconic” height of 1,776 feet. (The needle, but not the flying saucer, lights up at night.) Like the 9/11 memorial, this tower relies on gigantism for its effect. To get an idea of how badly resolved it is—and for the record, the originally-intended sheathing for the needle and its rings wouldn’t have made much difference—have a look at the Empire State Building and its handsome crowning spire, which also accommodates ­communications gear.

One reason it’s difficult to recognize the relentlessly horizontal 9/11 memorial plaza as a commemorative precinct is that the only major vertical element it contains is the misshapen pavilion designed by a trendy Norwegian firm, Snøhetta. The pavilion, which leads to the subterreanean 9/11 museum, is the only building in the new World Trade Center that hearkens back to the deconstructionist aesthetic of Daniel Libeskind’s competition-winning reconstruction plan of 2003. It consists of a jagged morass of faceted planes akin to one of Libeskind’s obnoxious museum additions. On this site, however, Snøhetta’s architectural folly seems not just obnoxiously but obscenely self-indulgent. Santiago Calatrava’s long-delayed transit pavilion, under construction a stone’s throw from the pavilion, presents an equally unpleasant spectacle. Its enfilades of steel spurs are notoriously less suggestive of the intended bird of peace than a monster out of Jurassic Park. At least Frank Gehry’s histrionic design for a performing arts center, consisting of a tree-topped jumble of boxy forms to be piled next to One World Trade Center, was scrapped over the summer. At this writing a new design has not been chosen for the project, which may encounter fundraising difficulties.

Upon entering the 9/11 museum pavilion you go through a TSA-style airport security routine. Then you descend into the museum’s 110,000 square feet of exhibition space from a glassy lobby. The lobby features seventy-foot-tall sections of a pair of twin-tower steel box columns. These trident-shaped exterior columns are set against a distracting architectural background consisting of a skewed diagonal arrangement of white steel beams bolted to one another and then pinned to the steel-mail grid to which the pavilion’s exterior glass cladding is attached. On the sunny early-June afternoons I visited the museum, the glare in this lobby was intense and discomfiting. That and the ugly, distracting structural maelstrom behind the trident columns testify to flamboyant incompetence masquerading as architectural prowess.

The most important view of the cavernous museum interior is from an overlook two levels below ground. Off to your left is a long segment of a concrete slurry wall that forms part of the late-1960s structural excavation or “bathtub” within which most of the World Trade Center, including the twin towers, was constructed. The slurry wall lies at the heart of Libeskind’s “Memory Foundations” reconstruction plan. To quote the architect’s personal statement about the plan:

The most dramatic part of the Trade Center to survive the attack was the great slurry wall, an engineering wonder constructed on bedrock to hold back the Hudson River. Somehow it had withstood the unimaginable trauma of the twin towers’ destruction, asserting, as eloquently as the Constitution, the durability of democracy and the value of human life.
I knew that whatever was built had to let us enter this ground while at the same time creating a quiet, meditative and spiritual space. We needed a way to journey down 70 feet into the chasm, past the slurry wall, a procession with deliberation. Regardless of the revitalization going on aboveground, this part of the site had to be maintained to honor the dead.

But the footprint cavities, waterfalls, and panels of names themselves “honor the dead,” and they are by far the most conspicuous element of the memorial complex. As for the slurry wall, the rows of protruding heads of the steel tie-backs anchoring it in the surrounding bedrock are interesting to look at for a few moments. But the slurry wall more resembles a gigantic objet trouvé than a potent symbol of resilient democracy. Symbols typically require aesthetic intent to hit home, and the achievement of such resonance requires artistic competence, not the curatorial/preservationist expertise that is the disease rather than the deliverance of this museum.

The space you behold from this overlook, dubbed Foundation Hall, is not only vast but amorphous—not unlike your run-of-the-mill airport terminal. Apparently, the principal architects of the museum’s underground, the corporate firm of Davis Brody Bond, did not even attempt to calibrate the scale of the elements within this titanic void. The normal architectural conception of space as a plastic element that must be shaped is completely absent here. Viewed from the overlook, the 36-foot-tall Last Column—the last, that is, to be removed from Ground Zero—fails to activate the space. Movable wooden benches are scattered about the surrounding floor like cockroaches. Off to the right hangs the gargantuan tub containing the north footprint cavity. Its surface is finished with what looks like a textured aluminum spray—the sort of glitzy finish you also might expect to find in an airport terminal.

You continue along a ramp, which turns a corner alongside the north tub. The next overlook provides a vista of a wall covered with tiles of varied shades of blue, a minimalist tour de force some creative type might have worked up for a remodeled New York subway station. A concrete surface has been left exposed to bear a quotation from Virgil’s Aeneid: “No day shall erase you from the memory of time.” The letters have been fashioned from steel salvaged from the twin towers. Does that make the words more meaningful?

Farther along, we descend a flight of steps aligned with another massive archeological fragment: the concrete “survivors’ stairs” that provided hundreds with an escape path from the World Trade Center plaza. Eventually we reach a patch of bedrock, as Libeskind intended, passing by the concrete footings for some of the south tower’s box columns. Sheared-off remains of these columns, which define the perimeters of each tower, have been preserved at the insistence of preservationists and some family members. A documentary panel even informs us how many columns enclosed each tower. (Who cares?) As befits an archeological site, the rows of sheared-off columns are cordoned off, while the subdued lighting below ground reinforces the curatorial ambiance. Libeskind’s quaintly romantic vision was that his “Museum of Memory and Hope” would serve as a pilgrimage site, with the descent to bedrock a ritual procession. But what we got is basically an archeological museum.

Under the south cavity tub lies a square gallery whose four walls are covered with photographs of every 9/11 victim, including those killed at the Pentagon and near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, plus the six victims of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Interactive terminals allow visitors to call up photographs and brief biographies. Photos and biographies also are displayed in large format in a darkened gallery core. There a glass floor is raised, bewilderingly, above a concrete slab as if to remind us of the neurotic preservationist impulse so prevalent in this museum and so characteristic of a postmodern curatorial mentality which, lacking any real standard of value, can find a reason to conserve just about anything. For our postmodern curators, 9/11 was Mount Vesuvius and Ground Zero is Pompeii.

And of course the photo-galleries seem redundant when we have already seen the names of the dead on the bronze panels above ground. Both the panels and the galleries will steadily lose significance in the decades ahead as the memory of the dead fades in sad but inevitable contradiction of the Virgil quotation. Even now, the softball and glove belonging to a New York City fireman, or the ice hockey and lacrosse sticks belonging to a Cantor Fitzgerald employee, or carpentry tools belonging to an AON Corporation vice president—all displayed in a vitrine within the photo-gallery complex, along with many other personal effects—seem beside the point.

So do the mangled segment of the north tower radio and TV antenna, the ravaged elevator motor, and, yes, even the crushed fire-truck alongside the north tub. Firemen for whom the terrorist carnage and lost comrades remain a scorching memory may touch that truck and cross themselves, but as with the names, so will time steadily erode the crushed truck’s emotional impact. Maybe one day it will find its way to a firefighter’s museum, if not a salvage shop.

Of course, that’s precisely the point: As memory fades we will need curators to engage in an unending rearrangement of the relics to hold our interest. The Wall Street Journal reported early in the summer that the 9/11 museum’s expanding collection stood at 13,000 items and noted that it has commissioned some envelope-pushing conservation work, like magnetically reattaching simulacra of post-9/11 photos and messages to the Last Column in place of those subject to deterioration. An in-house conservation lab is on the agenda. The 9/11 museum is thus the product of curatorial mission creep. Yet there’s reason to doubt the Pompeii paradigm will work out in the long term. As 9/11 memories fade, the law of diminishing returns is bound to kick in. That’s the weak link in the notionally self-perpetuating therapeutic agenda, which insists that we be healed, but also that we never forget.

True to this agenda, the documentary exhibition housed under the north tub amounts to a multimedia extravaganza that reimmerses us in the events of 9/11 while trying not to upset us too much. Hence the multitude of hanging, diaphanous photo-screens and coordinated audio loops, and wall installations with a/v and photographic displays, timelines, and text. There is much more in the way of battered vehicles and structural fragments—even a gaggle of damaged bicycles and the curlicued rack to which they remain locked. Still more vitrines contain relics such as shoes, eyeglasses, cell phones, a set of World Trade Center master keys, firemen’s protective clothing, helmets, firehose couplings, radio gear, and so on. The quantity of relics, images, audio, and text is simply overwhelming—very problematically so.

To be sure, the exhibition includes well-conceived displays. A large digital diagram of the twin towers pinpoints the locations of real-time transmissions from first responders who did not make it out alive, as well as the locations of first responders who did, and we also hear the latter’s reminiscences. This moving presentation, however, doesn’t need a museum. It could just as well have appeared in a documentary film.

Above all, there is image after image of the planes crashing into the towers, the ensuing infernos and structural cataclysms, and the infernal clouds of black smoke and debris surging like tidal waves into the surrounding urban canyons. An unbalanced mind could get a great deal of worrisome inspiration from this exhibition. On the other hand, the multi-media deluge is likely to leave many visitors feeling neurologically if not emotionally depleted by the time they move on to the Al-Qaeda display, the huge 9/11-aftermath section, and the supposedly inspirational conclusion suggesting ways to commemorate 9/11, including the inevitable appeal for a national day of service.

Emerging from the documentary exhibition, you can conclude your therapeutic experience by sharing your feelings on a terminal screen with yet another twisted steel column lying before you. Visitors’ messages unfold on a global “map of words” projected onto a sloped buttress at the foot of the nearby slurry wall. Then you can ascend to the pavilion mezzanine for a snack if you wish.

But the possibly unappetizing truth is that the memorial complex you’ve just explored fails to resolve into an entity larger than the sum of its parts. Rather than situating us in a meaningful world, the National September 11 Memorial and Museum bombards us with sensory stimuli and factoids on the assumption that something is bound to hit home. The insidious corollary to that assumption is that there really is no such thing as a shared national response to 9/11.

The monument has always been a landmark, there to orient us. At enormous expense, and with a great deal of commemorative and documentary redundancy, the anti-monumental 9/11 memorial and museum achieve precisely the opposite.

Catesby Leigh is an art and architecture critic based in Washington, D.C.

Become a fan of First Things on Facebooksubscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift