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In the past few weeks, the United States has seen the opening of two major new national memorials: the Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington, DC and the 9/11 Memorial in Lower Manhattan. At first blush, these two sites seem to be almost perfect opposites. The King Memorial is ostensibly a celebration of one of our nation’s highest points, and a grand monument to a citizen/minister who is finally, triumphantly attaining the recognition he deserves on what is probably the single most prominent public space in our country (the National Mall). In contrast, the work at Ground Zero must necessarily recall a moment of violence, vulnerability, and suffering.

Yet, rather surprisingly, a range of architectural critics and some members of the general public have given a frosty reception to both monuments. The King Memorial has been the target of blistering criticism from multiple quarters and the 9/11 Memorial, while garnering more outward respect, also has its share of quiet detractors. In reviewing the King Memorial, Edward Rothstein opines that King:

isn’t decorously posed in a classical structure; he isn’t contained in an ordered space with Greek or Roman allusions. His form emerges halfway out of an enormous mound of granite so heavy that 50-foot piles had to be driven into the ground to provide support [ . . . ] We don’t even see his feet. He is embedded in the rock like something not yet fully born . . .

The monument is massive, heaving, and uncertain.

Christopher Hawthorne, writing on memorial developments at Ground Zero for the LA Times, pins the problem there on the fact that “the memorial competition process unfolded far too quickly, before the nation as a whole had a chance to make sense of the larger meaning of the 9/11 attacks.” If that’s the case, it’s worth pondering what a reasonable timeframe would be, and whether it is possible for such a sense to ever develop.

The central problem with both of these efforts is the same. They fail to articulate a takeaway message behind the events they represent, and offer no coherent set of values. More specifically, they shy away from the notion of greatness. King’s stone image is not only stuck halfway in the granite, it is an outsized parody of the man, the architect blithely ignoring the reserved dignity that imbues other monuments on the Mall. This uncertainty and aversion to greatness (which is not the same as grandeur, or physical largeness) is even more explicit at the 9/11 Memorial. Its defining feature is an anti-feature: a black void on the outline of the former towers’ foundations. Into this gaping space waterfalls pour, before quickly being filtered away from the pool at the bottom. There is no singular visual point in the memorial.  The presentation of the names of the deceased makes no mention of their situation in life—-quite controversially, all references to firefighters, police officers, and chaplains were scrubbed. Unsurprisingly, as noted recently on this blog and elsewhere, religious ministers were prohibited from taking part in the commemoration, and symbols (like the famous steel cross) have engendered lawsuits.

It is unfair to expect all civic monuments to resemble each other, regardless of context. And calling for an unthinking return to “Greco-Roman” forms is a dubiously simplistic solution for a nation in which those forms may no longer resonate on their own terms. But if architecture says something about the way we think—and the architecture of these two highly-anticipated spaces surely must—then it is worth wondering if there might be better ways of honoring the past than with the messy, project-your-own-meaning style of our contemporary civic art. Is all reference to the monumental now considered tacky? Are there positive values we can still articulate in common as a nation, or are we consigned to “reflecting absence”?

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