There would be no reason why professional architects and designers—working on behalf of and responsive to the priorities of those who want a genuine memorial, with all that implies, and balanced with the needs of residents, workers, and visitors in the area—wouldn’t be able to use their talents and expertise to design an unparalleled public memorial space.
But this would only be possible under conditions that do not have to ultimately accommodate the profit needs of the corporate developers, and in which a full accounting for the events 9/11 were made public, including the involvement of these same corporate interests in US government policies that serve to provoke terrorism as a response, albeit a disoriented and reactionary one.
In the absence of this, the memorial proposed by Arad and Walker, with too many masters to please, ends by pleasing no one. It duly and rather dully preserves the “footprints” of the two Trade Towers as twin reflecting pools—200-square-foot voids set 30 feet below ground and fed by walls of falling water. Visitors will descend by ramps to underground viewing areas, and memorial chambers. The names of the victims of both the September 11, 2001, and the February 26, 1993, attacks on the World Trade Center will be etched on the walls. There will also be an area in the north tower footprint that will house unidentified remains of the victims. A nearby interpretive center will display artifacts such as mangled fire trucks and steel girders, and give a history of the World Trade Center and an account of the events of September 11.
Immediately upon its unveiling, the design was criticized as impractical, and that would indeed seem to be the case. Walls of falling water in an open pit and without glass barriers are a problem, especially in inclement weather. Wind (and the area tends to be windy) will spray water on visitors as they try to take rubbings of names on the walls. In the winter, the waterfalls will need to be turned off; if heated, they will cause a frosty mist. In short, there are a host of problems.
While some letter writers to the New York Times found the memorial design “moving and powerful,” or “healing and uplifting,” others criticized it for selecting prettiness (though it is rather grim on the whole) over relevance, and not respecting the wishes of the families of the victims. Joan Molinaro, mother of a firefighter killed on 9/11, considers that “Reflecting Absence is empty, void of honor, truth, emotion and dignity.” Predictably, the conflict as well as plans for construction will carry on.
It has been said that people get the memorial they deserve, but the victims and survivors of the World Trade Center attacks deserve more than a memorial that is little more than a cover-up. They deserve a full and open accounting for the events that took loved ones’ lives and caused ongoing trauma; only then can an appropriate memorial be created. Ironically, Reflecting Absence, which promises to remain a large, uncomfortable void, like an irritated wound that won’t heal, is an unintentionally fitting emblem of the failure to adequately account for the terror attacks of September 11, 2001.