New York’s World Trade Center memorial is again the subject of controversy. Two years ago I criticized the design in the New Criterion for its remorseless Zen minimalism, and for offering only negations. The design, I wrote, “with its drumbeat of void, absence, falling, is filled with the presence of death and nowhere aware of the context of that death.” To some extent this was inevitable, given that the design plan mandated that the footprints of the fallen towers be retained, but the choices made by the designer, Michael Arad, have only tended to enhance its overwhelming sense of despair.
One choice in particular—how to list the names of the victims—was especially upsetting to the bereaved families. Arad rejected any systematic order, either alphabetical or by affiliation; instead he proposed to place the names in random order, making no distinction between World Trade Center employees, hijacked passengers, and first-responders. After two years of furious protest by police, fire, and rescue units, which felt that their sacrifices were of a different order, a compromise was made, in which names would be grouped according to where victims died, and crucial bits of information—such as airline flight number or fire house—would be provided.
This compromise has now drawn the ire of other survivors, who fear that separate classes of victims are being established, with their loved ones enjoying less status than those who sought to rescue them. It is a painful dilemma, and one sympathizes with both factions. Unfortunately, it does not lend itself to an elegant and elegiac solution like that of the Vietnam veterans memorial in Washington, where the names are inscribed in the sequence in which they died. One wonders if a better designed monument, one that offered hope and solace and not merely gloom, might have provoked less squabbling. As it is, the void of the memorial offers little comfort beyond the incised names themselves. Small wonder, then, that they are contested so bitterly.