It is perhaps ironic that Maya Lin, architect and designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., was one of the 13 members of the jury that selected finalists in the competition to design a memorial at Ground Zero. Ironic, because all eight finalistsrely heavily on the minimalist vocabulary Ms. Lin introduced to the world of memorial design in 1981. From the profusion of polished black granite in the design called “Inversion of Light” to the grassy landscaping of “Dual Memory,” the language of minimalism, of negative space-already a memory from the standpoint of contemporary sculpture-dominates.
It’s not just ironic, but disappointing as well. Because as successful as Ms. Lin’s Vietnam memorial was, the eight finalists prove that it has become a crutch, rather than an inspiration, for American memorial architecture.
Indeed, Ms. Lin’s aesthetic presence in the plans speaks volumes about the state of memorial design in America. On one hand, the continued presence of Lin-esque minimalism in American monuments points to the long-awaited emergence of an American memorial style; on the other, the finalists’ failure to move beyond the threshold she set more than two decades ago points to a severe lack of vision in the way Americans build memorials to tragedy.
As a class, such architecture has always reflected the values at stake in remembering those who died. Since Ms. Lin’s memorial, so appropriate to the memory of a war that tore the American sensibility apart, the urge to liberate the visitor-from official interpretations, from having to make specific moral evaluations-has overtaken the need to speak to the visitor. The finalists present the reductive consequence of that urge: In their effort to say something about annihilation and nothingness, these designs say nothing at all.
Beyond abstract references to absence and loss-such as the abyss-centered reflecting pools of “Reflecting Absence,” according to polls the most popular scheme-there is no attempt to grapple with the meaning of Sept. 11, to mark the attack as an historical event.
About a decade ago, the Department of Energy convened a study group of architects, physicists and artists to chew over a hitherto unconsidered problem: How can the government mark radioactive waste sites, which will be dangerous for another 10,000 years, in a way that could ensure future civilizations-with perhaps little understanding of our culture-would nevertheless understand what lay beneath.
That was the task for Ms. Lin and her commission: How could the monument convey to future generations what happened on Sept. 11? It is a difficult question, but then it is also the most important one. And yet the commission failed completely, largely because, instead of approaching the site itself, it courted the ideals of abstract minimalism and then manhandled them to fit Ground Zero.
“Memorials tend to vibrate between two poles, history and memory,” said Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic . “Each of them comes with hazards. History can be political or pedantic, but memory can also be simply an emotional overload, can make you want to raise your lighter without knowing why.”
Instead, we get a variety of easy strategies, first and foremost the listing of the victims’ names. Granted, this was an unspoken requirement of the competition. But the designers focus on the individuals to an almost fetishistic extent; the length of the cables holding the votive candles-one for each victim-in “Votives in Suspension” is determined by the victim’s age. As is the literal case in “Suspending Memory,” which features two fields of individualized glass steles amid a leafy arbor, they can’t see the forest for the trees.
That fetish is taken even further by a feature of two designs, “Reflecting Absence” and “Lower Waters”: an area set aside for victims’ families. There is, of course, a practical, even epistemological problem with such a scheme: How far does a family extend, both in contemporary terms and future generations?
Ultimately, though, what’s most important is that these plans use design to make an exclusionary statement that in turn limits their effectiveness-because those unrelated to the event cannot understand it, they cannot see the site as a whole, and vice versa.
“The site is a graveyard, but it can’t be just a graveyard,” said Mr. Wieseltier. “If it addresses itself exclusively or primarily to the survivors and the families, then it will fail in its larger spiritual and historical purpose.”
The families-only areas are also indicative of a larger problem with the designs: They look to the here and now rather than to posterity. Many of them use advanced technology (“Dual Memory,” for example, features a room full of glass plates with the victims’ images projected onto them) or imply constant maintenance (keeping all 2,982 oil lamps in “Votives in Suspension” lit could prove a nightmare) that can hardly be expected to function in perpetuity.
What’s more, the designs, lacking history, are merely emotional; and by refusing to make a single, historical comment about Sept. 11 in favor of providing a bunch of cheap, abstraction-inspired thrills, they merely extend the tragedy. They are little more than theme parks of emotion-in this corner, relive that oceanic sense of loss you felt that morning; over there, cry over the sheer number of the dead.
But perhaps the worst transgression of the plans is the fact that none of them recognizes what stood at the site; a visitor with no knowledge of Sept. 11 would have a hard time figuring out that two 110-story towers once occupied the space (the lone exception, and only by a stretch, is “Inversion of Light,” which features a composite of the north tower’s plans for the 94th and 95th floors in its footprint).
Nor is there any attempt to tie the site into its surroundings, either the rest of Ground Zero or lower Manhattan as a whole. Again, this is a disadvantage of abstraction’s fungibility-it works, but it works in relation only to itself, not its context. Then again, context wasn’t important with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial; it’s in Washington, not Vietnam, and thus its surroundings have little relevance to its form. In fact, as its Alabama cousin shows, its fungibility is an asset, as it can be replicated effortlessly without losing its power.
But at Ground Zero, as in Oklahoma City, the task of placing a memorial on the site of a national tragedy requires a fundamental relationship between the site and the form. To do so in abstract terms, though, is difficult, because there’s not a lot of room for literal signification in the minimalist vocabulary.
It’s strange that little outcry has been made over the finalists’ decision not to incorporate pieces of the World Trade Center-after all, crews at Fresh Kills separated out tons of steel from the enormous piles of debris as candidates for use in a memorial. The idea of incorporating the Trade Center was in heavy circulation during the 2002 discussion of potential memorial designs-Met director Philippe de Montebello suggested using some of the jagged fragments of the buildings that remained standing, a reference both to the destroyed towers and the presence of hope amidst tragedy-so it’s a fair assumption that the finalists made a conscious decision not to include it. And how could they have? Within Ms. Lin’s minimalism, there’s no room for such literalism.
After Maya Lin
Of course, it’s not just the Ground Zero designs that rely on Ms. Lin’s aesthetic. Since practically the moment the Vietnam memorial was completed, American memorial designers glommed onto abstraction and minimalism as the ultimate expression of memory and loss. Such is the importance of Ms. Lin’s work that academics who study memorials and memorialization (a burgeoning interdisciplinary field that can only loosely be categorized as “memory studies”) tend to speak in terms of B.M.L. and A.M.L.-before and after Maya Lin.
“When people think about memorials in the United States now, they think about the Vietnam Veterans Memorial,” said Marita Sturken, a professor of communications at the University of Southern California and the author of Tangled Memories: The Vietnam War, the AIDS Epidemic, and the Politics of Remembering . “The way we memorialize in America changed with that design.”
Despite initial controversy (revolving as much around Ms. Lin herself, at the time an asocial Yale undergrad-and of Asian heritage to boot), the Vietnam memorial has achieved an overpowering status in the pantheon of American memorials, looming over even its neighbors on the National Mall. Ms. Lin’s success lay in her understanding of the symbolic possibilities of minimalism, namely that it accommodates a wide variety of interpretations.
“The memorial is successful at giving people a range of responses,” said Ms. Sturken. “And it’s successful for people who have a range of opinions about the war.”
That flexibility was vital in the context of Vietnam, which even today can cause heated dinner-table discussions. Is the memorial a cut in the earth, symbolizing the wound caused by the war, or is it an attempt to bring order to a cut already made, a nod to the good intentions that motivated American involvement? It’s both, or neither.
“The meaning was murky,” said John Bodnar, chairman of the history department at Indiana University and co-director of its Center for the Study of History and Memory.
Such flexibility is also what made the Vietnam memorial the perfect template for memorials built in the following years. The Alabama Vietnam Veterans Memorial, for example, is an almost exact (though slightly smaller) version of Ms. Lin’s, a long slab of black granite etched with the names of the dead.
Abstraction is politically efficient as well. In an era when wars are rarely as unifying or as justified as World War II, using the triumphalist, representational terminology of classical monuments would be exorbitantly controversial. For proof, consider the much-derided World War II memorial currently under construction on the Mall, which has been called everything from “retrograde” to “quasi-fascist”-and it commemorates perhaps the most just war in American history.
“Since the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated,” said Mr. Bodnar, “there’s been much more of an attempt to become more abstract in our representation of death and loss and sacrifice, in order to restore that sense of nobility-so that sacrifices would tend to be represented in positive ways.”
Perhaps abstraction’s greatest asset, though, is its fungibility. The Vietnam memorial’s cut-in-the-earth, negative-space-as-monument design works perfectly in the context of a controversial and painful war, but it’s not hard to imagine it, with only a few revisions, working just as well to commemorate the Oklahoma City bombing.
In a way, though, that fungibility is also minimalism’s greatest weakness-it doesn’t allow much range to make specific statements about the event commemorated. Indeed, what was ultimately built at the site of the Murrah Federal Building-a field of chairs, one for each victim-is perhaps the most successful advancement of Ms. Lin’s minimalism, but even it fails to make much of a statement about the 1995 bombing, relying instead on a lackluster museum to fill in the site-specific details.
There are other American monuments which, were the glare of the Vietnam memorial not so bright, might have given better direction to the designers. Tops on that list would be the U.S.S. Arizona memorial, perhaps the best American attempt to mark a tragedy on the site where it took place.
Its success, said Mr. Bodnar, comes from its courage to mix literal elements-the hull of the ship, lying beneath the monument, holds the remains of some 1,000 sailors-with a simple, beautiful white structure that both allows visitors to see the destruction up close and at the same time embodies a resolve to move beyond it.
He said the U.S.S. Arizona memorial tells its visitors, “We will encase that loss within a larger theme of restoring hope and moving on.”
It’s a clear and powerful message-and one that’s unmistakable some 60 years after Pearl Harbor. But no matter which finalist is chosen, it’s unlikely that in 60 years we will be able to say the same thing about Ground Zero.