Unlike many people who lost someone on 9/11, I have been in a unique position to affect the memorial process from a variety of critical standpoints and to listen to what people have to say. I helped draft the mission statement for the memorial, I am a member of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation's Family Advisory Council, and I am the head of Imagine New York. Last month, Imagine New York engaged 2,800 people in public workshops and on our website, to gather the public's thoughts on the eight memorial designs. At the same time they gave others the chance to explore their reactions to the memorial designs, these workshops helped me with my own personal feelings about a 9/11 memorial.
When I first saw the designs I was overwhelmed, and I was looking forward to hearing what others had to say about them to help me grasp what they meant. Let me just admit that I'm not a person whoĂ•s crazy about art. My so-called "museum tolerance" is about an hour to an hour-and-a-half. I usually breeze through most exhibits, stopping for a minute at only a handful of pieces. I'm more interested in looking at the people looking at the art. By contrast, my training in urban planning has given me the ability to look at a site plan and understand it in three dimensions. Although these memorials do have a multi-layered quality to them, they also have something else that is difficult for me as an individual to grasp...poetry.
However, through these memorial designs, and the responses to them, I was able to develop some of my own personal thoughts about my own 9/11 experience.
At times I have grappled with an investigatory impulse to try to imagine what my father, Frederick Kuo Jr., was doing in the minutes between the 2nd plane's impact with the South Tower and the tower's collapse 55 minutes later. I know he was alive when the plane crashed into the building. I suspect that he had enough time and a clear enough path to escape. Why didn't he make it out? Was it because there simply wasn't enough time for him to navigate his way down 1,300 some odd feet to safety? Or was it because he stopped to help people along the way, never imagining that those behemoths would fall?
Whatever the case, it doesn't matter. He didn't make it out and now I'm faced with the only thing that I can have any effect on -- how to remember who he was and where he was when he died, and how to share that with people who will never know him but must be able to understand the incomprehensible. My sense of loss can be multiplied out to the thousands of other families who lost loved ones, and the millions of others who lost a part of themselves as well. It is my belief that the memorial should have a plurality of meanings but a universal significance for all those affected. So many people lost, so many lives changed irrevocably and with profound suddenness and without choice.
After my first viewing, my impressions were mixed. I was appreciative of the individual designers efforts and the jury's monumental task of viewing and critiquing them, but I also thought that the designs were lacking things I wanted to see. I also understood that my opinions of these designs would change, perhaps wildly, over the next few days and weeks.
However, I wasn't confused about certain things; in fact, my position on some issues crystallized as a result of the designers bringing them to life. One, my dad lived and died in the South Tower and I did not like designs that treated the tower footprints differently. For example, in Dual Memory, while I appreciate the notion of individual and collective loss expressed in the North and South tower footprints, respectively, I know that I would be drawn to the South Tower footprint. I didn't want to be trying to find the presence of my dad in the South Tower, while others were having a different experience in the North Tower. In these two most sacred of places, the spirituality should be the equal.
Secondly, when I discovered my spiritual connection to the South Tower as opposed to the North Tower, I realized that I felt more connected to those who he was with when he died. The people in the upper floors of the South Tower may have shared each other's company to the end and may have even crossed paths or taken elevators together in happier days, so they seem to belong together in a grouping of names. This was an epiphany for me because I realized that this is all the firefighters are asking for. To be listed among those who were with them in life and in death. Passages of Light: The Memorial Cloud addresses these critical relationships in an amazingly profound way. The ribbon of rescuers moving through and among civilians, grouped together by who they were with when they died has a thousand times more meaning than an alphabetical or age-ordered listing of names.
Thirdly, death and grief are important topics to address in the memorial, but to stop there does nothing to acknowledge what makes this chapter in history unique: how we reacted and what we learned about ourselves and each other in the aftermath of the attacks. I cannot describe to you, the sense of love for this city and its people, that I felt as I went from hospital to hospital looking for my dad or from watching the iron workers, volunteers and rescue workers toiling away at Ground Zero on TV. In my community, neighbors and strangers sent us food, flowers and condolences. I have never seen anything like that in my life. The whole city, the whole region was experiencing this together. As diverse and differentiated we are as individuals, in those days following September 11, we were like a tribe. This must be embodied in the memorial, as a large, open and inviting public space where public gatherings both organized and spontaneous can take place. This space should be located at or close to street level. I do not see this in any one of the designs, though some of them, like Lower Waters, have the potential to do so.
My feeling that the designs lacked something was shared by many, as we found through the workshops and comments on the internet from which we drew the conclusions in our recent report to the jury.
While Imagine New York participants liked particular elements within the designs, none of them possessed an essential message that resonated with the public. This may be a function of the complex plurality of meanings that is currently associated with 9/11. It's probably true that it takes a special kind of person to try to understand what that day will mean in history, only two years and three months after the attacks. People have different ideas about what 9/11 means, and therefore how it should be memorialized. Many people wanted to know why the designs were so pretty, so clean and so pure when this event was so horribly ugly, devastating, disorienting and complex. Some people felt that this was a deliberate attempt to make us forget, in order for business to continue and to keep the machine moving. Others felt that the ugliness and context belonged in the 9/11 Museum, available to those who choose to have more layers to their experience and that whatever is open and in full view of the public should have an element of dignity and peace to it.
While I was pouring over the 15,000 comments that we received it became clear to me that our findings could become a framework for the jury and the LMDC to understand the strengths and weaknesses of each of the eight designs (download Imagine New York's report as a pdf file). This would not only help them to select the memorial with the most potential, but also to understand how that design might be modified in the future in order to help it to complete its message.
If the jury wants to get this right, they will listen to the voices that are outside their own private deliberations, because there are thousands -- if not millions -- of people who have already visited these memorials in their minds. We have some important insights to share.
Mike Kuo is the project manager of Imagine New York. He is also a member of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation's Family Advisory Council and the Mission Statement Drafting Committee. His father, Frederick Kuo Jr., was killed on 9/11.