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Figuring Out The Memorial

by Joshua Brustein, Aug 19, 2002
 

memorailWhen Anita Contini started her new job this month as the person in charge of the memorial at Ground Zero, one of her first acts was to announce an international competition to design the memorial, with a final design due no sooner than the fall of 2003. One of the next things on her agenda is to leave town. Contini, whose official title is the director of cultural and civic programs for the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, will be traveling to other memorial sites around the world to get a sense of what works and what does not.

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New York City is already the home to a large number of memorials. The parks department manages about 1,300 memorial statues, monuments and plaques throughout the city. The most popular sites include Strawberry Fields in Central Park, which commemorates the death of John Lennon, the Washington Square Arch, which honors George Washington, and the East Coast Memorial in Battery Park, which is dedicated to the servicemen who perished in the Atlantic in World War Two.

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Downtown Manhattan alone has more than twenty commemorative sites, including an African burial ground, a Vietnam veterans memorial, the General Slocum memorial fountain, and memorials to the New York police and fire departments. The newest memorial, the Irish Hunger Memorial to mark the Irish famine and raise consciousness about world hunger, was completed recently in Battery Park City, under the shadow almost literally of Ground Zero. A nearby memorial, commemorating the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, was destroyed last year on September 11th.

September 11th has already spawned thousands of tributes that could be called memorials - the bus shelters and hospital walls covered with those photocopies of the missing; the street shrines made of candles; the pieces of paper covered with spontaneous prose and drawings. For two months this spring, the Tribute in Light, a more official memorial, but just as temporary, consisted of two beams of light in the sky, suggesting the twin towers. The arts group that Contini started in 1973, Creative Time, had a hand in creating that tribute.

But now, as the effort to create a permanent memorial gets underway, Contini will travel to examine other memorials that may offer lessons for the one at Ground Zero, because they commemorate tragic events, or because they were a result of a public process.

okla OKLAHOMA CITY:
Oklahoma City is the most obvious model for a memorial downtown. As the group New York New Visions points out in their Principles for the Rebuilding of Lower Manhattan, "The Oklahoma City National Memorial is perhaps the most relevant [memorial], since it derives from a recent terrorist act."

The memorial takes up 3.3 acres in downtown Oklahoma City where the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building stood. The 168 empty chairs represent those lost, and a shallow pool of moving water offers a place for quiet reflection. There is also an institute for terrorism prevention, a museum, and a gift shop. This design, done by Hans and Torrey Butzer and Sven Berg, was selected through an international competition coordinated by an organization called the Oklahoma Memorial Task Force, which worked with survivors of the attacks, the families of its victims, and rescue workers. New York New Visions looks at this project as an example of an "effective consensus-building process."

But while the process in Oklahoma was established to be democratic, special priority was given to the victim's families. The project's mission statement states that "The wishes of the Families/Survivors Liaison Subcommittee are to be given the greatest weight in the Memorial planning and development process." This had a profound effect on the tone of the memorial. The decision to give such power to the victims' families was made to calm their fears that they would not have enough say in the process. But some say the tilt towards the families resulted in a tone in the Oklahoma City memorial that New Yorkers would be wise not to emulate.. Philip Weiss, a columnist for the New York Observer, writes that memorials need to be "sites of strength and understanding," and not just places to mourn. Oklahoma's memorial ignores this and focuses only on a sense of deep sadness. He warns New York to "take an important lesson from the wrongheaded memorial [in Oklahoma City]: Do not wallow in grief."

vietnam VIETNAM MEMORIAL, WASHINGTON D.C.:
Maya Lin, the designer of the Vietnam memorial in Washington, D.C, is one person who knows that a process like this can lead to a tricky balancing of interests. While she was designing the memorial in Washington, D.C, chosen in an open competition, Lin had a conflict with some groups of veterans who were hesitant to cede control over the design. Lin felt that this was necessary to realize her own artistic vision. It became difficult to proceed at times. Eventually, a compromise was reached. Lin's design, a black granite wall with the names of the 58,175 American casualties of the war etched into it, was built according to her original vision. A statue of three soldiers was constructed 300 feet away to satisfy critics of Lin's design.

The process of building a memorial is an emotional event, and compromise will always be a challenge. The Vietnam memorial was built years after the war had ended. While there is far more consensus over the events of September 11th than over the Vietnam War, less than a year has passed since September 11th, and emotions are still high. Dr. Vamik Volkan, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, is not convinced that we are far enough beyond the event to build anything at Ground Zero. "It's too soon," he says. "The attacks and the memory are too hot in our minds. Americans will be repressing their grief if they try to lock it all up in the process of designing and building a memorial right now."

Volkan voices a popularly held belief that all Americans, and not just those who lost loved ones in the attack, have a serious emotional investment in the memorial process. This makes September 11th unusual. "At some level, we all shared it," Lin told the New Yorker in a recent interview, "and that had never happened before in history. I hope that is really taken into account." Contini is taking feelings like this to heart, and stresses that she has heard the need for something more than a tribute to the deceased, both from people who did not lose loved ones and those who did. "Victims' families are a primary concern to us," she says "[but] they have very articulately said themselves that this memorial will interest people from around the world. It will be a symbol to many different people. In order to create that type of extraordinary symbol you need to incorporate a number of ideas from many different people."

Another concern is to create a unified vision for a memorial that is more than simply a series of accommodations made to different groups, so that a designer can proceed with that vision in mind. Washington's competition was run by arts professionals, after the groups involved expressed their needs and an official vision was established that articulated them. At some point, the best thing to do may be to go with a personal artistic vision, says Contini, who points to Lin's work as proof that this method can succeed. "We have to have confidence in the artistic vision of the people who are selected to actually implement the vision. The Vietnam memorial.was created under a lot of controversy, but in the end the committee trusted the artistic vision of the one designer. And it turned out to be an outstanding memorial."

pearl harbor PEARL HARBOR:
The USS Arizona Memorial in Oahu, Hawaii, took some two decades after the attack on Pearl Harbor left over 2,000 people dead. A memorial was first proposed in 1943; in 1950, a flagpole was erected over the sunken ship; in 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower authorized the creation of a memorial on the site, and public funds and private donations were collected. The memorial was dedicated on Memorial Day, 1962. It was designed by Alfred Preis, an Austrian immigrant who fled the Nazis in 1939. The memorial itself is a large, white, rectangular structure. Inside is a shrine room, with the names of the victims etched into its white marble walls.

"Wherein the structure sags in the center but stands strong and vigorous at the end, expresses initial defeat and ultimate victory.the overall effect is one of serenity," said Preis of his work. He also noted that "overtones of sadness have been omitted to permit the individual to contemplate his own personal responses."

While the USS Arizona was only one of 12 ships sunk in the attack, its memorial has come to represent all those lost at Pearl Harbor.

hiroshima HIROSHIMA:
The memorial in Hiroshima is the result of a rebuilding process that dwarfs ours by comparison. The city was more or less completely destroyed after the atomic bomb attack that resulted in 140,000 deaths. One year later, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial City Construction Law was passed. The first article of the law states that "this law aims at the construction of Hiroshima as a Peace Memorial City, a symbol of the ideal of faithfully realizing lasting peace."

The law also called for the construction of public facilities, including a 30-acre memorial park. In the park are several memorials. A memorial to the victims, called the Centograph,is designed to resemble an ancient house of clay, with a stone coffin that contains a register of the victims. There is also a burial mound to represent the unknown victims, the Children's Peace Monument, the Monument in memory of Korean Victims of the A-bomb, The Monument to Toge Sankichi, and the Monument to All Japan Property Damage Insurance Labor union. A tour through the park takes about two hours. The law also states that the mayor of Hiroshima must continue to make steps towards the completion of the Peace Memorial City, working with residents and other interests. Part of this duty means that every August 6th, on the anniversary of the attack, the mayor makes an appeal for peace to the entire world at 8:15 a.m.

PENTAGON:
Another process that Contini may keep her eye on is the other September 11th memorial, the one at the Pentagon. Since last November, the Army Corps of Engineers has been working towards memorializing the attacks on Washington. An organization called the Focus Group has been formed, comprised of Corps employees, professional groups, and a competition consultant. The group has been in a dialogue with the Family Steering Committee, an organization of family members representing the victims. A site has been chosen, and a two-stage competition is underway. The first stage is an open competition, accepting designs from anyone whether they be, in the words of Carol Anderson-Austra, the Army Corps of Engineers project manager, "schoolchildren, professional architects or truck drivers in Oklahoma or Kansas."

This competition will be judged by a jury comprised of sculptors, architects and landscape architects, a representative from the victims' families, and two prominent citizens from the Washington D.C. area. This will take place in October. At this point five or six designs will be selected for further development. In mid December a final design will be chosen, and the memorial is scheduled to be dedicated on September 11th, 2003.

The memorial process in New York is bound to be the most heavily scrutinized part of the rebuilding. For months, people urged that nothing be built on the site. Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani became the champion of the victims' families by calling for a "soaring" memorial. But public opinion had evolved by the time Mayor Michael Bloomberg voiced his disdain for the idea of a "cemetery" downtown. Governor George Pataki vowed not to build on the towers' footprints, where the buildings had actually stood, but he later backed off, saying that the promise was really an opinion. Consensus seems far off.

It may seem as if Contini has put herself in a very difficult position, she is optimistic. "I don't immediately see the difficulties of the situation but the opportunities," she says, pointing to her past as the founder of Creative Time, the artistic director of the World Financial Center arts and events programs, and the head of Merrill Lynch's Global Sponsorships and Events Marketing. "I have experience.in truly bringing people together and creating an open exchange of ideas in forging a common vision." Optimistic or not, the job is a large one. And while Contini will be keeping tabs on what is going on in other places and what has been done in the past, she believes that there is a limit to what can be learned from elsewhere. The situation in New York is unique, and will be treated as such. As a process is developed, past experiences will be taken into account, but New York's method will not be directly modeled on any one effort. "We can't just pick up some else's process and make it our own," Contini says.

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