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Competing to Design the 9/11 Memorial

Mario Gentile was one of 13,683 people from around the world who promised, by the 5 p.m. deadline on Monday, June 30th, to submit their designs for a 9/11 memorial on the site of the World Trade Center. Gentile had never designed anything like this before, but he decided to enter the international memorial competition because, he says, he needed to put his strong feelings "on paper."

Gentile may well be typical of those who entered the competition in at least one important way: However spontaneous and emotional his initial impulse, he is far from an amateur. A graduate of the Columbia School of Architecture, he makes his living designing Manhattan interiors. Indeed, some say it would have been difficult for a complete architectural amateur to have met the demanding technical guidelines set forth by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation.

Those who did send in designs had to figure out how their proposal would best memorialize September 11, even as those closest to the tragedy disagreed on the details and concepts for the memorial. They also were presented with both a lengthy list of guidelines and a hint from the development corporation that the winning design may be one that need not follow the rules after all.

The Competition
Each would-be memorialist pre-registered for the competition in May. They received a number, so that all of the submissions will be anonymous, and then had a month to finish their designs and send them in. The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation has not yet released the number of people who have mailed in their proposals.

The memorial jury -- made up of artists, architects and academics, as well as a downtown resident and a victim's family member -- will spend all summer evaluating the designs. They will not know any of the designers' names until after they agree on five finalists this fall.

This is a good thing, said Gentile, because it puts the focus on the design itself. Vietnam Veterans Memorial designer Maya Lin, now a member of the 9/11 jury, won that 1981 anonymous memorial competition when she was an undergraduate student at Yale.

Downtown architect Frederic Schwartz, along with other architects in the THINK team, was a finalist in the competition to design the entire World Trade Center site earlier this year, but ultimately lost to Daniel Libeskind. Schwartz is now entering this second competition run by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, this time for the memorial. "I think they did an excellent job of setting up the competition by going around the world, looking at competitions, carefully writing a program, carefully writing a mission statement.... And the jury -- now, it's an excellent jury. It's good because it's diverse," said Schwartz, who has entered 50 architectural competitions in the last 25 years.

Although the contest is open to anyone age 18 or older (and, officials have said that even those under 18 can enter with an adult), some say that the guidelines are so detailed that only an architect would be able to create a design that follows the rules. They are "way too strict," said Gentile. "The more limitations, the less people [will be able to compete]," he explained.

The guidelines tell designers to create a memorial that recognizes each person who was killed in the September 11 attacks in New York, the Pentagon and Pennsylvania, as well as the victims of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

Manhattan architects Raul A. Smith and Clementina Ruggieri said that they worked together to create one design that not only met the requirement to individually recognize the victims, but "also one which engages all the volunteers and, ultimately, anyone in the world who feels the need to heal by going to Ground Zero."

The guidelines also say that the design needs to create a space for "contemplation," "make visible the footprints" where the World Trade Center towers stood and convey the "historical authenticity" of September 11. Designers are told to situate their memorial -- which will need to accommodate 8,000 to 50,000 visitors a day -- in the 4.7-acre site set aside for the competition.

However, the development corporation has suggested that the rules may not be binding after all, leaving competitors unclear about just how flexible the contest is. Designs that do not stay inside boundaries specified for the competition "may be considered by the jury if, in collaboration with the LMDC, they are deemed feasible and consistent with site plan objectives," according to the development corporationÕs guidelines.

Controversies and Compromise
This is surely one of the most publicized memorial competitions in history, and all of the attention may have created even more challenges for would-be designers, not only architectural challenges, but also emotional ones. This may be one reason why people like Rosemary Jensen, registered for the competition but didn't ultimately send in a design. Jensen, a freelance publications production artist said that she just couldn't come up with a design that fit.

Many of those closest to the September 11 tragedy have conflicting, and very emotional, opinions, which they have shared in public forums and private meetings.

"You can't take a public opinion poll," said Schwartz. "People from maybe the same family might say build nothing there or build the world's tallest building there... You would hope it would heal everybody's wounds but it won't."

Controversies over the memorial abound, over what the details of the design should be to how it should be situated. Even though rebuilding officials selected Libeskind's overall design for Ground Zero -- with its designated space for the memorial -- way back in February, people continue to argue over the space for the memorial. While Libeskind sunk the memorial space 30 ft. below ground level, exposing the World Trade Center's original foundations, some downtown residents are upset with the idea of a large hole in the middle of everything, fearing it will cut off neighborhoods. Many victims' family members, however, consider the plot sacred ground and approve of how Libeskind's design sets it apart.

While Schwartz did not give the details of his design, or say whether or not it puts the memorial 30 feet below, Gentile said that his design (in pdf format) incorporates the sunken space. "I think the scar should be left in the earth," he said. "It is not going to cut off [the neighborhood]. I think it will be an improvement from what was there."

Listing the Names
Another tense debate over the memorial concerns how the names of the victims should be listed (if the chosen design does indeed include a list, guidelines merely stipulate that each victim should be individually recognized). Family members of firefighters who died on September 11 are passionate that they should be listed together, with their titles,

But others say that separating the victims of 9-11 would suggest that some of the people who died were more important than others.

"There is a question about what's the difference between a military memorial and a memorial for a tragedy that occurred that involved people of various different status," said Reinhold Martin, who directs the Advanced Architectural Design program at Columbia University's School of Architecture and is closely following the competition. "Firefighter is probably in between in the popular imagination; in between a soldier and a regular citizen."

How are the designers mitigating such conflicting desires? "You do it as you live life," said Schwartz. "You try to make the best decisions. I don't think you can make all of this a compromise, because if everything is a compromise you'll have a compromise. It is just finding what you think in your heart is right. Heart has to dictate over intellect."

In his design, Gentile created a field of columns, each inscribed with the name and description of one of the victims. He arranged the columns so that the first rows would be the rescue workers, then those in the planes, then people who worked in the towers.

It is not just the architects who will have to worry about pleasing the public. The jury members will have the difficult task of selecting something that conflicting groups can agree on. "The jury is not in isolation. They will be affected by the public, even if they don't realize it; by the mixed feelings many people have about how this is working," said Martin. "What they should be focusing on, I think, is some kind of dignity or discretion as opposed to kitsch. It's very difficult to avoid kitsch in this circumstance. They're going have to balance the sense of discretion against this media-driven demand for some sort of more spectacular thing."

Striving to Memorialize 9/11
More people registered for the September 11 memorial competition than any other design competition in history. While the number of people who actually sent in designs has not yet been released, it is clear that architects, designers and regular people around the world were overwhelmingly compelled to create a memorial for 9/11.

"Through our design we simply want to be another voice," said Smith, who entered the contest with Ruggieri. "And we hope that, as a voice among many, we can contribute to a more meaningful selection process."

"My incentive is doing something great for all the people," said Schwartz. "Just as a dancer or an artist has some abilities given to them, I have certain abilities so I want to use them to do something for these people who were murdered. For their memory, for their families, for the city, I want to give something back. That's what it is; that's why I do public work."

Martin has a very different take. "Fame is the incentive, but they wouldn't tell you that."

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