9/11 Memorial Review: At Ground Zero, Staying Above Ground Matters

NEW YORK -- The search for the meaning of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks began as soon as the first plane hit the World Trade Center's north tower and will continue long beyond the tenth anniversary this Sunday. This need to understand has changed the psyche of every home and school and office in America, but here, at the National September 11 Memorial, it takes a physical and enduring form.

And so perhaps it is no surprise that agreeing on a single plan to achieve that form was fraught with delays and complications. In fact, Michael Arad, the largely unknown architect who won a 2003 competition to design the memorial, has spent the last eight years cajoling, negotiating and sometimes battling to get his proposal built. He has had to fight against politicking, power grabs and all the financial obstacles that come with trying to construct a $700-million memorial and museum on the site of the original twin towers. His plan has been challenged by family members and builders, people who find it too hopeless and those who wish it were darker.

What is remarkable is that, despite all this, the memorial that opens to the public this week is not only at its core similar to Arad's very first sketch for the design but is also a powerful tribute and a meaningful contribution to Lower Manhattan.

Arad, who was paired with the landscape architect Peter Walker for the project by the jury overseeing the competition, has succeeded in redefining the footprints of the twin towers as massive, acre-sized reflecting pools. Surrounding these fountains are bronze panels that display the names of all those killed on 9/11 in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, as well as the victims of the 1993 truck bombing at the World Trade Center.

The names are arranged not alphabetically but by what Arad calls "meaningful adjacencies" that group people who were close together on the day the planes hit. Police officers are listed together, as are passengers on each of the planes that crashed -- and the crew and passengers of each plane are listed on the pool corresponding to the tower their plane hit. This arrangement makes the experience of reading the names particularly powerful, especially for the families of victims. It's easy to imagine family members unexpectedly coming upon old friends as they visit the site.

Between the voids are granite benches and more than 400 swamp white oak trees that offer shade and space for reflection. These clearings are critical to the design, providing open space and, on the southwest corner of the site, a place where each Sept. 11 the names of the nearly 3,000 victims will be read.

Together, the memorial and museum take up some 7.5 acres, just under half the total World Trade Center site. In its use of this space, Arad's plan is brilliant for the simple reason that it abandons part of Daniel Libeskind's master plan and raises the memorial up to ground level.

Even Libeskind, who wanted the space set in a 30-foot depression, now acknowledges that a sunken space would have hidden the memorial -- it would have made the site a place to visit once. Instead, by creating an urban park that will eventually be accessible from all sides, Arad has made a destination that will be returned to, that in a way must be returned to because the physical and emotional experience of visiting is never complete.

For the same reason, it was a good decision to move the names of the victims above ground. The inch-and-a-half-high letters are cut from the bronze and will be lit from below at night, but they glow at all hours and draw you close to the pools. Seeing the names wrap around and around as the water falls down gives a sense of the enormous and horrifying scale of the tragedy. To have hid the names below ground and had a park above would have been to hide in some sense from the true gravity of the attacks.

Nothing about this memorial is hidden -- not from the city, and not from visitors. And in this way, Arad has made sure his memorial will be relevant for decades to come. In its connection to the street grid, it is part of, rather than apart from, the rest of the city. As office towers spring up around the memorial and as the museum opens, this will be a place for visitors and New Yorkers to visit and revisit and to remember. It is a place not only to look down and honor the past but also to look up with hope for the future.

Scroll back to the top to watch an interview with Michael Arad at the site.