the Ground Zero Memorial


LISA ROCHON Saturday, September 19, 2008

NEW YORK - Out of the darkest moments come painful shards of clarity. For Michael Arad, the first one came on Sept. 11, 2001, after seeing the north tower of the World Trade Center billowing with smoke and then, from his apartment rooftop in East Village, watching the south tower being slammed by a plane and realizing then that this was no freak accident but an act of terrorism.

Arad jumped on his bike and pedalled hard toward the downtown where his wife worked as an attorney. During that panicked trip, he remembers seeing a couple who posed on a traffic median in Chinatown with the inferno behind them, smiling for a camera. "That's one of the most indelible images I have in my mind," says Arad. The image became revelation No. 2 for the New York architect, who won the international competition four years ago to design the Ground Zero memorial, beating out some 5,200 other submissions.

Winning the competition was an extraordinary honour for Arad. As an Israeli (his father was a former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. and Mexico), Arad for years had felt like an outsider in New York. He was working as an architect for the city's housing authority when his scheme won, catapulting him from anonymity to the anointed one.

These days, however, it's a matter every day of defending his still unbuilt design, called Reflecting Absence, against the colossal forces waging war at Ground Zero. The scale of his memorial, which overtakes the footprints of the obliterated twin towers, is audacious. The idea of walls of water crashing into black voids is fearsome. And then the water spills from each of the central pools into a smaller, seemingly bottomless hole. This is the illusion held within the design - nothing playful, mind you, but something that pushes past a precipice toward the unknowable.

Arad needs to defend his design because, apart from Mayor Michael Bloomberg who declared last week that the memorial must be accomplished in time for the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, few people are up to the task.

The Lower Manhattan Development Corp., an agency that has steadily lost its vision and purpose over the last seven years, is to be dismantled, if Bloomberg has his way. And the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is seen to be an administration incapable of getting consensus on how to build greatness into the 16 acres of devastated land.

Arad has enjoyed some wins - preventing the enormous skylights Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava wanted to place on the ground leading up to the memorial void so as to better light the mezzanine level of the Port Authority Trans-Hudson Corp. (PATH) train station he is designing underground. And there have been some serious losses, such as the elimination of the journey down 9 metres - to bedrock - and the pools where Arad wanted people to experience the vast planes of water and the names of the people who died. Security issues have meant people will stay in the open at ground level, surrounded by acres of oak and sweet gum trees, with the names of the dead inscribed on panels of dark bronze.

Besides all of that, it's now estimated that the memorial and interpretive museum together could cost as much as $1-billion (U.S.) to build, of which $350-million has been raised, so far, through private donations. With the bottom falling out of the American economy, estimates that about $40-million would then also have to be spent annually on the maintenance and security of the memorial and its museum are surely alarming, though it would be seen as unpatriotic to declare this is so.

"I'm very grateful for the Mayor's leadership on this," Arad says. "He's been a tireless champion of this design, and since he became involved with it very intimately, it's moved at a much faster rate." Bloomberg is chairman of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum at the World Trade Center and has defended the need to get the memorial done even while criticizing the cost overruns of Calatrava's wing-like transit hall, now estimated to be $1-billion over its original $2-billion budget.

Arad's first attempt at a design was during days of relative idleness in 2002 waiting for a work visa to be renewed. (He had spent much of his young life being educated in the United States, but only became an American citizen last year, at 37.) As a first impulse, thinking back to the couple in Chinatown and the inability of people to see reality for what it was, he sketched two black squares that he imagined as voids and placed them on the surface of the Hudson River. When the competition was announced, Arad shifted the black voids from the open waters of the Hudson to the ruined site in Lower Manhattan.

He showed the intense ink sketches at a seminar on memorials held 10 days ago at the Center for Architecture in New York. And he explained to the audience of maybe 100 people how he built a model to capture the depth of the loss.

Among the many sorrows evoked by Ground Zero is the evidence that the belief in another kind of New York, one that could make room for something more golden, more collectively bound than the desires of the individual, has been beaten up and abandoned. Seven years ago, people stood at the fountain in Washington Square Park and lit candles around its edges and floated them on its waters. And they found comfort in being together, though they were mostly unknown to each other. That was when Arad felt he had finally become a New Yorker.

Every year, there are fewer people who turn up to hear the names of the 2,974 people who died during the attacks on the World Trade Center. The ceremony, conducted just outside the enormous, fenced-off pit known as Ground Zero, is a carefully orchestrated event. Pairs of people - somebody who has lost a relative and a young person representing a country such as Bangladesh or China - stand side by side at a podium reading off names in alphabetical order. Sometimes a mother or a father will take time to speak to their child, now dead for seven years, updating them on the progress of siblings at Cornell or remembering laughter and egg-salad sandwiches enjoyed around a kitchen table. And then another pair will step up to the podium while a small orchestra plays sad music in the background.

The week before last, all the major American channels carried the live broadcast of the naming of the names on the morning of Sept. 11. What they failed to show, however, were the dozens of men in black T-shirts there shouting out in anger about the failure of the federal government to take care of the "first responders" - firemen, paramedics and volunteers - who are suffering respiratory illnesses following their heroic work on Sept. 11. (A 2006 study by the Mount Sinai Medical Center showed that 70 per cent of the 9,500 rescue workers have had lung problems.) Hundreds of police controlled the streets, while a handful of agitators spouting their theories about a George W. Bush conspiracy behind the 9/11 attacks stood their ground on the sidewalk, attracting crowds of people curious enough to get out their video cameras.

A man in a purple suit and white shoes holding a bouquet of artificial flowers tight to his chest stood like an icon with eyes fixed on the horizon where the trade towers once stood. There is no place to mourn at the WTC, so visitors escape the frustration and anger in the streets by wandering in the historic cemetery of St. Paul's chapel. Because of its proximity to the devastated site, the wrought iron fence surrounding the chapel's bucolic grounds once held flowers, teddy bears and baseball caps. You couldn't look at it without feeling the grief. And then the spontaneous memorial was gone, removed some years ago to be preserved within the museum next to the memorial. More than the formidable issues of budget and political infighting, the greatest test for Arad's memorial is whether it has the power to draw people out of themselves to go to Ground Zero; to seek comfort and strength by standing among strangers and calling themselves, even for a day, New Yorkers.