I had just about made my peace with the 9/11 memorial, whose concept I had at first found generic and full of clichés: the trees, the pool of falling water, the glimpse into the void and so on. Despite a few false notes (the tacky little flags on the bagpipes, and George W. Bush reciting from a letter written by Abraham Lincoln to a mother who lost five sons in the Civil War, once again opportunistically figuring the deaths of unknowing civilians as military heroism), the opening ceremony on Sunday, 11 September had gone well. More important, none of the bereaved families had to my knowledge expressed any negative feelings about the memorial, which lists the names of all the dead and solves the debate about how the names should be grouped by a principle of ‘meaningful adjacency’. As best he could, Michael Arad listed the names near or next to those with whom they had some sort of living affiliation.
The memorial genre that includes trees, pools and waterfalls arouses expectations of an enforced absorption, an unignorable demand that one register the timelessness of nature, the peace of perpetual motion, the quiet dignity of a gravesite. This is what was promised both by Arad himself in interviews, where he spoke of such things as ‘the built equivalent of a moment of silence’, and by the various critics and observers who had seen the memorial in its finished state and who registered ‘peace and introspection’, ‘modest serenity’, the ‘calm necessary for contemplation and spirituality’, ‘quiet and stoic defiance’, ‘minimalism’ etc. So far so commonplace. The memorial was set up to encourage remembering but also healing, it seemed. Nothing surprising there, nothing at all.
So it was in a state of shock that I finally stood beside the south pool, after making my way through the long lines of tourists and the obligatory security screening (which will stay in place only until the construction has finished). The lines soon dissipated around the periphery of the pools, making it easy to get close. I was wholly unprepared for what I felt and found. This is a monument to violence, and its effect is terrifying. First, the falling water drops 30 feet from the rim to the surface of the pool. What I had assumed would be a decorous burble turned out to be a raging torrent. I had worried that the noises of the city would drown out any peace and quiet the memorial might have generated, but there is no peace and quiet. The water roars and deafens – like jet engines up close, my friend suggested. The city noises don’t stand a chance. The noise and speed of the moving water is mesmerising but threatening; the pool is much too turbulent to reflect anything; and at the centre of the pool there is another vertiginous drop into a black marble-clad shaft whose bottom is just out of sight. Standing beside the pool, I felt drawn in, tempted to destroy myself, as one does when standing on the edge of Niagara Falls. Searching for analogies, I found myself thinking of hydroelectric intakes and giant dams, where the force of water and the power of industrial architecture work together in an overpowering, gargantuan synthesis of man and nature – a place where one does not want to get too close.
Could this be the planned effect of Arad’s design – he has spoken somewhat elliptically of the power of the void – or is it an unintended consequence of the failure to imagine how a maquette turns into built space, or a result of the many modifications made along the way to trim the memorial’s enormous budget? Arad continued to invoke the idea of the reflecting pool, although this pool does not reflect. Originally the names were supposed to be underground; the visitor would have beheld them from below and behind the base of the falling water, which would have appeared as a scrim. Had this design been built, the noise might have been even more overpowering, the sense of one’s own vulnerability even greater. What has been built leaves us above ground but still not safe. All that stands between the beholder and the 30-foot drop are the bronze panels with the names of the dead, who thus provide a sort of safety barrier between us and absolute vertigo. I found myself tempted to speculate on the juxtaposition; have others died to keep me safe? Am I to think that they are still presiding over my safety by keeping me from the edge, standing up for the principle that there have been enough deaths already? Does the continually roaring water capture the noise of the planes as always on the verge of impact? Is what is to be remembered here not the absence that figures in Arad’s title for his design, Reflecting Absence, but the split second before present life turned to death for those who were hearing similar noises and, perhaps, in a few cases, looking out at oncoming and irresistible power? Does the memorial in this way function as a counter-monument, a harking back to the split second before the tragedy, a re-creation of what it is like to be alive but knowing for sure that death is upon us? If so, the memorial did its job, as I found myself imagining the position of the victim, beyond affirmation or denial of anything, terrified but then subsequently aware that I really could just walk away, take that step away from them. The noises of the city, often so intrusive and annoying, seemed music to the ears.
And a few steps away there is Zuccotti Park, now famously the site of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which figures prominently in the news but never, from what I have seen, in any meaningful adjacency to the WTC site. Here too time is being suspended at the cusp of critical events and definitions. The protesters have been widely upbraided for failing to specify exactly what they want. The push to articulate demands comes from the opponents of the demonstrators. If demands are made and met, the movement dissolves. But it is much more likely that any demands would be refused and defeated, leaving the movement nowhere to go. As things are, the undeniable demand that the protesters are making is that we recognise that they are there, in flesh and blood, bodies on the street. The longer they can stay there, the more chance there is that the complexity of the crisis might come to attention. It is not about jobs, wages, benefits, welfare, tuition, immigration or any other single topic; it is about the 99 per cent in all of their manifold predicaments. The best image of that manifold is the body in (and out of) place, the body poised (and vulnerable) before speech and at the point of speech. The protesters know – al-Qaida knew this too – that by taking up and acting on space in the middle of the most mediatised city in the world, they are guaranteed a certain level of attention, along with access to the realm of the spectacle. They too are standing not far from the footprint, and in their expression of the massive economic and political crisis in which the events of 9/11 played such an important part, they are a monument (or a memorial?) to the hopes of those still living. Zuccotti Park, privately owned and named after the chairman of Brookfield Office Properties, used to be called Liberty Plaza. The Wall Street protesters are also, in their way, reflecting absence.