Architect for 9/11 memorial tells the story of its creation

Michael Arad, the architect for the 9/11 memorial in New York City, spoke with the Yale community at a master's tea at Saybrook College in November 2012.
Architect Michael Arad speaking at Yale University
Michael Arad at Saybrook College. (Photo credit: Michael Marsland)

There were many moments that were fraught with anxiety and challenge for Michael Arad as he fine-tuned his design for the 9/11 memorial at the site of the World Trade Center’s (WTC) Twin Towers, but some of the compromises he was forced to make along the way actually led to a more perfect space for reflection, the architect said at a Saybrook College master’s tea on Nov. 27.

The notion of compromise is always tinged with a whiff of defeat, but I don’t think it should be,” Arad told guests at the tea, adding, “Yes, there are compromises that shouldn’t be made, but it’s always a fine line.”

Arad, whose WTC memorial was chosen from more than 5,000 design entries, described his creative process and traced the development of his design from its earliest incarnation through its final form, sharing pictures of his sketches, test runs for his ideas, and the fully realized memorial, which opened to the public in September 2011.

The architect, who watched the second plane hit the South Tower from his roof on the Lower East Side, described how, in the days immediately following the WTC attacks, he first envisioned a memorial that incorporated the element of water. His earliest sketch, which he made about a month later, was an attempt to capture his own feelings about the attack as well as its aftermath, he said.

The way people came together in New York affected me greatly,” he said. “I felt a desire to respond to that. For me, it was a very self-directed, hopefully cathartic, exercise.”

Unable to imagine building again on the site of the former towers, then still smoldering, Arad said he sought solace along the Hudson River. There, he told his audience, he imagined “two voids tearing open a surface of water and the river failing to fill it up.” The “inexplicable” image, he added, captured “a sense of rupture and continued absence” that intrigued him. He made a mock-up of the design on the rooftop of his apartment building, but it wasn’t until a year later — when the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC) announced the design competition — that he began to fully develop his idea for the 9/11 memorial.

From the start, Arad noted, he chose to disregard some of the competition design requirements, which called for a space that would be incorporated into a Ground Zero master plan created by architect Daniel Libeskind. While Arad appreciated some of Libeskind’s plan, he was not impressed with the entirely below-street-level memorial that Libeskind envisioned.

It felt like the site was shielded but also isolated,” Arad said. “I thought about my own experience in New York and how important public space is for New Yorkers — a place where people come together and stand side by side with strangers, where you can feel a sense of community and compassion and stoicism and courage. … After the attacks, there was a moment of unity — brief but beautiful nonetheless. An attack that was meant to cow and dishearten actually brought people together with great determination, and it brought the whole world together for a period of time.” He thus decided to disregard Libeskind’s plan, instead creating a design for an open, street-level public plaza “punctured by two square voids,” Arad said.

His original design for the eight-acre portion of the memorial site also incorporated a below-ground gallery in the footprints of the towers, where walls of water would descend over the engraved names of those who lost their lives in the attacks. One of Arad’s biggest challenges during the project came in 2006 when this part of his design was rejected for security and other reasons.

I was afraid that in losing this below-ground memorial, I was losing the entire memorial,” said Arad, whose original design aimed to evoke the impassable separation between the living and the dead — “a threshold that one cannot cross” — before memorial visitors again ascend to street level “and back to life,” Arad said.

Nevertheless, the architect was able to preserve the water element that was so central to his design: two square, below-ground reflecting pools are surrounded by waterfalls that begin above ground level. The names of those who died in the attacks and recovery efforts are inscribed on bronze panels in the plaza overlooking the pools of water.

The 9/11 memorial in New York City.
The 9/11 memorial in New York City. (Image credit: Pixabay)

In what we ended up with, you can see each strand of water as it goes over the edge of the weir, appearing as separate, individual streams as it falls. By the time it reaches the end, the clarity dissipates, and it becomes a woven tapestry of water. I think it speaks to individual and collective loss — bringing together many lives into one,” he explained.

In addition to his plan for the waterfalls, another challenging element of Arad’s design was the ordering of the names of 9/11 victims, which — under intense public scrutiny and the involvement of victims’ families — took several years to finalize. Among the considerations were how to differentiate first responders from others killed in the attacks, and how to group family members. Arad had also wanted to ask the families of victims whether there were victims that should placed near their own lost loved ones, a process which some criticized as utterly unfeasible.

There were many cooks in the kitchen, some with bad ideas,” said Arad. “The process was difficult, and I wondered if we would ever find something that would be appropriate.”

Arad said he was grateful for the support he received from the Memorial Foundation — chaired by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg — to take the time required to develop a sensible and workable solution. Ultimately, with guidance from the foundation, Arad decided to arrange the names in groups according to where they were at the time of the attacks, while also meeting some 1,200 special requests from victims’ families. Names are staggered to allow for each to have a unique space within their special groupings.

The process was challenging emotionally,” Arad said, noting that the final solution is one that allows for the hearing of “the individual stories” of victims.

Arad ended his talk by sharing two photographs from the memorial’s opening — one of a man touching the inscribed name of a loved one and another of two young girls playing in the plaza.

Everything we did up to that day was half complete,” he told his audience. “It was like a stage that had scenery and props and lights but needed actors. Those are the visitors to the memorial. All of these people bring the memorial to life and instill meaning in it. These are two pictures from the same day, and it’s important for these things to occur side by side.”


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