No other event stands out in America’s recent collective memory as clearly as the attacks on the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan on September 11, 2001. This one event changed us, and the world, forever. To memorialize such trauma requires a tremendous sensitivity, skill and humility. A healthy dose of courage is necessary too, particularly given how polarizing the 9/11 memorial project has been from the very start. Architect Michael Arad’s design for the National September 11 Memorial at the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan was chosen out of 5,200 submissions, and officially opened at Ground Zero in downtown New York City, on the 10 year anniversary of that horrific day. We had the great privilege to chat with Michael Arad about his iconic design for the 9/11 Memorial in NYC and his architectural work in general. Read on for an insightful discussion about one of the most important memorials in United States history.
The National September 11 Memorial comprises two pools recessed 30 feet in the ground in the footprints of the original towers, with waterfalls cascading into the holes of the former towers. The “reflecting pools” with their continuous roar of falling water, flanked by marble with victims names carved into the stone make the absence of the former twin towers, and their human inhabitants, both present and visible. The experience of the National September 11 Memorial is simultaneously moving, reflective, horrifying and peaceful – all depending on where you stand.
Inhabitat: Your design for the 9/11 Memorial was selected over 5,200 other submissions. Why do you think yours was selected?
I think one of the things that drew the jury to my particular design was that it challenged the master plan in some ways, and I think that was important to them—to see how you can make a memorial plaza that’s actually part of the city. I think the competition’s guidelines restricted the range of approaches that could be proposed, and having broken those boundaries, it gave me a lot more flexibility to think about the piece in terms of not just a memorial, but also an integral part of the city at the scale of a public space; of a memorial plaza; of urban infrastructure, rather than just making it one fixed thing.
This design had to work across a whole variety of scales, from the smallest design detail of how a font is figured out when it’s translated from two dimensions to three, to integrating eight acres into Lower Manhattan in a way that is connected, but also sets it apart. I think that was implicit in this proposal.
Inhabitat: The 9/11 Memorial is now free to access and enter, right?
It is. The first couple of years after the memorial was dedicated, you had to get ticketing and go through security. You had to go through this narrow corridor to get in and out of the site; all along, the whole intention of this memorial was to be open and free at grade so that you could just walk onto it and really connect. When the corner of Greenwich and Liberty opened to the public a few months ago, and people just started to stream onto the plaza for the first time, it was a really remarkable day for me because it was the dedication of the memorial as part of New York City again.
Inhabitat: How would you describe your design in your own words?
There are two important design objectives for me in thinking about the site, and one was to make absence sort of tangible and visible, and that sense of that violent rupture that occurred here; finding a way to capture that and that sense of ongoing absence and emptiness. It started with a sketch of shearing the Hudson River to form two square voids, and it translated to these two memorial pools on the plaza, which break the surface of this big flat plaza and plunge deep down into the ground.
Another key idea to this memorial was that it would be a public space at grade—that it would be open and civic and democratic and would bring people together here at the site. And that came out of my own experiences here in New York in places like Washington Square and Union Square, which acted as sites for impromptu memorials immediately after the attack, but even more importantly, acted as places for us to gather and respond as a community.
I wanted that to be part of this site, a place for people to come together and to be in the presence of others when they’re here, a place that’s a living part of the city, where people who come here aren’t just visitors to the memorial. They’re also people who live and work in this neighborhood and we bring all of them together here and make the memorial a living part of the everyday of the city in a way that doesn’t diminish it, but enhances every activity that goes on around it.
If you’re here for that once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to New York and you see the office workers gathered here, which are no different than the office workers whose names are inscribed on these parapets, I think it reinforces that message that they are us, we are them, and this is the day-to-day life that was so painfully interrupted on that day.
Inhabitat: How did you work with the families of the victims?
There is no single group that represents the multitude, and there are many different groups that represented various viewpoints within the family members’ responses to the attack. I think one of the most important ways in which we worked with the family members was when it came to the arrangement of names. That issue, more than any other, galvanized strong opinions and feelings on how the names should be arranged, what information should or should not be included, who should be placed next to whom.
We tried to find a way that was fair and egalitarian but also had implicit meaning, and we came up with an idea that we called “meaningful adjacencies”, where the placement of one name next to another was derived by asking family members if there were names of other victims who died here that day that they would like to see next to the person that they lost. That was a huge logistical hurdle to overcome and we had to convince the folks at the memorial foundation that we could come up with a solution that would address that.
We were given the opportunity to test this idea, and finally letters went out to the all the family members, asking them to verify the correct spelling of their loved one’s name, and also whether they’d like the name of their loved one to be next to any other name. We got over 1,200 requests back as a result of that, and then we spent close to a year arranging the names in a way that corresponded to all of these requests while also conforming to the general graphic standards which were established for the placement of the names around the pool.
We ended up getting these hidden constellations of connections from this name to that name, and that name had to be next to this name, and then this name next to another one. There were these strings of names that pushed and pulled every other name around them. I think that at the end of the day, the placement of each and every name on the memorial was affected by those requests. Even with names for which no request was made, we tried place them next to coworkers, or people they might have been with on a flight.
That, I think, greatly enriched the meaning of their arrangement, because some people see that connection immediately when they walk to these panels. They know why this name is next to that one. But we’ve also established a way for those histories to be teased out by other people over time, whether it’s in a printed brochure or in an audio guide; whether it’s in a new app that finds a way to tell the story of the connections between these people in life and in death, or to focus a visitor’s emotional response on a very specific story for a moment.
I think that’s very important because it’s easy to come here and be overwhelmed by the multitude of names. When you hear a particular story—and we’ve been working with some of the recordings that StoryCorps has made—you hear the voice of a father or a brother talking about somebody and that person’s relationship to another name on that memorial panel. It’s very powerful, and it changes your focus from a very broad and abstract “3,000 dead” to a very specific story of one person’s response to what happened that day.
Inhabitat: Were there any particular environmental or resilient design considerations that you had in your design?
Yes, and most people who visit the memorial feel like they’re standing on firm ground. But in fact, they’re standing on a green roof and it’s a green roof with five feet of soil on top of it, and then paving or areas of open lawn above that. It’s actually quite a complex system here.
We have these trench covers for the drains every few feet, which are part of the pattern that establishes the plaza. They capture rainwater, which is used for irrigation during storm events. That rainwater is captured and sometimes the water levels within that lower basin and pools might rise a bit to delay the discharge into the system, so there were a few resiliency measures that were built into it. Although the memorial museum suffered quite a lot of damage during Sandy because it was below ground, the memorial plaza did not, fortunately.
Inhabitat: So the museum is actually beneath the plaza?
Most of it is below the plaza. The atrium is primarily an entry and exit point.
Inhabitat: Do you reuse the water in the reflecting pools?
The water is continuously re-circulated, yes. We just have to make up for water lost due to evaporation.
Inhabitat: What inspired you to become an architect?
I’d always thought about it, but was somewhat apprehensive about embracing it fully. I actually applied to law school initially and got all of my requirements out of the way, and I had my senior year of college to sort of do whatever I wanted. I took a lot of art and art history classes and kind of fell in love, and postponed my decision for a year, applied to some architecture schools, and then really had to make the call. I decided to go with architecture. It felt like something that I could emotionally connect to and would enrich my life in an artistic way.
Inhabitat: We’ve written about and photographed the rooftop farm that you designed for The Earth School in the East Village. Can you tell us a little bit about how that design came to fruition?
It’s interesting: on the Earth School rooftop farm project, I had to act not just as the designer, but primarily as a fundraiser and an organizer. There were a lot of politics in dealing with three different principals and three different student bodies all in one school, as well as leaning on local elected officials to contribute funds to the success of the endeavor. There were lessons that I don’t think I would have learned had I not worked on this project.
At some point I jokingly said that it’s sort of the most expensive roof and the least expensive roof in New York at the same time. I think it’s helpful to see all the different sides of what brings a project together. As an architect, you carry a big role and responsibility, but seeing all the other sides of the story is equally important.