Remembering 9/11: designing for the intimate and the immortal

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 endure as indelible visions of chaos, destruction and unimagined brutality. About two billion people — one-third of the world’s population — watched the day’s tragedies as they unfolded live on television and online. Within 24 hours, another two billion learned of the succession of catastrophes, which were to be the most widely witnessed events in human history.

While the world watched in the days and weeks afterward, two architects in New York City began to draw.

“I started to draw that night,” remembered Frederic Schwartz, principal of his own architecture/planning practice and long-time SoHo resident. “It was my way of getting it out, what was seared in my memory.” He began by drawing the collapsing towers and over time, “I started to redraw the skyline. I started to draw what should happen,” he said.

A couple of miles away in his home on the Lower East Side, Michael Arad, two years out of architecture school and employed at the New York City Housing Authority, began to sketch “a pair of twin voids tearing open the surface of the Hudson River… This inexplicable, enigmatic image seemed to capture a sense of rupture, loss and persistent absence and stayed in my imagination.”

Michael Arad’s sketch on the left. Ten years later, the twin voids bear our collective grief.

A decade of consequences and contemplation have passed and those early drawings by Schwartz and Arad have transformed from paper musings into the two most profound memorials to the victims of September 11th: Arad’s National September 11 Memorial at the World Trade Center and across the Hudson River, Schwartz’ New Jersey 9/11 Memorial in Liberty State Park. Both were dedicated and opened to the public on the tenth anniversary earlier this year.

A Daunting Assignment
The purpose of modern memorials is two-fold: to commemorate the grief of victims’ families today and to convey the gravity of their loss to future generations. It is a daunting assignment to design for these intimate and immortal roles at once, and even more challenging to do so within the vortex of political, social, and cultural distress unleashed by these attacks.

Both Schwartz and Arad entered this vortex through public competitions. For the 2003 WTC site memorial competition sponsored by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, Michael Arad submitted his concept for the twin voids, named Reflecting Absence. After six weeks of deliberations by the 13-member jury and some modifications to the concept, his design was chosen as the winner among the eight finalists.

In 2004, Frederic Schwartz submitted a memorial design entitled Empty Sky to the New Jersey 9/11 Memorial Foundation public call for entries. His concept, a pair of steel walls framing the view of where the towers stood, was unanimously selected by the foundation’s Family & Survivor Committee. By this time, he was already a veteran of post-9/11 planning initiatives, having partnered with architects Rafael Viñoly, Ken Smith and Shigeru Ban under the team name Think to design a masterplan for the World Trade Center site. As one of two finalists to envision how the site should be rebuilt, the Think team narrowly and controversially lost to Studio Daniel Libeskind in 2003.

Commemorating Individual Loss
From his earliest sketch to the fully realized incarnation, Arad envisioned Reflecting Absence as a plaza framing the two sunken pools that articulate the footprints of the towers. Streaming down the granite-clad walls from each side is a curtain of water, bathing the plaza with a constant of sound of rushing water. From the bottom of the waterfalls, the water drifts toward the center where it drops into what appears to be a bottomless chasm.

Outlining each tower’s footprint is a bronze parapet, angled outward and bearing the 2,983 names of the victims, including those from the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. The organization of these names presented the most charged and complex challenge of the entire project. Arad remembers asking: “How could we arrange the names of the victims to reflect this terrible and enormous toll, while still honoring the individual and unique aspects of each and every loss?”

Early on, Arad and his design team dismissed common patterns of categorizing names on memorials; date of death, as in the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, did not apply in these tragic circumstances. Another standby, alphabetical listings would not honor the individuality and singularity of each person. Knowing that 40% of the victims’ families had nothing to bury, Arad grasped that this memorial would be used as a gravesite for grieving and remembering. The act of scanning an alphabetized column, such one that would include the three people named “Michael Lynch,” would diminish that sense of intimate connection to a single person.

In his effort to achieve a “deep, personal, particular meaning in the arrangement” of names, Michael Arad created the concept of “meaningful adjacencies.” Following the wishes of the families, the names would be collected in nine groups: the two towers, the four flights, the Pentagon, the 1993 victims, and the first responders by department/division. Victims in the north tower would be recognized on the north pool panels; and south tower at the south pool. Within each group, names would appear to be randomly placed in staggered lines across five rows. The randomness paralleled the indiscriminate and arbitrary killing of these individuals.

But within this seemingly haphazard arrangement, Arad wanted to create a more intimate narrative for those who grieved the most. “I decided that we should reach out to family members of the deceased and ask if they wanted the names of their loved ones to be arranged adjacent to other victims that the deceased had known during their lives.”

Negotiating Meaningful Adjacencies
In 2009, with Mayor Bloomberg’s help, the wishes of the families were collected: over 1,600 requests poured in. Requests to connect brothers, fathers and daughters, fiancés, friends, colleagues and strangers who tried to help each other on September 11 — hundreds of stories and personal relationships to be honored.

At the time, no one knew whether it was logistically possible to accommodate all the requests, especially within the nine groups as already defined. A statistician hired by the memorial foundation concluded that there was zero chance of completing the puzzle to everyone’s satisfaction.

That’s when Jake Barton, founder of Local Projects got a call from the foundation. His media design firm had already won the commission to design the exhibits for the September 11 museum that will adjoin Reflecting Absence when it opens in 2012. His expertise in storytelling, digital media, and complex content made his firm a great contender to address this challenge and his team took on the project with conviction. It was their task to render an undifferentiated list of names into what Barton described as “a latticework of human meaning.”

Local Projects created a drag-and-drop software tool that tracked each request and maintained a tally of how close any composition came to fulfilling every adjacency request. Users of the tool could “pick up” a name, place it in a new location among the rows and panels, and see whether a given move improved or reduced the percentage of met requests.

With a deadline to complete the memorial by the tenth anniversary — and without knowing whether 100% of requests could indeed be fulfilled within the geographic and physical constraints of the design, Arad and Barton undertook parallel high-tech and low-tech sprints. “It was a tremendous gamble” Arad remembers, having expressed his intentions to the families, “we became engaged in months and months of hard work” to make it all happen.

On the high-tech route, foundation members and Arad’s team used Barton’s software tool to program the North pool. At the same time, Amanda Mangold-Sachs, an associate at Arad’s firm Handel Architects began to compose the South pool by hand by herself. Using quarter-scale cards which included the person’s name, group and adjacency requests, she spent months shifting and sorting the arrangements on 2 1/2 foot racks. “It was a labor of love that took patience and perseverance” Arad remembers.

Both the high-tech and low-tech efforts succeeded in fulfilling all the requests; the composition was complete as what Arad called “an endless ribbon with a regular grain, or visual density.” The names are cut through 1/2-inch bronze panels illuminated from below at night. Arad selected the font Optima Medium Standard and his designers modified it into a stencil to accommodate the counters (the enclosed negative space within letters like “a” and “b”) with discrete pinned supports. Group names are CNC-milled as raised and attenuated prismatic letters.

To find an individual’s name, visitors to the memorial can get directions from the Memorial Guide website, mobile app and onsite kiosks, all designed by Local Projects.

Beyond their role in name arrangement and wayfinding for the memorial, Barton and his firm have taken on the role of storytellers and archivists of September 11. In partnership with StoryCorps, the nonprofit national oral history project, Local Projects has developed what Barton describes as “storytelling engines — participatory interfaces that are open and dynamic, that correspond to the fluid, and interdependent nature of storytelling.” Their efforts to record, catalog and publish stories about the events are to serve a universal mission “tell the enormity and diversity of the tragedy — to dimensionalize each individual and their story.” People will interact with this living archive, and add to it, on websites, apps, and in the museum when it opens next year.

New Jersey Remembers Its Own
Just west of the tip of lower Manhattan and at the confluence of the Hudson River and Atlantic Ocean, Liberty State Park played many roles in the events of September 11 and its aftermath. During the attacks, Jersey City residents and office workers gathered on the shore, witnessing the burning and collapse of the towers. Soon after, dozens of private, commercial and Coast Guard boats shuttled evacuees from lower Manhattan to the docks at the park in the largest boatlift ever undertaken. In the following days and weeks, volunteers manned a family assistance center in the former railroad terminal on the grounds while spontaneous memorials sprung up at the waters’ edge.

The families of the New Jersey victims of the attacks organized as the New Jersey 9/11 Memorial Foundation and chose this site to honor their dead. In June of 2004, they selected Fred Schwartz’ design, Empty Sky.

Two 210-foot long, 30-foot high walls shelter and frame a 12-foot-wide granite path. The board-formed concrete exteriors of the walls cut through a gently sloping hill planted with flowering cherry trees on axis with the memorial. Marine-grade stainless steel panels brushed to an ethereal matte finish make up the interior walls. Schwartz believes that steel is the optimum material for modern memorials: “it reflects the light of the day and this finish is neither too shiny nor too flat.”

To frame the Empty Sky of its title, the corridor shaped by these walls draws the eye, like a diagrammatic one-point perspective to the cavity in the Manhattan skyline where the twin towers once stood. The site and its orientation toward the towers was the starting point for Schwartz’ design. “The empty space left by the towers is as significant as the towers themselves,” he explained. With 1 World Trade Center (formerly the Freedom Tower) rising to the north, this area of the horizon is still void.

A single row of 4´x8´ stainless steel panels at eye level bears the 476 names of the New Jersey victims in random order. Schwartz and his graphic design partner Alexander Isley labored over the meticulous composition, starting with the intention to make the names as large as possible. “Presenting the inscriptions at a large size forces you to contemplate, to pay attention,” explains Isley. At a cap height of 3.6 inches, the names may be the largest found on a civilian memorial. At design reviews with the foundation, Schwartz presented the full composition with every name in place. “I’m very proud that the names are so big — these are individuals and now they will never be lost.”

Isley chose ITC Bodoni 12 for its powerful verticals and rounded serifs. “It softens the expression of such a cool material [steel] with its curvature and nuance while providing the contrast required for readability and charcoal rubbings.”

Unplanned Challenges and Revelations
From concept to construction, Fred Schwartz faced a number of challenges: from opposition against the location of the memorial from a local park group to the spiraling costs of stainless steel during the worldwide building boom: “I felt like a commodities broker watching prices. They dropped during the crash in 2008 and we were lucky to come in under budget.”

While Schwartz captained every aspect of the project, he was caught by surprise by one remarkable phenomenon near the end of construction. At dusk and at dawn, he describes, “a miraculous and blinding halo of light touches each name.” When the sun is just right, the parallel steel walls reflect its light in radiant arcs that move ahead of the visitor as they walk along the path. When I toured the memorial with Schwartz one evening in September, we experienced it together. “A lot of people lost their faith that day, but the way it touches every name,” Schwartz trailed off, “there’s a religious quality.” Isley agrees that the interplay of light “exceeded expectations — it is not an experiment in grays.”

The Tenth Anniversary
On September 11, 2011, Michael Arad, Jake Barton, Fred Schwartz and Alex Isley all participated in the dedication of the memorials they conceived.

Arad remembers the day as incredibly moving, “watching young kids running around the green space, side by side with families making rubbings and touching names — it proved that democratic spaces are incredibly resilient, that these activities enrich one another, and do not diminish the commemorative nature of the space.” Barton was simply glad that after years of assembling the compositions of meaningful adjacencies, “families found their loved ones in this positive place of memory and reconstruction.”

Isley recalled watching the inscriptions emerge through charcoal shading. “This was an important project, not an exciting or fun one, but one that I am grateful to be a part of.”

Fred Schwartz at the New Jersey 9/11 Memorial.

About a week after the dedication, while Fred Schwartz and I toured the memorial and experienced its halos, a man approached us and showed us a photo on his phone. It was of young girl in pigtails, standing right about where the memorial now stood. In the photo, the World Trade Center towered over her right shoulder. He pointed to a young woman behind him and said “that’s my daughter, and that’s her back in 1995.” He explained that he worked at the science center in the park at that time and she had come to visit him. The conversation continued and Fred confided with the man that he designed the memorial. The man introduced himself, “I’m Jeff Adams,” shook his hand, and said sincerely “I’m proud of what you did here.”

Remembering 9/11 (PDF) published in segdDESIGN, no. 34, 2011

Leslie Wolke, SEGD ( is a consultant who specializes in wayfinding technology and interactive donor recognition systems.

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