Reflecting Absence: An Interview with Michael Arad

Michael Arad’s winning design for the World Trade Center Memorial has created a landmark for New York City and for design. “Reflecting Absence,” the theme and title of Arad’s winning entry, raises ...

Michael Arad’s winning design for the World Trade Center Memorial has created a landmark for New York City and for design. “Reflecting Absence,” the theme and title of Arad’s winning entry, raises questions about loss and memory, but also about bringing life to city streets. In conversation with Harel Shapira, Arad discusses the democratic uses of public space and creating resilient cities. Public Books is delighted to print this interview just as our sister journal, Public Culture, publishes its latest issue on the theme “Infrastructures of the Urban,” guest edited by Shapira, Craig Calhoun and Richard Sennett.

HAREL SHAPIRA (HS): I want to go back in time about a decade and to talk about the 9/11 memorial competition. What were the guidelines? What kinds of constraints did you face?


MICHAEL ARAD (MA): One of the great freedoms I had and, I think, one of the advantages was that I entered the competition without thinking I might win. I didn’t feel constrained by the competition guidelines to the extent that I think most of the other architects who entered were. The guidelines were actually the second stage in a process that began with the selection of Daniel Libeskind’s master plan for the World Trade Center site. The guidelines for the memorial were developed after the selection of that master plan, and in relation to it.


HS: How did the master plan affect your design?


MA: The important element in respect to public space was that the plan suggested a memorial site that was going to be some thirty feet below street level. And what was most troubling for me with this idea was that it represented sharp discontinuity with the urban fabric.


HS: Did you disregard this part of the plan?


MA: The guidelines expressed a very articulated design of the site, and so the competition restricted the range of responses you could have had. It was not a tabula rasa. In some ways there was little freedom to respond—unless you departed from the guidelines. Because I had no expectation of winning, I did not pay close attention to some of the guidelines. I went into the competition thinking, what kind of memorial would I want to see? My main concern was that the deeply recessed site for the memorial would disconnect the space from the city. That it would not allow it to be a public space, which was critical to me. So the most important notion was to bring everything up to grade, to connect it to the surrounding streets and sidewalks.


HS: You said that your own desires drove your design concept. Can you say more about that?


MA: Coming up with the design concept was a deeply personal experience. I thought of my own experiences in New York shortly after the attack and how important public spaces were. In many ways, I think the city responded with a sense of compassion and stoicism and courage because of our ability to congregate in places like Washington Square and Union Square, where we could stand next to people who were strangers to us. Something united us and held us together. I knew on an intellectual level that public spaces carry an important democratic function. But it wasn’t until I experienced it emotionally that I understood how powerful that is, how important.

I had been living in New York for about three years when the attacks happened, and I felt very much like a stranger within the city. Yet that experience, that crucible of fire, made me feel like a New Yorker. If you had told me a week before that that I would go buy an American flag and hang it out of my window, it would have seemed inconceivable to me. But that is exactly what I ended up doing. I attribute that very much to the importance of public space, of being able to stand next to a stranger late at night at a vigil in Washington Square Park without a single word being said. There was no ceremony. There was no speaker. There were just people standing next to each other. And it was an incredibly powerful experience for me. Public space created a sense of community.


HS: And you wanted to try to reproduce that possibility of such an experience in the memorial?


MA: I looked at the proposed master plan, and I felt that it cut this site off from the life of the city. It created a space that would be sheltered and enclosed and would mark the site for memory. It would not make it a living part of New York. I think public spaces are incredibly resilient and powerful. That’s one of the remarkable things about them: one day they can be a site for a vigil; the next day, they can be a site for a political protest; and the following day they can be the site for a picnic, for a festival, for a concert. And one does not diminish the other. It’s not a zero-sum game.

I tried to bring two very different ideas together: the idea of marking absence and the idea of creating a public space. Let me just add, too, that I included the word “play” in the text of my submission. That was important to me. To say that, yes, this is a site for memory, but it is also a site for work and play, that it needs to fulfill all of these obligations, that it’s not a zero-sum game, that it’s not one at the expense of the other.


HS: Is there a tension between having a memorial space, a sacred space if you will, and a public space? Can certain forms of congregation desecrate the sacredness of a memorial? For instance, Peter Eisenman’s holocaust memorial. Berliners use it as a place to have picnics or just interact casually.


MA: Let me go back to the experience I mentioned earlier in Washington Square Park. It was maybe two, three nights after the attack. I walked up to that fountain in the middle of the park. I found about a dozen or so people just standing around the fountain. There were a few candles lit on the pedestal. There was no service. No speeches. That was a transformative moment.

I’m not religious but this was a baptismal type of moment, you know, where you become part of a community. I sensed a strong bond with the people just standing next to me. I didn’t know them. I didn’t know their names. I will never be able to find them again. But for a moment in time there was a real sense of community, especially in a city like New York that can impose the feeling of being a stranger on the ground. It was very different.

I had been to Washington Square so many times prior to that night, and most of the time there isn’t a vigil there. In fact, you’re often approached by somebody asking if you want to buy drugs. Did these past experiences make that moment a few nights after the attacks any less significant? No. There’s something powerful and resilient about public spaces that allow both of those experiences to happen in the same place.


HS: So one important element of a public space is that it allows for multiple uses?


MA: There are different forms of expression in a public space. I tend to think of it as democratic and positive, but it can be quite different. We think of Tahrir Square, and we praise it and say it’s wonderful. But yesterday or two days ago, it might have acted as a place where a mob congregated. It’s a place where democracy happens, but it’s also a place where a lynching can happen. It’s a powerful thing, public space, but its power isn’t always inherently for the good.

There’s something telling, though, about the fact that most repressive regimes are afraid of public space, and that when they use it, it’s as a controlled display. Think, for example, of the massive shows of support (so to speak) in North Korea or Tiananmen Square. We have to be optimists and hope that people will use public space in a way that is affirmative and not destructive, but you would be naïve to think that it can’t be co-opted and used in a way that will injure other people. It would show more than a little hubris on the part of any designer to say, I’ve designed a space that can only be used for good. But to deny public space altogether would be repressive.


HS: Tell me a bit about the actual design concept. How did you blend these twin ambitions of making a memorial space and a public space?


MA: First off, I just couldn’t imagine building on the site initially. It was too soon, too raw. Many people jumped right in and started to suggest ideas. But for me, it took time. Shortly after the attack, I sketched this image in which I imagined a type of memorial in the Hudson River. I really couldn’t imagine building on the site at the time. It was a wound that was too painful to touch. I imagined coming up to the edge of the Hudson River and looking across the surface of the water and seeing these two voids which had been inexplicably formed into the surface of the water. I wanted to bring that notion of these imagined voids in the Hudson River to the World Trade Center site itself. The idea was not to erase the emptiness, but to give it a presence.


HS: What was the process of transforming this sketch, this vision, into a concrete design plan?


MA: Well, that image preoccupied me for a while. I spent close to a year sketching and modeling and eventually building a small fountain that captured the idea of this unexpected tear in the surface of the water. I photographed it on the rooftop of my apartment building in lower Manhattan, and I could see the absence of the towers in the skyline somehow being mirrored and reflected in the foreground of these two voids. I want to stress that this was a very personal investigation, something I did without client or commission or direction. It was a self-directed, cathartic exercise. For me, design is process. It’s not as if I have a fully formed idea that simply needs to be realized by somebody else. It’s an investigation that yields clues and direction. After I finished the small fountain and photographed it on my roof, I set it aside. I came back to it a year later, once the master plan had been selected.


HS: How did you see these sketches fitting into the master plan?


MA: I thought that I could bring these two voids into the site and create a public space that is bounded on four sides by West Street, Fulton, Greenwich, and Liberty. I thought that people could congregate around these voids. I wanted them to be things you could actually experience, that you could walk up to, not simply things you would see at a distance. I wanted it to be firmly within the city, enmeshed with it and not set apart. So the idea was that the plaza would be at grade, at street level, with these two large voids cut into it. And then below it, a cloister-like space which would serve as a memorial gallery, where one would encounter the names of the victims and see the city through a veil of falling water.


HS: How did you decide how to display the names?


MA: The arrangement of the names was an issue of the greatest public contention and interaction. The first question we had to deal with was, should first responders—the firefighters and police officers who rushed to the site and perished in the effort to save others—should they be in any way recognized differently than everyone else? Some people said yes; some people said no. And this was a decision where everybody I dealt with said, we trust you to make the right decision, because nobody wanted to own it.

One idea that I had was to have an insignia next to some names, such as a Maltese cross, which is a symbol of the fire department, next to a firefighter’s name, or a shield, the symbol of the police department. Some people felt that this was not enough, that we should list the firefighters separately and list them by company and rank. And others felt that this honored and elevated and created an undue hierarchy, which was certainly not my intention. I was hoping to use the same materials and the same size and the same language for every name. And how the names would be arranged beyond that was a point of contention. Every system you might come up with to arrange the names inadvertently privileged some at the expense of others.


HS: Can you give some examples?


MA: For example, an alphabetical arrangement would list some family members together but would separate others that didn’t share the same last name. The name Michael Francis Lynch appears twice on the memorial, and an alphabetical list would have put these two names next to each other without any way of knowing which marker was meant to commemorate which individual. So, the idea that I had proposed initially was that we would actually reach out to 3,000 families and ask them to participate in this process. I called it “meaningful adjacency,” that there would be a reason that one name was next to another name, and that we would query families and ask them, are there names of other victims that you would like to see placed next to the name of the person you lost? And anybody could bring whatever reason was important to them, whether it was a family relationship, friendship, people that might have commuted every day together, had gone to the same school years before. This came in the wake of a number of very difficult issues that they had had with various family groups of victims, and the LMDC [Lower Manhattan Development Corporation] said absolutely not. That it would be a logistical impossibility. Forget about it.


HS: Then what happened?


MA: So, unable to come up with an alternative idea, I suggested that we would list the names randomly. It sounds brutal, but fair and equitable. And for two years, that was the operating design criteria that we were using. But if I found it painful to suggest, you can imagine how upset family members were about that idea, that the names would be randomly arranged, that families who traveled together on the plane would not be listed next to each other. And so these various groups—and there are dozens and dozens of groups that represent the 3,000 family members—came together over more than a year and hammered out a compromise that worked for them. The idea was to list people by companies, to list the companies alphabetically, to list the people within each company alphabetically, and to list the floor and the age and a rank if there was one too.

I felt that it was completely the wrong direction for the design, that it took the emphasis away from individual and collective loss, and instead formed smaller and smaller groups. Mayor Bloomberg called me into his office in 2006 when he became chairman of the memorial foundation. This was one of the first issues he wanted to solve.


HS: And what were Mayor Bloomberg’s thoughts?


MA: The mayor is a data-driven guy. And the idea was to divide the names into nine broad groups that reflected where people were that day geographically: the four flights, the two towers, the Pentagon. But within each group, the names appear as if they’re arranged haphazardly. In fact, the mayor was willing to give this idea of meaningful adjacency, which I mentioned earlier, a shot.

To this day I’m still surprised that we were given that opportunity. The letters went out and we got more than twelve hundred requests. We were able to arrange all the names in a way that met each and every adjacency request—something that we were told was going to be an impossible task. It was a very meaningful task to be involved in. It was emotionally difficult, but every name on the memorial today has a reason for its placement. Even when no request was made specifically to it, we tried to link it next to people they might have been with because of their place of employment, and so on.


HS: Why was this so important for you?


MA: What it does is that it brings individual human stories into an arrangement. It embeds them into a logic, and those reasons, which are very private reasons, can then be teased out at a later point, whether it’s a printed brochure, an audio guide, or a video guide. Let me share one story. One of the requests we got was from a young woman who lost her father on Flight 11, and her best friend from college was working at the North Tower. Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower, and so those two names were side by side. For that family, this is a very meaningful gesture. But what it does for the general visitor who finds out about this is it takes that incomprehensible number of close to 3,000 dead and breaks it down into one individual story that they can relate to on a very personal basis. Story by story, we can all build an appreciation for what happened that day. icon

Featured image: National September 11 Memorial, Reflecting Absence (April 2012). Photograph by Saschaporsche / Wikimedia Commons