December 7, 2003
Ground Zero's Only Hope: Elitism
By MICHAEL KIMMELMAN
adies and gentlemen of the jury: now that everyone agrees that the ground zero memorial finalists are a disappointment, there's only one thing to do.
Throw them all out.
You have the power to do so. Use it. This is in part a memorial to extreme bravery in the face of overwhelming force. Here's a chance to be brave. We know you still haven't presented your winning choice, which will no doubt be modified from the plans we now see. But don't bother. Nothing short of extreme, last-ditch action has a chance of succeeding, because the process has been crucially flawed from the start. Instead of beginning with a firm idea about the meaning of the memorial, we started with a timetable. Instead of guaranteeing that the best artists and architects participated in the process, we pandered to the crowd.
When the finalists were announced, you said the submission of designs by "people from 63 countries and many continents . . . people of different faiths, ethnic, racial and cultural backgrounds" reaffirms "our common humanity and is a testament to the solidarity and shared values of mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, daughters, sons, friends and families from every corner of the world." And so it does. But this does not bear on the quality of the final design. Does anybody today care that the pope did not hold an open competition for the Sistine ceiling? We should insist on salvaging this most important of public projects, as well as our city and the nation, from a legacy of compromise that leads to banality. Let's start again — this time, the right way.
Forget vapid populism. Limit the competition to participants of the jury's expert choosing. Then let the jury select the best plan, if and when there is one. If that's elitism, so be it.
The cost of building an unmemorable memorial would be far more than shabby aesthetics. It would be a moral failure. A distracted and impatient culture gets the memorial it deserves. Is that the message we want to send the world? Hold public hearings. Stage a competition. Pick a winner. Move on. The nation hasn't even begun to grasp the historic meaning of the attacks. But already there is concern about falling behind schedule.
The most charitable reading is that this haste was inspired by the families' need to bury their dead expeditiously, and to grieve on the site where they were incinerated. However else the site may be used, it will clearly be a cemetery. But even as a cemetery it is unlikely to please many mourners. Firefighters have called for a memorial stressing the theme of heroism. Decorative lights, waterfalls and electronic gadgets are clearly not what they had in mind.
In any case, this project must also serve a larger historic purpose. This site is about even more than the thousands of people murdered there (and at the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania); it is about what, not just who, was attacked and what, in response, we are fighting to defend. This monument will survive the survivors. It should tell posterity about our cultural values.
The pressures to act now are also commercial and political, of course. Speed benefits the suffering businesses, just as the open competition insulates the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation and the mayor and governor. If the winner is no good, don't blame them: democratic competitions are only as good as the people who choose to take part in them.
But good art, like science, is not democratic. An open competition can produce a Maya Lin Vietnam memorial once in a generation, maybe, but mostly it results in the generic monuments that are now the universal standard: stereotyped images plagiarizing superficial aspects of serious art, mostly minimalism, for watered-down symbols of mourning and loss.
There is reason to suspect that the jurors themselves have had questions about the process as a whole and perhaps also about the choices they were left with and have left us. For one thing, several of the plans they selected ignore aspects of Daniel Libeskind's overall scheme for the site. Mr. Libeskind had proposed a cultural building, for example, which he suggested might cantilever over one of the tower footprints. "Reflecting Absence," a popular choice in online polls, was just one of the designs in which that building is significantly redrawn.
The jurors released a statement that said: "While the eight final designs we have chosen all address the guidelines of the memorial competition, we recognize that they are still in development, and that even the final version of the winning design will require additional refinements, including how the names of each of the victims should be recognized, how to respect the tower footprints and keep them unencumbered, how to provide access to bedrock, and what the relationship of the memorial will be to the site's interpretive museum.
"The jury feels," the statement adds, "that if the memorial alone cannot address all the issues put forth in the mission statement, then together with the planned interpretive museum, all parts of the mission statement can be realized over time." Put simply, the ground zero competition is not the last word in a memorial but the first.
This may be true. A memorial can only do so much. But the memorial here should do more. There's still a chance to heed the call of public service. The jurors should put together a group of the most serious artists and architects, so many of whom declined to participate in the original omnium gatherum, and see where their specialized talents could lead us.
That would be antipopulist — and perhaps a political fiasco. But it would be the right thing to do. Saarinen's arch in St. Louis was a commission. It is a great national landmark of universal symbolic power. It is the sort of inventive icon of soaring vision that we deserve at ground zero.
The disappointment with these ground zero plans is that instead of invention they offer novelty: theatricality, gadgets, spectacle, the stuff of entertainment and shallow pleasure, tricked up by treacly titles, the antithesis of what a memorial should provide. Novelty is familiar and commonplace. It is what bad art offers everyday.
These eight designs are pastiches of different media and styles — the definition of postmodern, in keeping with so much contemporary mixed-media art. But memorials should seem to exist outside time. They should alter our sense of the clock, slow things down, give us a larger sense of history. While we are experiencing them, we should feel that we leave the present to consider the past and future. Perception and recollection should become synonymous, so we simultaneously sublimate death and exult in being alive. Our sense of time is the key. It cannot be rushed.
Making a decision at ground zero on the basis of expediency and politics should be morally intolerable. It shouldn't happen now. In building this crucial monument to democracy and to our great culture, let's give the populist experiment a rest. Let's champion another American ideal: excellence.
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12-06-2003, 11:53 PM #1
- Join Date
- Jul 2003
- Lexington, Massachusetts, USA
NY Times article on Ground Zero memorial designs
12-07-2003, 09:51 AM #2
Throw them all out.September 11th - Never Forget
- Join Date
- May 2002
- Now in Victoria, BC. I'm from beautiful Jasper Alberta in the heart of the Can. Rockies - will always be an Albertan at heart!
I respect firefighters and emergency workers worldwide. Thank you for what you do.
IACOJ CRUSTY CONVENTION CHAIR
RAY WAS HERE FIRST
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