Remembering New York: City and Memory

Earlier this year, one of our writers, Pamela Hellig, who travelled to Auschwitz in Poland, shared an excellent but challenging piece on her experience. She wrote about the challenge of  how people and in fact cities can remember their dark past, and provide the spaces for people to do so. In her piece, this quote really resonated with me:

The city as a capsule for history, it seems, walks a fine line.  Where do we begin to remember, and how do we find a way to allow others to remember in ways which are most meaningful to them?  Yes, design, architecture, memorialisation play critical roles, but how can we “un-design”, step back, and let history tell its own story?

I think back to our visit to New York in June and in particular the 9/11 memorial site. Designed by Architect Michael Arad and landscape architect Peter Walker, the memorial comprises gigantic twin reflecting pools, which are impeccably designed and thought out. Sitting within the footprints of where the Twin Towers once stood, they are each nearly an acre in size and feature the largest man-made waterfalls in the North America. According to Arad and Walker:

 They are large voids, open and visible reminders of the absence. The memorial plaza is designed to be a mediating space; it belongs both to the city and to the memorial. Located at street level to allow for its integration into the fabric of the city, the plaza encourages the use of this space by New Yorkers on a daily basis. The memorial grounds will not be isolated from the rest of the city; they will be a living part of it.

Our visit on the day was less about memory and more about tourism and architecture, as we moved slowly in the heat amongst the crowds. While being in awe of the buildings under construction that surround the site, as well as the Calatrava station rising like a dove, the memorial site seemed like any other popular tourism site. I can’t exactly point fingers, as we were there like most other people to see the gigantic ponds in person, and get close to the new World Trade Centre. After all, we had come a long way to see this great city and we were intent on seeing as much of it as possible.

So what made us different from the thousands of other happy-smiling-snapping tourists, at a site which marks a tragic and painful moment for people across the United States of America and around the world. Perhaps nothing.

I am glad we had a chance to visit the memorial, but I also feel that the design of the site and memorial lends itself to the quiet moments with fewer rather than more people.

The architects clearly have a vision, as suggested in the description of their design, to integrate the memorial plaza with the city, but at the time I could only hope that the memorial would be closed to tourists and the general public at certain times of the year, so that the loved ones of  the victims could embrace and use the memorial site as it was intended. This could be for moment of quiet reflection or any other way they choose to remember and deal with the tragedy. There is of course no one single way to promote memory and allow for reflection, and any of the design competition entries for the memorial site would have been able to achieve this to some degree.

According to the New York Daily News: “Access to the area surrounding the World Trade Center will be limited Wednesday for the annual commemoration of the 9/11 attacks. The event at the National September 11 Memorial plaza for the family members of the nearly 3,000 victims will begin at 8:46 a.m. with a moment of silence in recognition of the moment when the first airplane struck the North Tower.”

If the world and us as human beings are to learn a lesson, then it is as important that we are reminded and exposed to such a site which reminds us of such atrocities, and in the process find a middle ground between this, and providing a space for those who live with the loss every day.