Constructing a memorial and deconstructing the idea of one

To some, it should be calm and dignified, a place for quiet reflection and remembrance; to others it must be bold, assertive in its message of patriotism and national unity. Some insist that the nation needs a physical record of tragedy, others prefer a more abstract work and still others a return to the commercial focus that once defined the neighborhood.

With so many factors and opinions up in the air, it’s no wonder that the concept and design of Daniel Libeskind’s World Trade Center memorial are fairly controversial. As a school with a reputation for being one of the great centers of artistic study, it is unsurprising that many in the Williams community have opinions on the questions raised by building such a monument.

A number of Williams professors deal explicitly with monuments in their teaching and professional lives. Their views on the monument differ widely, but there was still much room for agreement.

Monuments must offer an opportunity for personal reflection and contemplation. Most argued that to create such a space an architect needs some separation from the tragedy in order to achieve perspective. Further, he or she must not compromise that perspective by trying to explain the tragedy or appease different interest groups.

“In most cases, [a monument] involves something that will engender a contemplative moment, something that takes you out of your daily life, stops you short and gives you time to reflect,” said architect Andy Burr of the Williamstown firm Burr and McCallum Associates. Burr, who taught Funerary Architecture at Yale Architecture School to Maya Lin, the designer of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC, said the most successful memorial would “isolate [the viewer] from the streets,” allowing visitors to separate themselves from the rest of the city during their pilgrimages.

In tandem with this emphasis on reflection is a call for the monument to give space for personal interpretations of the tragedy. “It’s necessary that we move away from the kind of monument that in and of itself tells you what to think,” said professor of art Liz McGowan, who last year taught a graduate level course entitled “The Art of Memorial.” “A monument [should ask] you to participate and by stopping, pausing, reflecting, you’re changing the natural trajectory of your life.”

This focus on reflection is characteristic of what some historians call the “anti-monument,” perhaps most famously represented by Lin’s Vietnam memorial. According to McGowan, an anti-monument “commemorates without celebrating,” choosing more interpretative and symbolic images than the neo-classical war memorials which came before them.

For many of those interviewed, the need for personal reflection was particularly pointed because of the nature of the September 11 tragedy. “While one can be upset about terrorism and being held hostage to it, one can also understand the very complex emotions and politics which make it more then a good guy-bad guy scenario,” said Ben Benedict, part-time art lecturer and practicing architect.

Accordingly, when Benedict assigned his Architectural Drawing class to design a 9/11 memorial, he worked to “highlight it from a design point of view, rather than whip up an emotional frenzy.” He explained that perhaps in the spirit of recognizing the complexity of the event, the “best monuments redirected the emotion of the event towards a better future, rather than dwelling on the horror of the event.”

Others disagreed on the need to downplay the direct implications of the tragedy, asking for a definitive statement rather than a contemplative one. “I don’t want a memorial to imply that this was some sort of abstract tragedy,” said David Perlmutter, a visiting art professor from spring 2002 who specializes in war images in art. “[It cannot be] as if [the victims] died in an earthquake, and not have some sense of accusation and blame. . .. These people were murdered.”

To accommodate this range of opinions, many suggested that a more open-ended monument, allowing viewers to draw their own conclusions, would be most successful. McGowan agreed that all modern monuments must adopt this attitude, allowing visitors to make their own choices. “We question the meaning of world events in a way we haven’t before,” she said. “I think people are less inclined to be told what to do or think by the government, or by art.”

Perlmutter regarded this open-ended approach as one of the most successful aspects of the Vietnam memorial. “Most people are using it as a blank slate, making it what they want it to be,” Perlmutter said. “It’s successful because it allows people to create their own meaning and message so easily. . . the more abstract the memorial, the more flexibility there is.”

But despite this call for flexibility, professors also emphasized the need for monuments to make a definitive statement in their artistic choices. Michael Lewis, chair of the art department, called the ideal monument an “exclamation point” or a “single visual image.”

Yet, designing such a memorial proves particularly daunting after television coverage of the attacks barraged viewers with visuals. “We’re competing with the TV,” said Lewis, who suggested building a monument in Pennsylvania, where most Americans have little visual familiarity with the plane crash site. Further muddling the monument with question marks and layers of explanations would make it “a documentary, not a monument,” according to Lewis.

Ed Epping, professor of art, agreed a monument should be “poetry, not journalism,” finding a resonating image and using different sorts of abstraction. However, almost all parties interviewed agreed that to make a meaningful strong statement, or poetic interpretation, designers need time and space from the tragedy.

“We’re not ready to build this and we won’t be for a generation,” Lewis said. “A person who grieves or mourns is not detached enough to make a fitting response. . . Time will clarify the meaning of things. . . and it’s foolhardy to make a great and thrilling statue when you don’t know yet what you’re saying.”

McGowan agreed, but acknowledged the practical need to build. “[Victims’ families] have no place to contemplate,” she said. “There are no remains – these people just evaporated. We need something soon because we don’t have a body.”

Regardless, many of those interviewed worried that the 9/11 memorial designers were rushing into things. “Any event, no matter what the event, requires distance for comprehension. . . and what seems critical in the immediacy may soften with time,” Epping said.

Time might also ease the tension between the various factions currently lobbying to get their preferred angle on the memorial. “We live in a divided age culturally and socially, and I wonder if it’s possible for a divided age to make a collected statement,” Lewis said.

Adding pressure to the fragmented views of various interest groups, there’s also the challenge of reviving the mandated amount of commercial space at the World Trade Center site. “There’s just so much planned for that site,” said Burr, who said the monument idea that most struck him was former student Maya Lin’s. Lin suggested building an island in the Hudson, which Burr thought would work as a more quiet and contemplative space, particularly for admiring the skyline from afar.

In terms of building challenges, Benedict also mentioned the complex physical nature of the site as a design problem, explaining that in lower Manhattan, “there are many complex practical challenges. . . transportation, pedestrians, travel systems, construction. . . as a designer those things oddly [disturb you]. . . and [the necessity of keeping] the infrastructure in tact will have a surprising influence on what is built.”

Beyond the issues of physical space, perhaps the greatest risk cited in the design of such a memorial was the potential egotism of the architect or designer. “The difficulties of most memorials is that they have a tendency to be much more about remembering not only the individuals memorialized but the egos that survived,” Epping said.

Perlmutter approached the issue from a different angle, saying monuments often even ignore those they were built for. “Memorials are a way of organizing our forgetting of the war dead and putting them into a structural corner as out of the way and out of our lives as possible,” he said. “It’s a way of putting them in a certain place, and one not central to our daily lives.”

Not all agreed with this, citing monuments as important pilgrimage sites and aspects of the cityscape. “[Memorials] become markers that teach others the significance of what follows,” Epping said. “They teach others to note what a particular time regarded as significant. And I think those that teach longest are those which are the most poetic.”

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