Designer reflects on 9/11 memorial

Out of 5201 entries, Michael Arad’s “Reflecting Absence” design was chosen for the construction of the National Sept. 11 Memorial and Museum (9/11 Memorial) at the site where the World Trade Center once stood. Ten years after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, Arad’s memorial is now open to the public. 

Michael Arad
Michael Arad, architect of the 9/11 memorial “Reflecting Absence,” spoke to the College on Tuesday night in Chapin. Photo by Tyler Holden.

Arad spoke Monday to Record Managing Editor Tyler Holden ’13 in an interview and visited the College on Tuesday to give a talk titled “Reflecting Absence – the Design and Construction of the National 9/11 Memorial” in Chapin Hall.

 

When did your interest in architecture begin?

 

I don’t think there was a certain singular moment that sparked my interest in architecture. It was something that always was there in the background. In fact, in college I was actually a government major. I thought I was going to go to law school, but I was always really interested in studio art and art history, and I kept taking classes in addition to government. An opportunity came up to apply to both architecture and law schools, and I decided to go with architecture.

 

What made you decide to submit to the 9/11 Memorial competition? What made you excited about this sort of a project?

 

I was living in New York, and I witnessed the attacks firsthand. I was truly moved by the city’s response, by the compassion and courage and the stoicism that was exhibited here in New York. I wanted to find a way to hold onto that moment of incredible courage and compassion. I really started this process as a personal endeavor – it was cathartic for me to engage and reflect on what I had witnessed and get something out of this.

I thought about it long before there was a memorial competition. I had worked on this idea for a memorial that would be under the Hudson River for close to a year. Then, when the competition was held in 2003, a lot of ideas that I had developed for this memorial that would be in the river went under revision, and we started to think about a memorial that we could build on the site of the Twin Towers themselves.

 

Everyone from New York has a story as to where he or she was and how he or she experienced Sept. 11, 2001. Where were you and do you think your personal experience influenced the way in which you conceptualized the 9/11 Memorial?

 

I was in the East Village at the time. My wife was working in the financial district, so she was actually at work a few blocks away from the Towers when they were hit. I made my way downtown to try and find her, and I think I was on Fulton Street, just a short distance from the Towers, when the first one fell. I was on the FDR [Drive] by the time the second one came down. When I had left to go find her, the Twin Towers were up, but by the time we came back, they were gone. And I absolutely think that being here in New York helped. It didn’t create every aspect of the design for me, but it’s not as if you can say that there is no direct correlation.

 

How did you choose to balance the memorial on a New York State versus national versus international level, and why did you choose to do it the way that you did?

 

I don’t think there was ever a moment of engagement in the project that I questioned the scale of the project. The design came from the site itself and from its history. I tried as little as possible to embellish or bring my own voice into this but instead let the history of the site pretty much come through.

There are two voids where the Towers once were. You have the names of those who died here, and it’s about the voids and the fairly simple and pure composition of a public space for empty voids. It’s actually quite complicated to execute something like that in New York. What we are building is emptiness, it’s absence, it’s quietness. And New York City is anything but. It’s loud. It’s crowded, and it’s full. So to try and create something so distinct from what’s around it but also very much a part of New York City was the challenge.

 

What was your goal in creating the 9/11 Memorial? What gave you the memorial’s name of “Reflecting Absence?”

 

So often when we think of the history of that day, we think of the violence. What really struck me being here in New York was how New York responded to the attack. How we saw in everyday people a feeling of community and courage and compassion that would have seemed unimaginable just a day before. For me, as someone who was living in New York for a few years before the attack, I felt like an outsider living in the city. But after that attack, nobody felt like an outsider. We were all connected, and we were all there supporting one another. You saw this in the most touching and beautiful ways, just how people make room for each other on the sidewalk or on the subway. That’s really what struck me, and I was trying to bring that sense of collective space in the same way that existed in that difficult hour.

 

How did you balance competing influences regarding the 9/11 Memorial? I know that victim’s family members, politicians, government officials and funding constraints all had a role in shaping the final product.

 

To me, it was really important to hear everyone’s viewpoint, even if it was not a viewpoint that I agreed with. I didn’t necessarily look for a design that would address each and every concern because I don’t think that’s possible. Very often the concerns were at odds with one another or in opposition to one another. But to try and understand the fundamental desires and fears that people had about what this memorial would be and to try to respond to that. Not everything could be done or could be dealt with, but respectfully hearing their concerns was significant.

 

Why do you think art and architecture are appropriate or influential ways of dealing with tragedy?

 

How else would you? It has to do with our spirit and our emotions. What other ways could you deal if not through art and emotion?

 

What was the significance to you of opening on the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks? 

 

I think we owe a huge debt of gratitude to Mayor Bloomberg who was chairman of the Memorial Foundation for insisting that we open on that day. It was an incredibly significant moment in time, and it was very important to bring all of these friends and family members together on the site for the 10th anniversary and to mark that moment in time on a rebuilt site, on the permanent memorial. And we did everything we could to meet that date, which was challenging. We had to place the construction of the memorial above everything else that surrounds it. So the memorial was completed, but the surrounding streets and sidewalks weren’t in place yet, which has made for an interim period of a couple of years where the memorial functions differently until the streets and sidewalks are in place, and you’ll be able to walk right up to the memorial plaza. Right now you need to go through the single entrance and free ticketing, but I think it was important to meet that date.

 

The anniversary itself was more significant than having the completed project?

 

It was more important to open the memorial on that day even if we couldn’t complete every last element of the memorial. The key elements of the memorial – the reflecting pools and the main panels – were there, alongside about three quarters of the memorial plaza.

 

What reception have you gotten to the memorial? 

 

We’ve gotten over two million visitors since the memorial opened. So far, the responses have been very positive, and it’s been very overwhelming to get that feedback.

 

What advice would you give for students who are looking to and interested in bridging this gap between government and the arts?

 

Be prepared for a long haul. Be prepared for a contentious and fractious debate, but I think that’s part of the process and that’s part of what enriches a design. Along the way, there are certainly difficult moments when it came to the design of the memorial, but I think if you have a clear and strong vision for a design, it can react to these constraints and become stronger because of it. This design is ultimately about responding to constraints in a creative way.

 There are two voids where the Towers once were. You have the names of those who died here, and it’s about the voids and the fairly simple and pure composition of a public space for empty voids. It’s actually quite complicated to execute something like that in New York. What we are building is emptiness, it’s quietness. And New York City is anything but. It’s loud, it’s crowded. So to try and create something so distinct from what’s around it but also very much a part of New York City was the challenge.What was your goal in creating the 9/11 Memorial? What inspired the name “Reflecting Absence?” 

As someone who was living in New York for a few years before the attack, I felt like an outsider. But after that attack, nobody felt like an outsider. We were all connected, and we were all there supporting one another. You saw this in the most touching and beautiful ways, just how people make room for each other on the sidewalk. I was trying to bring that sense of collective space in the same way that existed in that difficult hour.

How did you balance competing influences regarding the design of the 9/11 Memorial? 

 

To me, it was really important to hear everyone’s viewpoint, even if it was not a viewpoint that I agreed with. I didn’t necessarily look for a design that would address each and every concern because I don’t think that’s possible. Very often the concerns were at odds with one another or in opposition to one another. I tried to listen to the fundamental desires and fears that people had about this memorial and tried to respond to that. Not everything could be done or could be dealt with, but respectfully hearing their concerns was significant.

 

Why do you think art and architecture are appropriate or influential ways of dealing with tragedy?

 

How else would you? It has to do with our spirit and our emotions. What other ways could you deal if not through art and emotion?

 

For you personally, what was the significance of opening on the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks?

I think we owe a huge debt of gratitude to Mayor Bloomberg who was chairman of the Memorial Foundation for insisting that we open on that day. It was an incredibly significant moment in time, and it was very important to bring all of these friends and family members together on the site for the 10th anniversary and to mark that moment in time on a rebuilt site, on the permanent memorial. And we did everything we could to meet that date, which was challenging.

 

What advice would you give for students who are looking to and interested in bridging this gap between government and the arts?

 

Be prepared for a long haul. Be prepared for a contentious and fractious debate, but I think that’s part of the process and that’s part of what enriches a design. Along the way, there were certainly difficult moments when it came to the design of the memorial, but I think if you have a clear and strong vision for a design, it can react to these constraints and become stronger because of it. This design is ultimately about responding to constraints in a creative way.