I was in New York City late last month (July 2016) as part of a trip that took me to a history conference. It was my first visit to New York since 2008, but even in that year I only passed through the city briefly. My first visit to the Big Apple was in January 2003, less than 18 months after the horrific terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, when the devastation at what was called “Ground Zero” was still very much in evidence. This time, though, I got to go to the National September 11 Memorial, which was completed in 2011. I like to “review” historical sites (here are my reviews, for instance, on the Nixon Presidential Library and Adams National Historical Park), so I thought I would present my thoughts, as well as some photos, of the nation’s newest major historical memorial site, which overall I found to be tasteful, meaningful and moving. There has been controversy about the 9/11 Memorial since almost the day after the attacks, but I think the final memorial turned out to be quite successful in melding memory and history into architecture and urbanism.

My friend Bob and I walked down to the 9/11 site from my hotel which was on Wall Street, and long before we saw it, the new Freedom Tower dominated the skyline. Although not really a part of the memorial, the Freedom Tower is an integral part of the site: the building that by definition had to rise from the rubble that Osama bin Laden’s deranged terrorists made of the financial district, bigger and better than the old towers. While I can’t say I’m in love with the Freedom Tower’s design, it’s not bad, and it soaring silvery glass represents a more modern look than the blocky 1960s-70s facades of the old World Trade Center towers. The shadow of the Freedom Tower casts long across Manhattan, and it lords like a protector over the memorial below.

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The new Freedom Tower is an unmistakable presence in lower Manhattan, and is at least tacitly part of the memorial experience.

The centerpiece of the 9/11 memorial is (or, I should say, are) the two giant granite-encased fountain pools, set in the exact size and shape of the footprints of the old towers. I found this design, by Israeli architect Michael Arad, brilliant. (Surprisingly, I had read little and sought out no pictures of the memorial before I visited it, so I was unprepared for what I found there). The water cascades down on all four sides and disappears into a smaller square hole in the center whose bottom cannot be seen from anywhere along the rim. The rim of the pools, on all sides, is decorated with dark stone panels on which the names of all the victims of 9/11, including first responders, are etched. The victims of the 1993 bombing are also included. The influence of the Vietnam War memorial, which sets (I think) the tone for all subsequent memorials of tragedies in American history, is very evident. At its heart the 9/11 Memorial is about people: those who died, and to a large degree those who survived to remember, love and honor them. This is what you think about when you stand at the rim and watch the water cascading into the deep pools.

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The pools that form the basis of the 9/11 Memorial are an architecturally brilliant tribute both to those who died on 9/11, and those who spent their lives working at the WTC in earlier decades.

One thing I especially like about the memorial is that the pools match the footprints of the old towers. I think this is important because it captures not only the remembrance of the dead (and the devotion of the living who remember them), but also the memories of the millions of real people–most of them still alive–who worked at the World Trade Centers during the years of their existence from 1973 to 2001. In the vertical airspace above these pools there were once busy offices of all kinds where people worked for years and spent large portions of their lives. The World Trade Center represented so many currents in recent American history: commerce and economics, architecture and art, leisure and food (there used to be world-class restaurants there), urban life, politics, popular culture. How many people who are now alive are the children of parents who met while working at the World Trade Center? A lot, I bet. All of it happened in two giant columns of what is now, and will forever be, empty air. This is a memorial not to a disaster but to our collective history. It was surprising to me how the shape and location of the pools triggered these ideas for me.

I did not get a chance to go to the 9/11 Museum due to time constraints, though I very much wanted to. I recall being aboard the Intrepid in January 2003 and seeing a glass case full of “raw” rubble from the Twin Towers collapse, which included crumbles of concrete, papers, someone’s shoe and a computer keyboard. I assume similar artifacts are on display permanently at the 9/11 Museum and I think they would add a lot to the experience. But, just going by the plaza and the monuments, I found the memorial to be a very appropriate, inviting and moving, with the right balance of somberness and positive reflection.

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My friend Bob and I, in front of one of the pools at the 9/11 Memorial.

If you’re in lower Manhattan, I highly recommend a visit to the memorial. It’s rapidly becoming a sight you can’t miss if you visit New York.

All photos in this article are copyright (C) 2016 by Sean Munger, all rights reserved.