Don’t build where people perished,” Daniel Libeskind ruled when he created his masterplan for Ground Zero. “Create a site of memory.” The resulting memorial, by Michael Arad and Peter Walker, beat 5,200 other competition entries. Called Reflecting Absence, it marks the huge footprints of the twin towers. You look over an angled bronze barrier on which the names of the victims are recorded, over a noisy weir, into a granite floored pool that drains into a dark square at its centre.
“I imagined a pair of voids cut into the surface of the Hudson,” Arad says. (Libeskind had originally imagined the memorial in a plaza that would have been below street level.)
Ground Zero is a busy construction site and there is airport-style security to get into the memorial (for which advance booking is required) – and a meditative space at the foot of all this chaos. The hardy white swamp oaks through which you approach it are not thriving in the heavy dust. To the north rises David Childs’ “Freedom Tower”, which will reach 1,368ft (the height of the tallest of the twin towers) before being capped by a 408ft spire; the architect has referred to it as a “marker for the memorial” on the New York skyline. To the west are Two and Three World Trade Center, by Foster and Rogers respectively, upon which work has been halted until the economy revives.
Between the two pools is a jauntily angled glass and stainless steel Museum Pavilion by Snøhetta, which sits somewhat awkwardly between the two cascading voids. In Arad’s suggested, but prohibitively expensive, design the names of the victims would have been included in an underground viewing gallery reached through this museum, where visitors could look through a curtain of falling water into the vacant foundations of the former towers. The 2,982 names (including those from the 1993 attack on the WTC, and politically sensitive references to “unborn” children) now appear on a bronze barrier protecting viewers from the abyss.
Visitors brush their hands along the stencil-cut names as if they were braille, smearing the dust in waves. Some take brass rubbings; others stick single flowers or US flags into the punched-out letters.
9/11 memorials are to be found all over America, but this site of national trauma remains free of patriotic distraction and retains a minimalist power. It is a potent counterpoint to the beacons of light that used to mark the anniversary of the attacks.
One wonders whether visitors will be able to resist the urge to flick quarters into the two fonts: at $500m, the memorial will soon pay for itself.