In the 45 minutes between reading about it in the Washington Post and seeing the competition exhibition itself at the National Building Museum, I had designed a memorial for the Pentagon in my head. In fact, I debated going home to document it before seeing the 70+ designs–6 finalists and 60-something “semi-finalists” from both amateurs and professionals–submitted to the competition sponsor, the US Army Corps of Engineers. (See submissions of the six finalists at the competition website.) After making a movie that uses precisely this subject to explore how people–and places–deal with horrible events, I felt compelled. I still feel compelled, but for different reasons.
In the Post article, Benjamin Forgey laments that while (Vietnam Memorial designer) Maya Lin’s influence is “mightily felt here” in the competitors’ attempts at “direct, highly charged personal encounter that Lin made possible with her dark, reflective wall,” “there were no Maya Lins in the competition. I found just the opposite: there were far too many Lins. The Vietnam Memorial’s combination of heavily programmed “experience” and minimalist form has become the default setting for memorials, at least in the US.
Among these best designs, the vocabulary of contemporary art is widely used without hesitation or fear of high-brow backlash. One semi-finalist Rogers Marvel, rather beautifully and ingeniously uses the form of James Turrell’s Roden Crater, incorporating the Pentagon’s cornice and planes flying overhead en route to National Airport in ways that subvert the artist’s sought-after serene sublimity. Other semi-finalists quote or Tadao Ando’s churches with remarkable literalism. Lin’s memorial itself is mimicked as well, with names or photos carved on highly polished or translucent panels.
The Post article didn’t prepare me for the large number of entries that marked the approximate flight path of AA77 and oriented themselves to the “point of impact.” My own memorial design was to address this overlooked (I thought) but crucial element of the attack. But while no design incorporated it like I would (i.e., “meaningfully”), I soon found out why it featured so obviously in so many entries; the path and the point of impact are marked prominently and clearly on the location plan that was part of the competition materials. While supposedly claiming no specific program, the Pentagon’s own documents actually “told” many people what to include in their design.
A final observation on the competition finalists: The program for remembering every person killed has clearly reached some kind of conceptual endgame, to the overall detriment of the resulting memorial. Terry Riley, MoMA’s curator of architecture and one of eleven jurors in this competition, once said that the Thiepval Memorial to The Missing–a monumental arch with 75,000 names on its surfaces– was the first major example of a memorial to individuals lost in battle. Before that, memorials were to generals or battles, but not lowly soldiers. Inspired by this Memorial, Lin brought this powerfully inclusive idea into her design. But at least since Oklahoma City, memorializing each individual individually has become the norm. An overwhelming percentage of the designs called for 184 somethings: benches, pools, stone markers, glowing human-height columns, wind-chime-like reeds, trees. One finalist includes 184 “life recorders,” individual “black boxes”; another proposes 184 “memorial units.” Indeed, without dismissing the losses of these people and their families, such individually totemic shrines have become the devalued currency of tragedy, drowning out the significance of an event which means much more than the sum of the lives lost, and limiting the memorial’s audience unnecessarily.
I’m going to go ahead and make some sketches anyway.