WTC Memorial Submission: All Action, No Talk. Until Now.

A warehouse full of submissions for the WTC Memorial, image: Ruby Washington, nytimes.comFor a few days, anyway. I got my Memorial competition submission done, expensively printed at Kinko’s, and delivered. (The official Competition Site forbade hand delivery and said couriers must be “listed in the phone book,” a verification system clearly designed to thwart my plan if I missed the Fedex deadline: dress up as a bike messenger using gear from my collection.)
Until I saw Ed Wyatt’s Times article about plans pouring in yesterday, I was pretty satisfied with my efforts. My idea’s still great, but now, I think I didn’t pack it carefully enough.
Faced with actually producing a thing that could explain my idea in a (hopefully, at least remotely) compelling way, I holed up with the computer, but without the weblog. Trust me, at 2AM, scanning schematics drawn with fabric paint at the Alexandria, VA Kinko’s, I longed for what The Gothamsts call the “all talk, no action” approach. (Scanning barely-dry paint is like washing your dog’s blanket; it’s better to use someone else’s machine.)
But webloggers can’t stay quiet for long, even if the competition rules preclude publicly identifying oneself with one’s design. Jeff Jarvis worked the competition into a sermon and kept posting (making me jealous of either his weekly magazine-crankin’ production discipline or the team of elves he had working on his poster). So now that it’s over, I’ll tell you, not what I did, but how I did it. Inevitably, I took the ex-consultant and GMAT-taker’s Princeton Review-like approach to the competition, imagining what the real goal should be and how the judging process would play out.
Substance moves ahead of Style
This stated objective for Stage I is not to choose The Memorial, but to choose “approximately five finalists” , who will develop their concepts in Stage II. If a design has enough substance, i.e., if it’s promising, clearly thought through, and successfully fulfills the Mission & Principles, jurors will want to see it developed further. But the Final Five is just one possible goal. You could also set out to be one of the 100 concepts that’ll probably be exhibited, or the 2-300 that’ll get published in some book. Or you could hit a sacrifice fly, submitting a concept that tries to impact the juror’s thinking/discussion. Imagine how 1,000 proposals to recognize firefighters separately might ripple through the selection process.
About “clearly thought through”
Maya Lin’s nearly abstract rendering of her Vietnam Memorial proposal is repeatedly cited as a competition precedent, but that belies the understanding it actually represented. Lin said she spent far more time on her written concept than on her drawings. One juror noted that the submission showed that “(s)he obviously knew what (s)he was talking about.” “Clearly thought through,” then, applies to the concept and the experience. It specifically doesn’t require deciding every detail, material, and elevation: that’s Stage II. Get the right balance of concept images, descriptive text, and relevant, evocative references.
Memorial is not Monument
So many times, people have conflated the two things. It’s understandable, given the monumental scale of the Towers. Last year, I quoted two German artists who said, “The traditional concept of a monument only encourages people to contemplate a hulking stone building and an abstracted past.”. I took Maya Lin at her word when she asked for “a new way of defining what a memorial can be.”
Design for yourself
Maya Lin called for people to submit “what [they] truly believe needs to be done there.” Handicapping the jurors to reverse-engineer the concept or designing to meet currently irreconcilable agendas, or playing it as a political game won’t work.
Produce for the process
We talked about it at the Charette; I imagine the judging process will comprise a series of filters, each with different criteria:
Sanity Check — move crackpot schemes into the Outsider Art bracket. Pick a few fascinating ones for the exhibit.
Elevator Pitch — Can it pass the 30-second test and get the meeting? (i.e., Does it appear compelling and smart/effective/interesting enough to warrant fuller evaluation?)
Clustering — There are only so many possibilities under the sun. Group all the Put Bush and Giuliani on Mount Rushmore proposals over here, all the How About A Gift From the French? proposals over there. Best of Breed will move on. Anything remotely French will be saved for public burning at the Republican convention.
Libeskind/Silverstein/Westfield Factor — Does a concept play well with other uses and forces on the site? Does it break the rules in a net-positive way? I figured a concept that stayed entirely within the competition’s parameters, that didn’t attempt to inform other aspects of the site, was shirking its mission.
Take the Heat — A Final Five concept will be subject to incredible pubic/family/political scrutiny, but only after they’re selected. I can’t imagine the jurors selecting a straw man concept they know will get pilloried. Unlike the Port Authority’s first attempt to redesign the site (which I, with forced idealism, choose to read as a negotiating ploy to gain public outrage-driven leverage over Silverstein and Westfield), playing hardball with the memorial won’t be tolerated.
The unweighted probability of a concept making it to the Final Five is extremely low, but back-of-the-envelope calculations reveal submitting to be a worthwhile exercise. That–and hubris–lead me to believe my concept will get relatively serious consideration by jurors. And if it influences their minds as they choose a memorial, it’ll be well worth it.
# of registrants: 13,683
# who submitted: 10,000
minus # who meet submission criteria: 8,500
minus # of Outsider Art entries: 7,500
minus # of “traditional monuments”: 2,500
% that are evocative–beautiful, even–but ultimately unrealizable: 10
% that are conceptually interesting, but ultimately unrealizable: 10
% that break the rules, but whose concept obviously can’t survive to completion: 10
% that are compelling, but that have some dealbreaking shortcoming in terms of Mission/Principle: 20
% that are admirable descendants of the Vietnam Memorial, but which lack its refinement and staying power: 30
# of Stage II slots going to such entries: 2/5 or 3/6
Minimum percentile where I can, without agonizing arrogance, imagine my submission rankng among the 500 that are left: 80th
Where I actually rank it now, without having seen any other entries: 99.9th

Of course, I’m also sure (or at least I hope) there are proposals much better than mine.