And Now the Memorial Fight

The “Freedom Tower” fight has been settled with Larry Silverstein (for now), and we move quickly into the memorial fight. The latest estimate for building the memorial came in at an alarming $1 billion, and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg jumped in to say that it should be capped at $500 million. This provided an opportunity for those who have various beefs with the design to use its cost as a wedge; namely, those who think the memorial should be above ground are now saying the design should be radically overhauled. [See Times article today.]

Michael Arad’s original design, which was selected from more than 5,000 entries, put the memorial under ground with water falls and galleries. I haven’t studied the design closely, but I can well imagine that the decent into the memorial would be a powerful experience. I can also imagine the benefits of having different levels serving different purposes, the most solemn area being below ground, and more relaxing and serene areas at ground level. No one who is contemplating the horror of this tragedy wants to encounter kids running around acting goofy. But there needs to be room for joyfulness as well as solemnity, and giving those emotions separate levels to take place is one good solution.

Having said that, there is obviously a very serious safety issue that is exacerbated by an underground memorial. As the late Jane Jacobs said, safety comes from eyes on the street. If you’re below the street, it’s hard to keep an eye on things. And there is the other practical matter of cost. Unquestionably it will be more expensive to have any part of the memorial below ground.

These are all legitimate design issues, and therein lies the rub. While the “planners” of Ground Zero have been focusing on the commercial towers and the shopping mall of the site, the memorial design has been at best an afterthought. So it is only now that we’re getting around to having a perfectly reasonable debate about how this should be built — now that most people have all but disengaged from the whole sordid process.

UPDATE: Turn your attention to this must-read New York mag piece — a behind the scenes blow-by-blow of how Michael Arad’s memorial design got to the point of teetering on the brink of collapse.

It’s clear to me from reading the piece that Arad agreed to go on the record because he thought he was going to get a positive review. And he mostly does. But even a cursory read reveals that Arad is one arrogant guy. Even the most sympathetic presentation of his side of the story can’t hide that fact. Of course, I totally believe him when he says that he’s had to fight off any number of dumb ideas. But this guy is out of his league. Period. He had been tauted as the next Maya Lin, but that just goes to show how incredible and unique Maya Lin is. There is no next Maya Lin. Only she could come up with the breathtaking Vietnam Memorial design as well as have the grace and internal fortitude to see it built. No true for Arad, it would seem.

So, we add arrogance on top of the fact that memorial designers were encouraged NOT to follow the design guidelines laid out by the original Libeskind plan (which wasn’t really a plan to begin with), and what you have here my friends is a failure to communicate. Big time.

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