New Jersey 9/11 Memorial

Remembering 9/11

Two architects, two visions, and two memorials commemorate loss and foster healing.

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 endure as indelible visions of chaos, destruction, and unimaginable loss. About 2 billion people—one-third of the world’s population—watched the day’s tragedies as they unfolded live on television and online. Within 24 hours, another 2 billion learned of the succession of catastrophes, which were to be the most widely witnessed events in human history.

While the world watched in the days and weeks afterward, two architects in New York City began to draw.

“I started to draw that night,” remembers Frederic Schwartz, principal of Frederic Schwartz Architects and long-time SoHo resident. “It was my way of getting it out, what was seared in my memory.” He began by drawing the collapsing towers and over time, “I started to redraw the skyline. I started to draw what should happen,” he says.

A couple of miles away in his home on the Lower East Side, Michael Arad, two years out of architecture school and employed at the New York City Housing Authority, began to sketch “a pair of twin voids tearing open the surface of the Hudson River. This inexplicable, enigmatic image seemed to capture a sense of rupture, loss, and persistent absence and stayed in my imagination.”

A decade of consequences and contemplation have passed and those early drawings by Schwartz and Arad have transformed from paper musings into the two most profound memorials to the victims of September 11th: Arad’s National September 11 Memorial at the World Trade Center and, across the Hudson River, Schwartz’ New Jersey 9/11 Memorial in Liberty State Park. Both were dedicated and opened to the public on the 10th anniversary of 9/11.

The purpose of modern memorials is two-fold: to commemorate the grief of victims’ families today and to convey the gravity of their loss to future generations. It is a daunting assignment to design for both of these intimate and immortal roles, and even more challenging to do so within the vortex of political, social, and cultural distress unleashed by these attacks.

Both Schwartz and Arad entered this vortex through public competitions. For the 2003 WTC site memorial competition sponsored by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, Arad submitted his concept for the twin voids, named Reflecting Absence. After six weeks of deliberations by the 13-member jury and some modifications to the concept, his design was chosen as the winner among the eight finalists.

In 2004, Frederic Schwartz submitted a memorial design entitled Empty Sky to the New Jersey 9/11 Memorial Foundation public call for entries. His concept, a pair of steel walls framing the view of where the towers once stood, was unanimously selected by the foundation’s Family & Survivor Committee. By this time, he was already a veteran of post-9/11 planning initiatives, having partnered with architects Rafael Viñoly, Ken Smith, and Shigeru Ban under the team name Think to design a masterplan for the World Trade Center site. As one of two finalists to envision how the site should be rebuilt, the Think team narrowly and controversially lost to Studio Daniel Libeskind in 2003.

Empty Sky

Across the Hudson River, New Jersey poignantly remembers loss and refuge.

Just west of the tip of lower Manhattan and at the confluence of the Hudson River and the Atlantic Ocean, Liberty State Park played many roles in the events of September 11 and its aftermath. During the attacks, Jersey City residents and office workers gathered on the shore, witnessing the burning and collapse of the towers. Soon after, dozens of private, commercial, and Coast Guard boats shuttled evacuees from lower Manhattan to the docks at the park in the largest boatlift ever undertaken. In the following days and weeks, volunteers manned a family assistance center in the former railroad terminal on the grounds while spontaneous memorials sprung up at the waters’ edge.

The families of the New Jersey victims of the attacks organized as the New Jersey 9/11 Memorial Foundation and chose this site to honor their dead. In June 2004, they selected Fred Schwartz’ design, Empty Sky.

Two 210-ft.-long, 30-ft. high walls shelter and frame a 12-ft.-wide granite path. The board-formed concrete exteriors of the walls cut through a gently sloping hill planted with flowering cherry trees on axis with the memorial. Marine-grade stainless steel panels brushed to an ethereal matte finish make up the interior walls. Schwartz believes that steel is the optimum material for modern memorials: “It reflects the light of the day and the finish is neither too shiny nor too flat.”

To frame the Empty Sky of its title, the corridor shaped by these walls draws the eye, like a diagrammatic one-point perspective, to the cavity in the Manhattan skyline where the twin towers once stood. The site and its orientation toward the towers was the starting point for Schwartz’ design.

“The empty space left by the towers is as significant as the towers themselves,” he explains. With 1 World Trade Center (formerly the Freedom Tower) rising to the north, this area of the horizon is still void.

A single row of 4- by 8-ft. stainless steel panels at eye level bears the 476 names of the New Jersey victims in random order. Schwartz and his graphic design partner Alexander Isley (Alexander Isley Inc., Redding, Conn.), labored over the meticulous composition, starting with the intention to make the names as large as possible.

“Presenting the inscriptions at a large size forces you to contemplate, to pay attention,” explains Isley. At a cap height of 3.6 in., the names may be the largest found on a civilian memorial. At design reviews with the foundation, Schwartz presented the full composition with every name in place. “I’m very proud that the names are so big—these are individuals and now they will never be lost.”

Isley chose ITC Bodoni 12 for its powerful verticals and rounded serifs. “It softens the expression of such a cool material [steel] with its curvature and nuance while providing the contrast required for readability and charcoal rubbings.”

Challenges and revelations

From concept to construction, Fred Schwartz faced a number of challenges: from opposition against the location of the memorial from a local park group to the spiraling costs of stainless steel during the worldwide building boom. “I felt like a commodities broker watching prices. They dropped during the crash in 2008 and we were lucky to come in under budget.”

While Schwartz captained every aspect of the project, he was caught by surprise by one remarkable phenomenon near the end of construction. At dusk and at dawn, he describes, “a miraculous and blinding halo of light touches each name.” When the sun is just right, the parallel steel walls reflect its light in radiant arcs that move ahead of the visitor as they walk along the path. “A lot of people lost their faith that day, but the way it touches every name,” Schwartz trailed off, “there’s a religious quality.” Isley agrees that the interplay of light “exceeded expectations—it is not an experiment in grays.”

--By Leslie Wolke, segdDESIGN No. 34, 2011, and eg magazine No. 02, 2012

Jury comments

"In a world of dysfunction, distraction, and distance, the dilemma of how to remember and inspire is near impossible. To cut through religion, race, age, and agenda makes it nearly futile. Yet this courageous monument solves all of this with ease and leaves us touched, curious, and hopeful."


Client:  State of New Jersey Department of Treasury, Division of Property Management & Construction; Division of Parks and Forestry

Location:  Liberty State Park, Jersey City, N.J.

Project Area:  2.6 acres

Project Cost:  $11.5 million

Open Date:  September 11, 2011

Design:  Frederic Schwartz Architects (architects and planners)

Design Team:  Frederic Schwartz, FAIA (principal), Jessica Jamroz (associate)

Consultants:  Alexander Isley Inc. (graphic design), Ove Arup & Partners Consulting Engineers PC (structural engineers), Arnold Associates (landscape architects), Langan Engineering & Environmental Services (civil engineering and permitting), Fisher Marantz Stone (lighting), VJ Associates (cost consultant), Tender Creative LLC (computer programming)

Fabrication:  Crystal Metalworks (stainless steel fabrication, finishing, installation), Great Lakes Etching & Finishing (etching)

Photos: David Sundberg/Esto, Frederic Schwartz Architects


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