Remembering 9/11: Two Memorials, Two Visions

Read Time: 4 minutes

Twenty years have passed since the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, and during that time more than 1200 memorials have been designed, built, and dedicated throughout the world. Two of the most well-known include the National 9/11 Memorial in New York and “Empty Sky” in New Jersey. SEGD revisits both sites and examines how these places of remembrance have the power to move us through experiential design.

National 9/11 Memorial and Museum

Built at Ground Zero, the site of the former World Trade Center, the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum is located at the epicenter of the tragedy in New York City. Architect Michael Arad and landscape architect Peter Walker were chosen by Governor George Pataki in 2004 to design the memorial which was dedicated on September 10, 2011—ten years after the 9/11 attacks.

The design features two massive waterfall pools occupying the footprints of the North and South towers. These pools, according to Arad, represent “absence made visible.” The 9/11 Memorial and Museum further elaborates: “Although water flows into the voids, they can never be filled.” Surrounding the two pools are bronze parapets engraved with the names of the nearly 3000 people killed at the World Trade Center that day.

The sounds of cascading water create a place of contemplation separate from the bustling noises of the city. And yet the designers were keen to connect the memorial to New York, making the site more accessible to large numbers of visitors. To do this, they designed the plaza at street level to easily accommodate crowds.

“When I sent in my proposal, I suggested a plaza at grade. I felt like the site should really be knit back into the urban fabric; that it had to be part of New York City again,” said Arad in a talk titled “Architecture and Remembrance” hosted by the 9/11 Memorial & Museum.

Helping to further connect the site to the city—and guide thousands of annual visitors through the eight-acre site—SEGD member firms C&G Partners created the wayfinding signage and environmental graphics and DCL was the fabricator. More recently, C&G designed the temporary exhibition “Comeback Season: Sports After 9/11” for the 9/11 Museum.

SEGD member firms Thinc Design (lead exhibition designers) and Local Projects (media designers) worked in collaboration to create the 9/11 Museum’s permanent exhibitions. Their concept of “a museum of collective memory” tells the story of the events of September 11th through the voices of those who experienced it.

“We made a radical decision to avoid a singular ‘official’ narrative,” states the Local Projects website. “Instead, we collected thousands of stories from those at ground zero and around the world, creating a museum with a plurality of views.”

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Empty Sky: New Jersey’s September 11th Memorial

In New Jersey’s Liberty State Park, located directly across the Hudson River from Lower Manhattan, two massive parallel walls (30 feet tall and 200 feet long) cut through an earthen berm to frame a view towards Ground Zero where the World Trade Center’s twin towers once stood. Stainless steel plates, mounted to the walls’ inward-facing surfaces, record the names of the 749 New Jersey residents killed in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks—the most of any state outside of New York. 

“The earthen mound symbolizes the heart of New Jersey,” explains Jessica Jamroz, one of the memorial’s designers. “The memorial walls both symbolically replace the twin towers in the skyline, and once inside the memorial, they frame the empty sky where the towers once stood.”

Jamroz co-authored the design of New Jersey’s official 9/11 memorial—titled Empty Sky—with the late architect and Prix de Rome winner Frederic Schwartz (1951-2014).

“The essence of the Empty Sky Memorial design began with the understanding that the events of September 11th and the tragic loss of life left a gaping hole, a wound, in our hearts,” continues Jamroz.

In 2004 Jamroz and Schwartz won the competition to design the memorial (beating out more than 300 other entries), and her original concept is the basis for the memorial seen today. Several months after winning, Schwartz invited Jamroz to join SEGD member firm Frederic Schwartz Architects where she further articulated the design and directed three phases of the memorial’s construction. Dedicated on September 10, 2011, Empty Sky earned an Honor Award from SEGD in 2012.

Jamroz’s and Schwartz’s partnership created a memorial different in concept from that of Arad’s and Walker’s. While the Manhattan memorial’s visual focus is downward into the voids of the towers’ footprints, the New Jersey memorial’s focus is upward, towards the sky. The long span of the parallel walls not only frames the skyward view, but their reflective stainless steel surfaces create a constantly changing—and often shimmering—play of light. The victims’ names, connected to the view of an empty sky where the twin towers once stood, glow vividly in the sunlight.

Today, ten years after its dedication, Empty Sky remains unfinished. The memorial and surrounding landscape suffered damage from Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and the exterior of the memorial’s reinforced concrete walls are still awaiting their stainless steel coverings to complete the designers’ original vision. Recently, the State of New Jersey allocated $4 million to help restore and complete the memorial, in anticipation of the 20th anniversary of 9/11.

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