How uplifting is the Pentagon memorial if you can't get to it?

How uplifting is the Pentagon memorial if you can't get to it?

How uplifting is the Pentagon memorial if you can't get to it?

What we build.
March 27 2003 1:13 PM

Memory Block

The Pentagon's inaccessible memorial.

The design for the Pentagon's inaccessible 9/11 memorial
The design for the Pentagon's inaccessible 9/11 memorial

It seems not to bother the folks at the Department of Defense or anybody else that the recently unveiled design for the Pentagon's Sept. 11 memorial places it on one of the most restricted—not to mention wind-swept and noisy—pieces of real estate in Northern Virginia. The memorial's design shows 184 metal benches that, depending on the rendering, either look like aircraft tails or like small ramps sticking out of the ground. They range in parallel rows that trace the exact axis of American Airlines Flight 77's path into the west facade of the Pentagon. Each bench will bear the engraved name of a victim. Benches representing the 59 passengers on the plane (excluding the five hijackers) will point toward the building; benches for the 125 people in the building who died will point in the opposite direction. The order of the benches will index the victims' ages (3 to 71). Beneath each bench will stand a small pool of water lit by a lamp at night. Overhead, the design calls for a canopy of red maples.

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The winning design, by two obscure New York architects in their early 30s, Julie Beckman and Keith Kaseman, beat five other finalists culled from 1,126 entries. Beckman and Kaseman won in an open, rather than an invitational, competition that came to a fair finish—nothing like the unseemly rodeo that celeb architects Rafael Vinoly and Daniel Libeskind made of their dueling Ground Zero designs. And the Beckman/Kaseman memorial is abundantly, even excessively, poignant: Its 2-acre parcel sits just 200 feet from where the crash took place. The families of the victims chose this site from 10 possibilities the Defense Department offered them (all on or near the Pentagon property); its proximity to the crash site lends it immediacy. Beckman and Kaseman's plan to imprint the plane's path on the landscape beneath the air where the passengers spent their last second of life is—even in renderings—a shattering thing to see. But for a public memorial, which is traditionally an accessible place for solemn reflection, this choice of site is indefensible.

The Pentagon's competition brief to interested designers, issued last August, says that "under normal conditions the public will have full and free access to the Memorial," though it adds that "Periodic access constraints may result from security concerns." Because the Pentagon has not been in a "normal" mode—state troopers are positioned along nearby roads for about a half-mile from the building—since Flight 77 hit it, there likely will be long periods during which nobody can visit the site at all.

This fact received only passing mention from the Washington Post's architecture critic, Benjamin Forgey, in his March 4 appraisal. "The memorial ... won't be that easy to get to" he wrote, elsewhere lavishly praising the architects' scheme and the selected site. In fact, he began his review with this assertion: "The first thing to know about the Pentagon Memorial unveiled yesterday is that it is in exactly the right place." (I thought the line sounded familiar; indeed, it seems to be a Forgey special. In November 1997, he wrote, "The first thing to say about the MCI Center, the new downtown arena scheduled to host its first event 10 days from now, is that it is in the right place." In September 2000, he wrote, "The first thing to say about the proposed national memorial honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is that it is—spectacularly—in the right place." Maybe there's a macro at work.)

Right place? The most convenient way to get to the memorial, which is scheduled to open on Sept. 11, 2004, will be by car, which you can park in the Pentagon's south parking lot—if you could park there. The competition brief told designers that the part of the south lot closest to the memorial site "is used by visitors on weekends or after working hours." But a couple of weeks ago, the Pentagon closed that lot indefinitely to all but authorized personnel. 

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The competition outline offers a weak solution to this problem, suggesting that when parking in the south lot is forbidden, visitors in cars will park at Pentagon City and cross through a tunnel beneath I-395. This is the most jarring possible procession, a walk through highway infrastructure with hardly a speck of nature in sight. No wonder the Pentagon's preferred arrival method is by Metro. Visitors will disembark at the Pentagon station and walk about a quarter-mile to the site. ("Limited" parking "may" be developed for people with disabilities, according to the competition brief.)

After the trek to the isolated memorial, pilgrims will have to contend with the noise from an expressway feeder road running right against the west edge of the site; on that road, cars are liable to get pushed off the pavement if they go less than 45 mph. With the speed of commuter life on one side and the prohibitions of the Pentagon on the other (the architects must devise an "effective" barrier to keep visitors from approaching the building itself), where are visitors to find the quietude of their own thoughts?

Not, mind you, that they will actually need their own thoughts. This memorial does a good deal of thinking for them. With the benches, their ordering by age, their to-and-fro arrangement, and the names engraved on them, it is laden with the disaster's statistical aspects, detailed like a program on CNN. Smoke and fire seem to be the only elements missing. Moreover, the introduction of benches suggests that there is a reason for 184 people to sit down and interact with this hostile site—and not just on dedication day but 10 years or 50 years hence.

The people who need a memorial most deserve a spot where they can shut out the noise from the rest of the world and wrestle with the unexplained. For this, there is plenty of empty green space in the vicinity. Conceivably, they could carve out a location about a half-mile to the west-southwest at the Navy Annex, near a planned expansion of Arlington National Cemetery. To judge by a recent aerial photograph, it looks as if this site would provide easier access, a more relaxed design, plus a more dramatic view of the Potomac River than the current site does.

On this Navy Annex site, the Sept. 11 memorial would partly share ground with a compelling new Air Force Memorial designed by the architect James Ingo Freed, the design of which was unveiled a couple of days after the preview of the Pentagon Memorial design. Freed's charge was to represent the glory of the Air Force, whose men and women operate in the mostly invisible medium of air. He came up with three tapered stainless-steel spires curving up through space in different directions, an abstraction of the contrails seen during the "bomb burst" maneuver familiar to fans of the Thunderbird demonstration team.

Freed, who also designed the U.S. Holocaust Memorial in Washington, knows that memorials call for reticence, even when they double as museums. The young Maya Lin knew as much when she dug her perfect black gash in the National Mall for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The Vietnam Memorial sits a lot farther than 200 feet from Vietnam, but hardly a minute of any day—in any weather—passes without somebody at the wall paying their respects.

The Pentagon may or may not anticipate that its memorial will become a touchstone of equivalent power, but it would have been better to proceed as if it will, by putting it on a site that any person can visit at any time. In fact, the memorial's first-degree constituency is so small, and the public outpouring of pain surrounding the Pentagon crash so repressed, that it is hard to make a case for this much outdoor furniture—as opposed to, say, a simple stand of trees, which would dignify not only the victims but also the abstract nature of grief.