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With each refinement of the plans for Ground Zero, designers and politicians have, wittingly or not, opened up space for competing views of how to memorialize Sept. 11. When the site is complete, it will form the backdrop for aesthetic conversations between youth and experience; between the logic of the corporate world and that of the avant-garde; and, we found out this week, between minimalist abstraction and literal narrative.
So far, the discussion we've paid most attention to has been one between David Childs and Daniel Libeskind as they worked to produce a design for the Freedom Tower, a skyscraper at once elegant and ham-fisted. We can now see evidence of a less shrill and more productive dialogue in the updated Ground Zero memorial design, for which Michael Arad, a 34-year-old architect for the city of New York, has teamed up with Peter Walker, a 71-year-old landscape designer who lives in San Francisco and keeps his office in Berkeley.
The mere fact of Walker's appearance on the design team is, on its own terms, an interesting narrative. In November, when the memorial jury announced eight finalists picked from more than 5,200 entries, the reaction, on the part of critics, victims' families, and the general public, was wary. The finalists' designs, though remarkably pretty to look at, seemed to flail conceptually. To varying degrees, each struggled to strike the right balance between commemorating the destruction of Sept. 11 and pointing the way toward rebirth. The shortcomings seemed to stem from two factors: The designers were mostly young and inexperienced, and they were being asked to wring perfectly distilled meaning from an event that America as a whole was still having lots of trouble coming to grips with.
Looking at those eight designs, many of us began asking the same question: Should the jury scrap the whole thing, apologize to the finalists, wait several months, and try again?
The jurors themselves, understandably, were reluctant to go that route. But now that we've seen an updated version of the design that prevailed, it seems pretty clear that they wanted to choose a winner while making sure that winner was substantially improved before it was fully introduced to the public.
Instead of taking the most attractive scheme and trying to add meaning, the jury decided to do the opposite. It chose the finalist, Arad, whose design was the strongest conceptually and tried to figure out a way to soften and humanize it. To do that, jurors apparently suggested—and here I'm speculating a little bit—in no uncertain terms that Arad pick a much more experienced designer to help him strengthen and flesh out his plan, and gave him a very short list of people to pick from. The name Peter Walker was on that list.
Why Walker? For starters, his overstuffed résumé is tough to beat: He has headed the landscape architecture departments at Harvard and U.C. Berkeley, and has contributed landscape elements to several high-profile buildings by well-known architects, most recently Renzo Piano's new Nasher Center in Dallas. More than that, he was probably attractive because of the way his work, squarely in the modernist tradition, combines simplicity and richness, two qualities that the jury—particularly its better-known members, notably Maya Lin—were hoping the Ground Zero memorial would include.
This time, Walker had his work cut out for him. Arad's memorial design, "Reflecting Absence," was in November almost completely devoid of natural elements. It kept the footprints of the towers open, as recessed pools of water, and proposed a lonely hard-paved plaza between them. Ramps led to a lower level where visitors could see the water pour down in squared-off sheets as they scanned the names of the victims.
Arad's main gesture was both minimalist and realist: It used the tower footprints as the centerpiece of well-orchestrated sculptural geometry, but it also relied on the literal dimensions of the towers' bases to do so. At the same time, Arad's design had serious liabilities. It was easily the most severe and least welcoming of the eight finalists. Above ground, the plan was unfortunately reminiscent of the original plaza between the twin towers, a space almost universally derided for its lifelessness.
The revised plan, unveiled Wednesday morning, doesn't solve all those problems, but it's a big step in a promising direction. It uses bunches of deciduous trees (Arad had a small number of evergreens) to soften the original design and make it more lush. The landscaping also helps the whole design strike a more effective balance between memory and rebirth, death and life. In this sense, Walker has done more than add trees: He has helped clarify the goals of "Reflecting Absence." After walking through elegant landscaping and overhanging branches to get to the edge of Arad's pools, the voids where the towers once stood will be all the more starkly moving.