Does the new Pentagon Memorial work as a monument?

What we build.
Sept. 24 2008 7:13 AM

The Pentagon Memorial

It tells us more than we need to know—and, at the same time, not enough.

'Memorial units' at the Pentagon Memorial. Click image to expand.
'Memorial units' at the Pentagon Memorial

The $22 million memorial commemorating the 184 people who perished in the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon was dedicated two weeks ago. A memorial may be beautiful or homely, sophisticated or crude, monumental or unassuming: That's not really the point. A rough stone stele can be as effective as an intricately carved marble catafalque. But, as Andrew Butterfield wrote in the New Republic a few years ago in the context of a 9/11 memorial at Ground Zero, a memorial does need to do three things: It marks a spot, it says who, and it says so forever. How does the Pentagon Memorial fulfill these requirements?

The Pentagon is a surprisingly low building whose immense bulk only becomes apparent as you walk around it, which you must do to get from the nearest Metro stop to the memorial. The two-acre site is immediately adjacent to the place where American Airlines Flight 77 struck. Hence, much of the power of this particular memorial derives from the simple fact that it marks the actual place where the event occurred. Because each of the victims is commemorated by an individual marker—which the designers of the memorial, Julie Beckman and Keith Kaseman, refer to as "memorial units" but which everyone else calls "benches"—the place resembles a cemetery. Intervening rows of maple trees create the impression of an ancient burial grove. The allusion seems fitting. At dusk, when I was there, the cluster of softly illuminated benches, on which people had left flowers and notes, was a distinctly moving sight. Every few minutes, the roar of an outgoing flight from nearby Reagan National Airport added to the poignancy.

The Pentagon Memorial at night. Click image to expand.
The Pentagon Memorial at night
Advertisement

The benches are arranged in rows according to the year of birth of the victim, the years (which are indicated on adjacent sitting walls) ranging from 1998 to 1930. In addition, an encircling wall rises from 3 inches tall, representing the youngest person killed—a 3-year-old child—to a height of 71 inches, the age of the oldest victim. The rows of benches are arranged parallel to the trajectory of Flight 77, and the benches face one way or the other, depending on whether the individual died on the plane or in the building. This may be more than we need to know—and not enough. The design of the Pentagon Memorial is Minimalist and avoids the deplorable contemporary fashion of using memorials as excuses for education, as if the public needed to be told what and how to remember. But unlike the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which tells us "who" but also has an underlying structure—a beginning and an end, a descent and an ascent, the implied promise of redemption—the Pentagon Memorial merely provides statistics. How many people died, who was in the plane and who in the building, how old they were. Moving as the ensemble is, the overall effect is also oddly unresolved, almost nihilistic. "This happened," the memorial seems to say. "We don't know why, and we don't know what it means."

The benches of the Pentagon Memorial are cast from stainless steel, and each bench cantilevers over an individual pool of water. It is unclear whether the water is intended to suggest a common thread tying the victims together or is there merely to diffuse a glowing light that comes from an underwater lamp. In addition, the water is rippling, though the gurgling sound is barely perceptible due to the drone of traffic on nearby I-395. It all struck me as contrived—and impractical. The evening I was there, although the memorial was barely two weeks old, a crew of maintenance workers was painstakingly removing stones and debris that had made their way into the pools—most of the walking surfaces are composed of loose gravel. Memorials are traditionally made out of granite, marble, or bronze, not only to last "forever," but also to convey a sense of perpetuity. On that score, the Pentagon Memorial seems more like an art installation than a monument for the ages.

Witold Rybczynski is Slate's architecture critic His latest book is The Biography of a Building: How Robert Sainsbury and Norman Foster Built a Great Museum. Visit his Web site. Follow him on Twitter.

TODAY IN SLATE

Doublex

Crying Rape

False rape accusations exist, and they are a serious problem.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

No, New York Times, Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman” 

Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 1:39 PM Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman,” New York Times. Neither Are Her Characters.

The Music Industry Is Ignoring Some of the Best Black Women Singing R&B

How Will You Carry Around Your Huge New iPhone? Apple Pants!

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Television

The Other Huxtable Effect

Thirty years ago, The Cosby Show gave us one of TV’s great feminists.

There’s a Way to Keep Ex-Cons Out of Prison That Pays for Itself. Why Don’t More States Use It?

Why Men Can Never Remember Anything

The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Why Men Can Never Remember Anything
Behold
Sept. 19 2014 11:33 AM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
Foreigners
Sept. 19 2014 1:56 PM Scotland’s Attack on the Status Quo Expect more political earthquakes across Europe.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 19 2014 3:24 PM Why Innovators Hate MBAs
  Life
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 19 2014 1:34 PM Empty Seats, Fewer Donors? College football isn’t attracting the audience it used to.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 3:07 PM Everything Is a "Women's Issue"
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 3:33 PM Drinking Fancy Cocktails at Denny’s
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 12:38 PM Forward, March! Nine leading climate scientists urge you to attend the People’s Climate March.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 12:13 PM The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola  The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.